Short Review | Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages by Jean Gimpel

Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages

The medieval ages were far more like our modern age than we often think. The only thing that came to my mind prior to reading this book was knights and castles. Hardly a dark age as often portrayed, the period was full of industrial innovation, and Jean Gimpel makes an interesting survey of some of the inventions that came out of the period, discussing the engineering and architectural feats of the age.

The book was written in the 1970s, so it’s a little dated, but it was a fast and insightful read, shedding light to a beginning learner on a period of history that generally escapes notice but for as backdrop period films and sword and sorcery fantasies. I read it for a history class during my undergrad degree, but I have kept it and occasionally reviewed it since.

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Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages Book Cover Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages
Jean Gimpel
Non-fiction, History
Penguin Books
November 17, 1977

The common, simplistic view of the Middle Ages as religion-centered and materially backward is challenged by Jean Gimpel in this milestone study, originally published in 1976. The Medieval Machine tells how, between the years 900 and 1300, Europeans created their first industrial revolution, which set Western civilization on the road to global dominance. Gimpel describes the main features of this early machine age: the pervasive use of waterpower (the oil of the medieval era); the agricultural innovations that energized the population through better nourishment; the spread of mining along with mechanized iron mills; and the appearance of modern industrial problems such as labor unrest and pollution. This is a story of technology triumphant: architect-engineers were adulated; there were tallest-building contests like those of the twentieth century. The climax comes with the invention of the key modern device-the mechanical clock. The subsequent technological decline, Gimpel explains, was due to plague, famine, and a reversion to mysticism.

In the epilogue, Gimpel asserts that the West in his time faced another technological decline; he did not foresee the digital boom of the 1980s and 90s and the development of a post-industrial economies. Nevertheless, his predictions may provide valuable material for historians of the recent past.

About Daniel

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. He reads about history, politics, and current events, as well as more serious genres such as science fiction and fantasy. You can also follow him on his blog where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas.