Thread Rating:
  • 0 Vote(s) - 0 Average
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
Lack of technological progress in late Roman Empire
#31
I've read in many books that technology marched on from roman times up through the rennaissance, but I remain somewhat unconvinced. They weren't called the Dark Ages for nothing I suspect. I get the feeling that for every invention of the period, 2 inventions or important ideas were lost. For one thing, it is clear that illiteracy was rampant, and use of a standard language almost completely dissappeared except in the Church. This in my mind does not assist much in the exchange of ideas.

I've recently began reading about the medeival economy, and I can hardly believe what I am reading. Trade had almost completely collapsed, and almost the entire population of Europe lived on self sufficient farms. After reading for years about the Greeks and Romans, I am shocked by what was lost. Polybius knew that if you went far enough south, the sun would appear on your opposite shoulder as you sailed east/west. That was nothing but an untested crackpot, if not heretical, theory in 1400 c.e. where it was common knowlege that anyone that sailed south of the horn of Africa would be incinerated by the heat!
Rich Marinaccio
Reply
#32
Quote:I've recently began reading about the medeival economy, and I can hardly believe what I am reading. Trade had almost completely collapsed, and almost the entire population of Europe lived on self sufficient farms.

I do agree with the disaster theory of the Dark Ages, but there is a problem with this particular perspective, and it lies in the definition of 'Europe'. When we speak of Roman 'Europe', we think above all of Italy, of Greece and Illyricum, Spain, but still mostly of Gaul, a small chunk of Germany and England. For kost of Roman Europe, a monetised, urbanised culture prevailed, though many in it also lived on self-sufficient farms. Early Medieval europe, to our minds, is primarily England, France, Germany, also Scandinavia, Poland, Bohemia and, as a kind of advanced periphery, Italy. The overlap with 'Roman' Europe is slight, and it comprises mostly those areas where the catastrophe had been at its worst - Britain, Germany, Gaul. Italy, Spain, even Southern France retained much more of Roman civilisation, not to mention Byzantine Greece and Illyricum, but these areas lie outside our focus, while the still primitive Northern and Eastern European territories now come into focus. That creates a much greater sense of discontinuity, In fact, if you compare finds from the same areass, you get a much better idea of how different areas were affected. I wonder how that works out in different places - Italy had a fairly bad time, and Gaul was awful, but when I checked the finds from Feddersen Wierde (Germanic, 1-3c AD) and Elisenhof (6-9 c AD) in North Germany, I got a sense of technological progress and rising wealth. Nonetheless, the conventional view compares Roman Capua or Pompeii not with Aghlabid Palermo or Byzantine Salerno, but with Saxon Elisenhof. And yes, that looks pretty awful.
Der Kessel ist voll Bärks!

Volker Bach
Reply
#33
I guess it was inevitable that I was going to post to this thread eventually ... :roll:

Quote:I've read in many books that technology marched on from roman times up through the Renaissance, but I remain somewhat unconvinced. They weren't called the Dark Ages for nothing I suspect.

They certainly weren't. I don't subscribe to the fashionable theory that the fall of the Western Empire was actually just a mild 'transformation of the Roman world' and that the 'Dark Ages' never happened. Thankfully the tide is turning against this nonsense and Bryan Ward-Perkins' The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation makes a pretty rock solid case that the collapse was chaotic, bloody and extensive, not some multi-cultural hippy group-hug.

The problem, however, is that many people use the term 'Dark Ages' to describe the whole period from 476 to 1500 AD when, supposedly, we were rescued from medieval barbarism and superstition by the dawning of the glorious 'Renaissance', where everyone suddenly got a lot smarter or something. The term 'Dark Ages' can really only be said to apply to the early Middle Ages - up to circa 800 AD or 1000 AD or (at most) 1100 AD (depending on where you're talking about).

The other problem is that there is an assumption that because central administration collapsed, long distance trade all but ceased, education narrowed and a lot of infrastructure crumbled, technological innovation must also have ceased. This doesn't follow at all. In fact, those things seem to have been, in many cases, an actual stimulus to innovation and change.

Finally, anti-Church bias tends to rear its ugly head in this issue, with many people having an explicit or implicit assumption that the Church simply had to have hindered technological innovation because ... well, because it was bad and evil and did bad, evil things like that. In fact, the innovations of the medieval period, including the early 'Dark Ages' period were often a result of Church communities, usually monastic ones, having to find labour-saving ways of getting work done. So these communities often either invented new technologies or help propagate them.

The supposed Roman lack of technical innovation and the tendency not to utilise technologies has also been overstated, but it is broadly true that a large source of manual labour in slaves did have something of a retardant effect on the widespread use of mechanical power, for example. Whereas population decline, the deterioration of transport infrastructure, isolation and political instability in the 'Dark Ages' all meant early medieval people often had to find ways to harness mechanical power to get work done that used to be done by muscle alone. So the collapse of the Empire was, in many ways, a stimulus to innovation, rather than a retardant.

Quote:I get the feeling that for every invention of the period, 2 inventions or important ideas were lost.

I don't share that feeling. The Roman period was not as technologically stagnant as it is sometimes made out to be, but if you look at the number of innovations and the pace of technological change between 500 and 1500 AD, the medieval millennium was far more innovative by comparison.

Quote:For one thing, it is clear that illiteracy was rampant, and use of a standard language almost completely dissappeared except in the Church.

Yet this doesn't seem to have affected the rate of technical innovation or the rate of the dissemination of new technologies across Europe. Even the brainy old Greeks, who were very good at using reason and questioning to come up with new ideas, tended to scorn using those ideas for practical technological innovations. With a few notable exceptions (Hero, Archimedes), Greek thinkers tended to regard technology as the work of mere dirty artisans, not lofty thinkers.

This tendency continued in the Middle Ages, though to a lesser extent. The medieval guys who invented the post windmill or the water-powered trip hammer were probably illiterate, but they weren't dumb and nor did their illiteracy mean other illiterate guys didn't recognise these things as good ideas when they saw them.

And the literate medieval guys didn't completely share the Greek thinkers' disdain for tinkering with things. We know that several monks were working on how to get a mechanical clock to run using a weight-driven escapement. We have one letter from one monastery to another where the idea is being discussed and the writer says he hopes someone would find a way to get such a mechanism to work. Not long afterwards the first such clocks began popping up all over Europe, so obviously someone found the solution.

Quote:I've recently began reading about the medieval economy, and I can hardly believe what I am reading. Trade had almost completely collapsed, and almost the entire population of Europe lived on self sufficient farms. After reading for years about the Greeks and Romans, I am shocked by what was lost. Polybius knew that if you went far enough south, the sun would appear on your opposite shoulder as you sailed east/west. That was nothing but an untested crackpot, if not heretical, theory in 1400 c.e. where it was common knowlege that anyone that sailed south of the horn of Africa would be incinerated by the heat!


Yes, but that silly idea was one the medieval world inherited from the Greeks and Romans. Polybius may have known that the equator wasn't impassable due to scorching heat, but plenty of other Greco-Roman writers didn't. And their orthodoxy was contested long before 1400 AD. Medieval travellers in Asia travelled south of the equator and reported that the old 'authorities' were wrong. In the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries you have medieval traders traveling as far as Sumatra and Java and coming back entirely unincinerated.

A lot was lost, but much of it was recovered or rediscovered long before the 'Renaissance'. And the collapse of the Empire stimulated the harnessing of water and wind power which, in turn, set the medieval mind looking for other ways to apply mechanical power. By the end of the period they were using machines to do everything from printing books to turning meat on spits and were writing about and even experimenting with flying machines long before Leonardo's doodles. Not bad for a 'Dark Age'. :wink:
Reply
#34
Quote:The supposed Roman lack of technical innovation and the tendency not to utilise technologies has also been overstated, but it is broadly true that a large source of manual labour in slaves did have something of a retardant effect on the widespread use of mechanical power, for example.

Lol, I really wonder if the whole thing was the result of slavery reaching critical mass. As the percentage of slave to citizen reached 99.999, some patrician went on a vacation and had a heart attack. Some weeks later back at the villa, one of his slaves in Western Gaul asked, "So, who's in charge here anyway?" After a while of looking at each other dumbly, europe collectively said "AAAAAAAAAA!"
Rich Marinaccio
Reply
#35
Quote:As the percentage of slave to citizen reached 99.999, some patrician went on a vacation and had a heart attack. Some weeks later back at the villa, one of his slaves in Western Gaul asked, "So, who's in charge here anyway?" After a while of looking at each other dumbly, europe collectively said "AAAAAAAAAA!"
I know this is intended as hyperbole, but I've read that toward the end of the empire in the west, there was a declining number of slaves, which contributed to the transition during the "dark ages" to serfdom for the "nonslaves" who were treated as slaves...
Robert Stroud
The New Scriptorium
Reply
#36
Quote: but it is broadly true that a large source of manual labour in slaves did have something of a retardant effect on the widespread use of mechanical power, for example.


Have you looked up the article conon394 offered in this thread as pdf
?
I can say that it quite radically reversed my opinion about the Roman attitude to mechanical power. Horizontal water wheel, vertical undershot wheel, vertical uppershot wheel, underwater turbines, archaeological evidence for water-powered trip hammers, large scale use of water power in mining - the only thing the author left out was the possible existence of Roman tidal mills. Not so bad after all. See:

"Machines, Power and the Ancient Economy" Andrew Wilson
The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 92 (2002), pp. 1-32


Quote: We know that several monks were working on how to get a mechanical clock to run using a weight-driven escapement. We have one letter from one monastery to another where the idea is being discussed and the writer says he hopes someone would find a way to get such a mechanism to work. Not long afterwards the first such clocks began popping up all over Europe, so obviously someone found the solution.


Could you give a source for that correspondence? I am really interested in the history of clocks.[/quote]
Stefan (Literary references to the discussed topics are always appreciated.)
Reply
#37
Just watching a History Channel program and they're discussing the Roman innovations of false teeth and cataract surgery.
Robert Stroud
The New Scriptorium
Reply
#38
Quote:Just watching a History Channel program and they're discussing the Roman innovations of false teeth and cataract surgery.

Except that those most likely aren't Roman.

This is a real proböle with ancient (and early medieval) innovations. Someone spots one in a source and publishes it. Proof now exists that this thing existed at that point. People begin to assume that this is broadly the date of its invention. After a while, theories are based on this, and soon enough, everyone assumes that 'The X already knew Y' translates into 'the X invented Y' and thus the X were great innovators for inventing Y, and the earlier Z slouches for not doing so. And then someone finds a Y in a Z context Tongue

False teeth probably predate Rome by several centuries, though the interpretation of both Egyptian and Etruscan finds is debates. Cataract operations may be mentioned in Babylonian sources. But the Romans *did* invent the hypocaust, at least until someone excavates an Egyptian one
Der Kessel ist voll Bärks!

Volker Bach
Reply
#39
Quote:
Thiudareiks Flavius:2ip0a3il Wrote:but it is broadly true that a large source of manual labour in slaves did have something of a retardant effect on the widespread use of mechanical power, for example.


Have you looked up the article conon394 offered in this thread as pdf
?
I can say that it quite radically reversed my opinion about the Roman attitude to mechanical power. Horizontal water wheel, vertical undershot wheel, vertical uppershot wheel, underwater turbines, archaeological evidence for water-powered trip hammers, large scale use of water power in mining - the only thing the author left out was the possible existence of Roman tidal mills. Not so bad after all. See:

"Machines, Power and the Ancient Economy" Andrew Wilson
The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 92 (2002), pp. 1-32

I've read it before. The reason I wrote in my post that the effect of slave-power on technological innovation is 'often overstated' is that there has been a tendency to claim that the Romans relied on muscle and animal power almost exclusively. This is simply not true, and recent research into Roman technology (such as that summarised by Wilson) has gone a long way towards correcting this.

Many of the sources of mechanical power widely implemented in the Middle Ages were not actually 'innovations' per se - they had existed for quite a while (eg overshot waterwheels). The thing that made them special in terms of medieval technology was the extent to which they were utilised. Even given the paucity of our evidence, there were very few watermills in Roman Britain, for example. But by 1100 AD there were 5624 documented mills in England alone, and that number increased vastly as the population of medieval England rose steadily.

I'm a bit sceptical about the evidence for Roman trip-hammers, however. They were definitely used in China (for hulling rice) as early as the Fifth Century AD, but we don't get definite evidence of their use in Europe until the Thirteenth Century.

A good overview of the history and development of water power, including up-to-date analysis, is Terry S Reynolds' Stronger than a Hundred Men: A History of the Vertical Waterwheel (2003).


Quote:
Thiudareiks Flavius:2ip0a3il Wrote:We know that several monks were working on how to get a mechanical clock to run using a weight-driven escapement. We have one letter from one monastery to another where the idea is being discussed and the writer says he hopes someone would find a way to get such a mechanism to work. Not long afterwards the first such clocks began popping up all over Europe, so obviously someone found the solution.


Could you give a source for that correspondence? I am really interested in the history of clocks.

I didn't quite remember the reference properly. The attempts to create a true weight-driven escapement are actually documented in a treatise by Robert the Englishman in 1271 AD:

'Artisans are trying to make a wheel or disc which will move exactly as the equinoctial circle does, but they can't quite manage the task. If they coul, however, they would have a truly accurate timepiece worth more than the astrolabe or any other astronomical instrument for noting the hours.'
(Quoted in Lynn Thorndike, 'Invention of the Mechanical Clock Around 1271 AD', Speculum, XVI, (1941), pp. 242-43.)

Robert goes on to describe their (as yet unsuccessful) experiments with a wheel mounted on an axle driven by a weight mechanism.
Reply
#40
Quote: The thing that made them special in terms of medieval technology was the extent to which they were utilised. Even given the paucity of our evidence, there were very few watermills in Roman Britain, for example. But by 1100 AD there were 5624 documented mills in England alone, and that number increased vastly as the population of medieval England rose steadily.

I read somewhere something along the lines that in the Doomesday book over 1000 mills were recorded, but that no mills of that period have been discovered so far. If this ratio of 1000 recorded, but 0 excavated water mills is only remotely correct, then we have to assume for the 50 or so known Roman water mills a vastly greater number to have existed.

Against this background, I found Wilson's comment quite encouraging that the known number of Roman water mills has risen from about 25 to more than 50 by a decade or two of research.

Thanks for the clock reference. Any other good article on the invention of the mechanical clock btw?

Regards
Stefan (Literary references to the discussed topics are always appreciated.)
Reply
#41
Quote:[Image: fart.jpg]

Wow, I think somebody has re-invented Greek fire!! :lol:
Thijs Koelewijn
Reply
#42
Quote: Many of the sources of mechanical power widely implemented in the Middle Ages were not actually 'innovations' per se - they had existed for quite a while (eg overshot waterwheels). The thing that made them special in terms of medieval technology was the extent to which they were utilised. Even given the paucity of our evidence, there were very few watermills in Roman Britain, for example. But by 1100 AD there were 5624 documented mills in England alone, and that number increased vastly as the population of medieval England rose steadily



Thiudareiks Flavius

This is certainly one of your favorite bits of evidence on for this kind of thread…

As you have has noted (elsewhere) your figure is provided by the fairly unique bit of evidence for England provided by the Doomsday Book. The picture one could build based on other literary sources is less complete and with archaeology alone (as Elcic as already pointed out) likely to be no more robust than the Roman evidence.

I also think you are making something of an apples-to-oranges comparison, Roman Britain was not exactly the economic hub of the Roman Empire or the Classical World. A better comparison might be to note the under the late empire 4th- 5th century Athens was not exactly a major town - yet it had an installation of at least 3 water mills working in succession and completely undocumented by any literary evidence. It seems to me that Athens was unlikely to be unique in the Roman world. It also seems to me that raw numbers might not provide the best insight. In this case Imperial Rome may have for used relatively fewer mills but in larger and more geographically concentrated, while the Feudal economy and manor systems of the Middle Ages may have an encouraged a more dispersed deployment of mills.

Quote: Yet this doesn't seem to have affected the rate of technical innovation or the rate of the dissemination of new technologies across Europe. Even the brainy old Greeks, who were very good at using reason and questioning to come up with new ideas, tended to scorn using those ideas for practical technological innovations. With a few notable exceptions (Hero, Archimedes), Greek thinkers tended to regard technology as the work of mere dirty artisans, not lofty thinkers.

Even if you are correct, I don’t see this as particularly relevant. Did the Greek artisans and engineers feel the same way? Nor do I think it is quite accurate to suggest only a few Greeks were not averse technological tinkering. Plutarch for example, did not laude Archimedes, but chided him for his aversion to pursing and recording his mechanical inventions. A lot of Greek philosophers and thinkers didn’t like democracy either, but that did not seem to stop either Athens or Rhodes in developing and flourishing with said governments.

Personally it seems to me the classical world is going suffer when you compare it to the documentary evidence from AD 1100 or later as a result of simple information loss. Things like letters discussing watermills or arguments over the best why to implement differential gears, or even more useful court cases over the sale of a mill, the tax rolls on metric mill operators and such like were not exactly likely to survive the collapse of the Empire and its economy and the fall off literacy that accompanied them.
Paul Klos

\'One day when I fly with my hands -
up down the sky,
like a bird\'
Reply
#43
Quote: I found the evidence, provided kindly by Flavius Promotus here, rather scarce, more so, because we have so many depictions of square sails (surf the navis database) that I find the distinct lack of lateen sail depictions suspicious. I dont feel the rather indirect literary evidence can counter this lack sufficiently enough to speak confidently of a general use of lateen sails in late Roman times.

Eleatic Guest, why suspicious? The Lateen sail is not better than a square sail just better at some things, worse at others and with its own set of drawbacks. I would agree the lateen is certainly a later development of the late classical world, but the broader concept of a fore-aft rig is well documented from at least the 2nd century BC with the sprit sail.
Thus light coasters and river craft already had an alternative to the square sail.

Casson has one other nice bit of evidence/logic – brails. The fact that the Classical square sail could via it brails be turned into a quasi –lateen, is to my mind fairly significant. On the one hand it reduces the need to add a lateen to a square rigged ship and provides a nice basis for where the lateen might develop from.
Paul Klos

\'One day when I fly with my hands -
up down the sky,
like a bird\'
Reply
#44
Quote:I read somewhere something along the lines that in the Doomesday book over 1000 mills were recorded, but that no mills of that period have been discovered so far. If this ratio of 1000 recorded, but 0 excavated water mills is only remotely correct, then we have to assume for the 50 or so known Roman water mills a vastly greater number to have existed.

Oh, there are plenty of excavated medieval water mills. The oldest I know of in the british isles is one in Herefordshire, dated to 696AD by the very accurate method of dendrochronology, and some 6 have been dendrochronologically dated dated to the early to high middle ages in that county alone, and over 350 excavated remains undated, as medieval and early modern watermills up to the 18th century are difficult to tell apart without carbon or dendrochronological dating (expensive)- the technology did not change much (numbers from Tonkin; "Windmills in Herefordshire", A Herefordshire Misceallany, 2000). They aren't mentioned very often because no-one regards it as much of a surprise that watermills was extensively used in the medieval period (it is mentioned so extremely frequently in written sources, after all). All this without a medievalist Andrew Wilson to spesifically look for sources of water power in the period... the archaeological record is overflowing with medieval water power on a scale impossible to match in roman archaeology even in the ideal preservation conditions of north africa. Williams' research (or what I have read of it) seem to indicate that the romans (or rather their subjects) tended toward taking over pre-roman methods and set-ups in water power instead of imposing a new roman-style own regimen (as happened with architecture). This did not encourage technological diffusion in this area thorough the empire - a very different attitude than, for example, the monastic orders of the medieval church, especially the Benedictians and Cistercians, who would actively promote and spread the use of labor-saving devices in agriculture and production.

Vitruvius sort of says it all when he lists the waterwheel in his De Architectura amongst "devices that are rarely employed".

The Domesday Book does indeed record 5624 mills in 3463 manors out of around 9250 manors.

Villard de Honnecourt might be the source of the earliest possible escapement device in Europe. Possibly a master builder in Picardy, around 1230 or so he compiled a lot of sketches and notes on a broad array of subjects (much as Leonardo da Vinci would be three hundred years later, he was often attributed as "the inventor" of a lot of the devices he drew, although it seems, from his notes as for Leo's, that the drawings are simply recreations of existing technology). One of the sketches include what might be a very early escapement, ( http://orgs.uww.edu/avista/engines.htm ) althought the limitations of 13th century drawing style makes the issue a bit muddled. Similar problems arise when trying to decode contemporary islamic engineering, like Al-Faranj's Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices - sadly, 13th century drawing is less naturalistic than 13th century sculpture.
Reply
#45
Interesting forum, and a very interesting thread to read ! One item is not on the list, allow me to introduce to you a recent German reconstruction of a Roman lathe..

[Image: drehbank.jpg]

This apparatus may have been used to create circular ornamentation on bronze mirrors, cups and vessels. Although a later reconstruction exists that shows a wheel (continuous motion lathing) there exist no indication, nor proof that it was ever attached to a mill.

Source of this picture: aureum's submit on our forum, in turn his source was Römer und Franken in der Pfalz

Smile
Lex
Reply


Possibly Related Threads...
Thread Author Replies Views Last Post
  Technological studies on Bronze Age metal body armour Steven James 0 504 12-28-2016, 12:21 PM
Last Post: Steven James
  Late Empire provision of swords? Richie 10 2,003 06-24-2012, 06:47 PM
Last Post: Flavivs Aetivs
  SHORT SWORDS IN LATE EMPIRE SERVICE Anonymous 10 3,226 09-25-2011, 03:43 AM
Last Post: Paul Elliott

Forum Jump: