Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Why did the Ancients not Develop Machinery?

From Southwestern University, rare now, and recovered from an internet archive.

Energy is the basis of modern civilization; it dominates the headlines, makes and breaks the economy of nations, determines their foreign policy. Yet it is relatively a newcomer to history. It began to occupy men's minds only during the Middle Ages, not before. Egypt, Assyria, Persia, all fashioned their empires without it, Greece achieved her glory and Rome her splendor without it. Very possibly the glory and the splendor would have been still greater, had Greeks and Romans turned their attention to utilizing sources of power other than the muscles of man or beast. For some reason they did not.

They did not, even though they were fully acquainted with a number of easily exploitable forms of energy. As far back as 3000 B.C. the Egyptians had learned to harness the force of the wind to drive their craft up and down the Nile. But neither they nor anyone else ever went further than boats: as we shall see shortly, the earliest windmills date from the seventh century A.D. or even later. By the first century B.C. the Greeks and Romans had learned to use the flow of water to turn mills, but all over the world grain continued to be ground slowly and laboriously by hand or animal. They were even aware of more sophisticated sources of power, such as compressed air, hot air, steam. A Greek engineer named Ctesibius, who lived during the third century B.C. in the city of Alexandria_the center at the time of scholarly and scientific research_produced a hydraulic organ whose power was furnished by a column of water supported on a cushion of air. He designed a clock driven by water: flowing into a bowl at a fixed rate, it steadily raised a float topped by a figure whose hand pointed to lines representing hours engraved on a cylinder; the cylinder itself was made to rotate by the upward movement of the float.

Another Greek engineer named Hero, who also worked at Alexandria though at a later time than Ctesibios, perhaps the first century A.D., describes certain inventions for use in temples which, by exploiting the expansive property of hot air, were able to arouse wonderment and awe among the congregations. One consisted of a pipe and some figures mounted on a disk; when the altar fire was lit, the hot air from it, passing through the pipe, caused the disk to revolve and the figures to appear to dance. In a second device, hot air made the doors of a shrine open and shut. In a third, an altar flanked by two figures holding wine vessels and surmounted by a bronze serpent, the hot air produced a flow of wine from the vessels and a hiss from the serpent. Yet another is the earliest example on record of a steam engine: a hollow ball was mounted between two brackets made fast to the lid of a pot filled with boiling water; one of the brackets was also hollow, and the steam passing through it into the ball was vented in such a way that the ball was made to rotate. Hero even describes a windmill, a miniature version for providing the current of air required to power a small and simple type of organ. He includes any number of gadgets worked by means of levers and weights, among them the first known coin-operated machine: when a five-drachma piece was dropped through a slot in the cover of a sacrificial vessel filled with holy water, it triggered by means of a Rube Goldberg contraption a spurt from a spout on the side. But these and others like them were all that Alexandria's scientific savants turned out; their imaginative exploiting of water, wind, hot air, and steam went into toys and gadgetry, never into machines for replacing men's labor.

The ancients' failure in this regard stands in stark contrast with the accomplishments of their heirs, the men of the Middle Ages. By A.D. 983 there probably was a mill for fulling cloth on the banks of the Serchio in Tuscany. By 1008 there were water-driven grain as well as fulling mills around Milan. The windmill for grinding grain makes its debut in Persia, perhaps in the seventh A.D., certainly a century or two later. In the twelfth century it appears in Yorkshire_ an independent invention, though possibly inspired by news of such machines in the east_and spread over Europe almost explosively, to quote Lynn White, our ranking historian of technology, who has pioneered in bringing attention to the spectacular advances that took place in medieval times.

By the fourteenth century water- and windpower had replaced muscle not only for fulling cloth and grinding grain but for sawing wood, lifting water, operating the bellows of blast furnaces, driving triphammers, turning grindstones, and crushing anything from ore to olives. So wide and effective was the technological surge that, as White puts it, "by 1492. . . Europe had developed an agricultural base, an industrial capacity, a superiority in arms, and a skill in in voyaging the ocean which enabled it to explore, conquer, loot and colonize the rest of the globe during the next four centuries." Mighty Rome, restrained by its technological sloth, had been able to explore, conquer, loot, and colonize no farther than the Mediterranean and the western end of Europe.

Necessity, we say, is the mother of invention. We neglect to add that the necessity must be one that people are aware of. Greeks and Romans did not think it at all necessary to spare men the drudgery and time it took to grind grain into flour, even after the water mill had become known; the people of twelfth-century Yorkshire, it is clear, did. In the lands of medieval Islam the climate was so arid that streams with the flow to drive mills were few; on the other hand since sparseness of vegetation generates air currents, there was. plenty of wind. Here, if anywhere, a "need" existed for the windmill-and the Arabs did not even have to invent it but merely borrow it from Persia where, as mentioned above, it had been in use for centuries. They could not have been less interested. In 1206 by which time windmills were to be seen from Scotland to Syria, the leading Arab engineer of the day observed to his readers that the notion of driving mills by the wind was nonsense.

It was no one from the ancient world but a western European of the Middle Ages, Hugh of St. Victor, who said, "Propter neressitatem inventa est mechanica, necessity is the mother of technology. By his time technology had become integrated into men's thinking habits. They had learned to turn to it automatically as the way of solving certain problems; they had, in short, invented invention. The phrase would never have come to the lips of a Greek or Roman. They totally lacked a tradition of carrying on sustained effort to produce a technological solution to a felt need. Invention, as they saw it, was the result of happy accident. Among their heroes are no James Watts, no Thomas Edisons, no men who devoted a lifetime to studying, experimenting, perfecting a device Their classic story is of Archimedes' discovery of the principle of specific gravity while in his bath pondering how to test the honesty of a goldsmith.

What was it, then, that made people from the tenth century A.D. unaware of a need for labor-saving machinery and made them turn to technology for the solution What was it that prevented the ancients from doing this? Let us take the second question first.

It is said that the Greeks never exploited steam, that they never converted Hero's toy into a useful engine, because they did not have the materials or technology for steamfitting, for fashioning and joining tubing to take the pressures. True enough_but beside the point: they simply did not think in terms of using steam power for utilitarian purposes. It is said that they never exploited the water mill because the Mediterranean does not have the rivers that would provide the flow required. This is not only beside the point but not even true. The rivers were perfectly adequate for driving the mills that were there during the 'Middle Ages. Moreover, the Romans_and the Etruscans long before them_were expert at providing a flow where there was none. What mills the Romans eventually did construct, as often as not were run by water from aqueducts.

These and other similar specific explanations that have been offered do not get us very far. What about the broad generalizations?

There is a school of thought, whose ranks have been swelled by the unswerving adherence of most Marxist historians, which holds that slavery was the culprit: the economy of the ancients was based on slavery and, the argument runs, with slaves to do the work there was no incentive to develop technology. "Their slaves were their machines," asserts Ben Benjamin Farrington, author of a series of widely used handbooks on ancient science and technology, "and so long as they were cheap there was no need to try to supersede them. The supply of slave labor seems to have outlasted the heyday of ancient science." There is no denying that the Greek and Roman economy was based on slave labor, although the most important segment, agriculture, depended upon it only at certain times and in certain places. But one can emphatically deny that slave labor was always plentiful and cheap; there were long periods when it was nothing of the sort. And, if the ancients' technological backwardness is to be attributed to the availability of slaves, how can one explain the date of introduction of what labor-saving devices the Romans did use? It was in the second century B.C. that they replaced their hand-operated mills for grinding grain with the donkey- powered rotary mill-precisely when, thanks to Rome's conquest of the east and the consequent arrival on the block of hordes of prisoners, there was a glut of slaves. And, in the very next century, when there were still plenty of them around, Rome's bakeries began using horse-drawn machines for kneading dough.

Another school of thought holds that it was the abundance of labor in general, whether slave or free, which did the damage. "Labor was too cheap for much thought to be given to machinery," declares W. W. Tarn, one of the foremost historians of ancient Greece "Labour . . . was plentiful and cheap until the end of the third century [A.D.], precisely the period when the donkey-mills or slave-driven mills of Rome were gradually ousted by the water mill," declares R. Forbes in the standard work in English on ancient technology. This explanation no more fits the facts than slavery. The water mill_to which we will come in a few moments_did precious little ousting of man- and animal-power in the third century; a few more mills were built than before, but it is perfectly clear that most grinding was still being done in the time-honored, time-consuming way.

There is an anecdote that the adherents of this school often cite. Rome's Emperor Vespasian, who ruled from A.D. 69 to 79, was once approached, we are told, by an engineer who offered to haul big stone columns to the top of the Capitoline Hill for a very small charge; Vespasian gave him a handsome reward but refused his services on the grounds that he wanted "to be allowed to feed the mob." They assume that the story indicates an excess on the Roman labor market, a mass of unemployed whom the government supported by work projects. But "unemployment" and "work projects" are twentieth-century concepts; antiquity knew nothing of them. Ancient governments did not go about creating work to provide jobs. Certainly the Roman emperors did not, even though they were faced with the chronic problem of maintaining "the mob," that is, the thousands of poor Roman citizens who centuries earlier had drifted to the city and whose descendants had led an idle existence ever since. The emperors took care of them by means of the proverbial "bread and circuses," feeding them through public handouts of grain and keeping them content by enterraining them with free gladiatorial combats and horse racing. In any case, these people were in no way part of the labor force. Besides, manual labor, such as the handling of columns, was normally done by slaves, so the only ones who would have profited from Vespasian's rejection of the engineer's offer were not any theoretical unemployed but the owners of the teams of slaves who held the contracts for the hauling. Commentators on the story imagine that the engineer had in mind some power-driven lifting machinery, but this is pure fantasy. A more likely explanation is that this suggested to Vespasian something no emperor had ever thought of doing before_to entice some of the handout receivers to put in a few days or a few weeks of work for pay. This would no doubt have amounted to much less than the hire of teams of slaves, whose owners had to charge enough to cover the cost of maintaining them all year round, work or no work, and of writing off the loss whenever any died or were in jured. Vespasian, however, said no; he wanted to "be allowed to feed the mob," that is, carry on the traditional policy of giving them handouts, not try any newfangled ideas of putting them to work.

Another argument against those who blame the technological laggardness on a surplus of labor is that what clues we can gather point just the other way. A number of treatises on farming in Italy, written between the second century B.C. and the first A.D., have survived They make allusion to the difficulties farm farmers had because of the scarcity of hands. There were times when Egypt, one of the breadbaskets of the; ancient world, suffered from country-wide shortage of labor. Indeed, it has been argued that a key factor inhibiting the internal growth of the empires that. were established in the wake of Alexander the Great's conquests was the limited agriculture. manpower available: it was never possible to increase the number of peasants beyond a certain figure, and because of this, food production was never able to rise to levels that could support more or larger urban centers. Obviously the solution would have been the development of mechanical aids to relieve the peas ants' back breaking toil and increase his output. The Ptolemies, who ruled Egypt from 300 B.C. through the next few centuries, did their best to wring as much out of the land as they could. They reclaimed large tracts, improved the irrigation system, in introduced new crops. At the same time, being openhanded patrons of the arts and sciences, they supported research of all kinds, including the experiments of Ctesibius and other scientists in the use of water and hot air as a force. Yet it evidently never crossed their minds to suggest to these scientists that they give up playing around with toys and gadgets and get to work on a power-driven mill. Whether the effort would have succeeded is irrelevant; the point is that it was never made.

What is even more mystifying is that labor-saving devices actually came into existence and yet were not exploited. In the first century A.D. a mechanical harvester was developed. We know what it was like not only from descriptions of ancient writers but from a number of carved reliefs that picture it: it was, in effect, an oversize comb mounted on wheels and pushed by a donkey or mule; as it went along it took off the heads of grain, leaving the stalks standing. Admittedly, it could operate efficiently only on level ground and appeal only to farmers willing to forego the straw. So far as we can tell the device was used in a certain section of Gaul, roughly between Reims and Trier, and nowhere else, though there surely were other areas in the ancient world where the machine's advantages outweighed its limitations. Moreover, no effort was made to adapt it for farms whose owners wanted the straw or where the terrain was not appropriately level, an adaptation chat should not have been difficult. Ancient farmers, in short, were content to go on harvesting with sickles, even though this was a painfully slow way to do it and one of their complaints was a lack of hands.

Even more striking than the failure of the mechanical harvester to catch on is that of the water mill. We noted above that the Romans certainly knew the water mill by the first century B.C. A good argument can be made that the Etruscans knew it several centuries earlier. They were superb hydraulic engineers, particularly skilled in cutting long underground sewerlike channels through rock to control the direction and volume of the flow of water. In most cases these channels ran along the bottom of valleys to carry off rainwater and not let it erode the valley floors. At Veii, an Etruscan site some twelve miles north of Rome, the inhabitants cut one such channel, over one-third of a mile long and over eighty feet deep in one place, whose purpose could not have been to prevent erosion. It carried water from a larger stream to a point on a smaller, thereby increasing the velocity of the flow at that point. The only logical explanation for this elaborate piece of hydraulic engineering is that the Etruscans wanted to strengthen the flow at the point in question because they maintained a mill there-and, indeed, a mill has stood in the area from the Middle Ages to very recent times.

In any event, when we come to the first century B.C. we do not have to depend on argument or inference: we know that water mills existed then because Vitruvius describes them in the famous book on architecture and building techniques that he wrote probably in the closing decades of the pre-Christian era. The very way in which he deals with them is significant. In a discussion of the devices in use for raising water, after treating various forms of treadmills, he describes a water-powered wheel that turns an endless chain of buckets; this, he goes on to inform us, differs from the water-powered mill in that the water-driven wheel in the latter case turns a millstone. When he comes to his summing up of the discussion, he does not even bother to mention the water mill. That is all he has to say about the piece of machinery that was destined to revolutionize agriculture and industry. Vitruvius' indifference was typical. A water mill can grind effortlessly in under three minutes what would take a man or beast an hour of hard work Once discovered, it should have swept over the Mediterranean world as quickly as it was to sweep over Europe a millennium later. It did nothing of the sort. During the first three centuries A.D., the heyday of the Roman Empire, it saw scant use. The number of mills increased somewhat after that, but not importantly. In most places the age-old laborious methods of grinding grain still continued.

Michael Rostovtzeff, author of the definitive studies on the social and economic history of the ancient world, was well aware of the shortcomings of slavery or cheap free labor as an explanation of the Greeks' "slow technical progress and . . . restricted range of output." He argues that "the causes of these limitations are chiefly to be found, on the one hand, in local production of manufactured goods and the arrest of the development of large industrial centers, and, on the other, in the low buying capacity and restricted number of customers." This explanation simply puts us in a circle. Industrial centers could not develop because they could not be fed without increasing the production of food, and, as we have just seen, the fixed or even declining number of peasants prevented this. And without such industrial centers, the number of potential customers would inevitably be restricted and buying power low. Men did not break out of the circle until the Middle Ages. Why did they not do it in ancient times?

We cannot call upon mountains of statistics to help us with the answer, for there are no such from the ancient world. All we can do is go through whatever writings have survived, from agricultural treatises to Iyric poetry, in search of anything that will throw light, no matter how feeble, on the problem. There is an anecdote told by Lucian, a satirist and lecturer of the second century A.D., that is a good deal more to the point than the story about Vespasian and the engineer. In an essay that purports to be autobiographical Lucian recounts how he embarked upon his career. He had a dream, he informs us in which two women struggled for possession of him, one mannish and dirty and unkempt and covered with stone dust, the other lovely and poised and well dressed. The first sought to entice him to become a sculptor, to achieve the greatness of Phidias and Praxiteles, the other to turn to education and follow an intellectual career. If you become a sculptor, the lovely woman warned him, "hunched over your work, your eyes and mind on the ground, low as low can be, you will never lift your head to think the thoughts of a true man or a free spirit." Lucian did not hesitate: he joyously embraced the life of the mind.

The prejudice against the artisan that Lucian's words reveal can be traced throughout the fabric of Greek thought. In the Greek pantheon, Apollo, god of music, Ares, god of war, Hermes, messenger of Zeus, are all gloriously handsome; Hephaestus, god of the forge, is ugly and lame and, when he hobbles about Olympus, the sight makes the rest of the divine family break out into "unquenchable laughter," to use Homer's phrase. The Greeks admired and respected the artisan's work; they neither admired nor respected the artisan. Socrates, who ho happened to be a stonemason by trade, was often to be found lounging around the workshops of his fellow craftsmen_but not his blue-blooded pupil Plato, scion of one of Athens' best families. In the utopias he conjures up, Plato relegates craftsmen to the lowest rung of the social ladder. Xenophon, a fellow aristocrat, points our that in those Greek cities that pride themselves on their military reputation, citizens arc not allowed to practice a craft. Aristorle, tutor to Alexander the Great, sniffily remarks that "the finest type of city will not make an artisan a citizen."

One reason for the prejudice was that, from the very beginning, many artisans were slaves; one effect of the prejudice was to ensure that more and more of them would be. Throughout Greek history, the free and slave craftsman shared work, often laboring side by side. Records of the building of Greek temples and other structures have been preserved, and from them we can see that the stone blocks, the column drums, the sculptures, the scaffoldings, and all else, were fashioned by free and slave masons and carpenters working together and being paid exactly the same wage; the only difference was that the free man kept his while the slave turned his over to a master Work of the hands, no matter of what quality, whether the rough hacking of stone in a quarry or the delicate carving of a sculpture, was something that could be done by slaves, and in the eyes of the upper class_the class to which without exception all ancient writers and intellectuals belonged_was not for them. Cicero, categorizing the pursuits that men follow, declares without qualification that "all craftsmen are engaged in a lowly art, for no workshop can have anything about it appropriate to a free man" They were all, as it were, sicklied o'er with the pale cast of slavery

A passage in one of Plurarch's lives makes it crystal clear why Ctesibius, Hero, and the other scientists of antiquity stopped at toys and gadgets and never went on to machines_except in that one field which ail through history has had a special claim on men's faculties, the art of war. In his Life of Marcellus, the famed general who led the Roman forces during much of the Second Punic War, he describes the trouble Marcellus had in besieging the strongly fortified town of Syracuse. Before the invention of cannon, laying siege to any walled city was no easy job but Marcellus was having particularly rough going because the king of Syracuse had entrusted the defense to antiquity's most renowned engineer, Archimedes. Archimedes devised fiendish catapults which hurled monstrous stones upon attacking troops, fiendish cranes with huge claws that fastened upon attacking ships and lifted them right out of the water, even a Brobdingnagian burning glass that could set them on fire from a distance. After describing the formidable array, Plutarch remarks that Archimedes, though he had won universal acclaim for his military inventions "never wanted to leave behind a book on the subject but viewed the work of the engineer and every single art connected with everyday need as ignoble and fit only for an artisan. He devoted his ambition only to those studies in which beauty and subtlety are present uncontaminated by necessity." It was solely the intellectual challenge that led Archimedes to his discovery of the principle of specific gravity; its practical application, though it provided the occasion. for his inspiration, was beneath his notice.

Thus the best brains of antiquity did not occupy themselves with technology except as a pastime or for war. Snobbishness played its part, but there were other causes as well. Science seeks to understand nature, and ancient thinkers welcomed this challenge. But technology seeks to tamper with it, and there was a feeling that this was forbidden territory. Herodotus tells a revealing story about the people of Cnidus. Their city was located on the tip of a peninsula, and once, fearing the attack of a powerful enemy, they began to cut through the neck to put a barrier of water between them and the mainland. As the work proceeded, they noted an inordinate number of injuries from rock splinters, especially about the eyes. It was serious enough for them to consult the Delphic Oracle; the response was that they were to quit work, that "Zeus would have made your peninsula an island had he so willed."

The split between science and technology was by no means limited to antiquity. When the ancient world died, its science lived on among the Arabs. For five hundred years the best scientists wrote in Arabic, yet this did nothing whatsoever to hasten the pace of technological development in Islam. The idea that science can advance technology was not clearly formulated until as late as A.D. 1450 and was not consistently acted upon until our own century.

Another key reason for the ancients' indifference to technology was their attitude toward profit, an attitude totally at variance with what we today un-thinkingly accept as the natural order of things. The ancients were just as fond of money as we are. There were some philosophical sects whose members made a great show of scorning wealth-we all know the story of Diogenes, who preferred living in a barrel to a house-but they were no more representative of society at large than hippies are today. Most men upper-class or lower, were well aware that money was a good thing, that it was not possible to enjoy life without it. Where they differ from us is in their ideas about how it was to be made and what to do with i' after making it. Throughout the whole of antiquity men worked under the conviction that wealth should properly come from the land. All their great fortunes were landed fortunes: if they did not start out that way, they ended that way. Take the case of Trimalchio the hero of the best-preserved scene in Petronius'Satyricon, a brilliant and devastating satire about Rome's nouveaux riches in the first century A.D. Trimalchio, an ex-slave. who became a multimillionaire, got his start by taking a flyer in the import of wine. When his ship came in, he made a killing_and promptly switched to real estate, the buying of farm properties. He acquired so much that though there were vast tracts of his holdings he had never even seen, he would not be content until he could buy up all Sicily, so that he could travel from Naples right to a port of departure for North Africa without once having to leave his own property. Trimalchio would have applauded enthusiastically Cicero's statement that "of all things from which income is derived, none is better than agriculture, none more fruitful, none sweeter, none more fitting for a free man." Cicero exaggerates: there were any number of pursuits more fruitful, but that was of secondary importance compared with agriculture's preeminent respectability, its fittingness for a free man.

Next to owning land came commerce, the sort of venture in which Trimalchio had gotten his start. But it was a good cut below. Hear Cicero on the subject: "Commerce, if it is on a small scale, is to be considered lowly; but if it is on a large scale and extensive, importing much from all over and distributing to many without misrepresentation, it is not to be too much disparaged"_in other words, at its very best, barely respectable.

Lower even than commerce was industry-industry, the form of endeavor in which results depend squarely upon productivity, which has most to gain from technology. Ancient industry, it is happens never progressed beyond the large workshop stage. You will read in the writings of archaeologists' descriptions of centers of ceramic production that sound like operations employing a labor force of thousands, but that is only because' the archaeologist's stock in trade is pots herds and he tends to be overawed by the quantities he finds. The biggest pottery manufactories we know of were all owned by single individuals and never employed many more than fifty men. The very biggest privately owned (as against government-owned) industrial operation we know of was a shield-making establishment that employed something in the neighborhood of one hundred. Back in the eighteenth century David Hume wrote: "I do not remember a passage in any ancient author, where the growth of a city is ascribed to the establishment of a manufacture." Despite a century of archaeological discovery, his words need no qualification. There were no Manchesters or Birminghams in the ancient world, no equivalent of our New England mill towns.

Let us grant that Greeks and Romans did not exploit the potential of industry for making money and that we cannot therefore expect technological advance in that area. What about agriculture? We saw earlier that urban growth was restricted by the farmers' inability to feed more city mouths. Sometimes they could not even feed their own mouths; famines were not at all uncommon in ancient times. In the days of the Roman Empire there was plenty of land, with rich landowners holding the lion's share of it; why did they not seek to make better use of their resources? Pliny, Rome's savant whom we have several times quoted in earlier chapters, actually asserts that, for a landowner, "nothing pays less than cultivating your land to the fullest extent." Why?

The answer lies in another of the fundamental differences in attitude between then and now: the ancients simply did not think in terms of maximum profits; the prevailing mentality of the age was acquisitive, not productive. One strove, like Trimalchio, to acquire as much land as possible, but not to wring it to produce as much profit as possible. Take, for example, old Cato, who lived in the second century B.C. and wrote one of the treatises on farming that have survived. He is the classic example of the shrewd, frugal, hardworking Roman landowner. He has endless advice to give on how to run a farm economically: precise prescriptions for the amount of rations of clothing and food to be issued to the help, how many hours to work them, what jobs to give them on rainy days; he cautions that they must be made to work on holidays, and that old and worn-out animals and slaves must be discarded 'just like wornout tools. But if you had asked his advice on what crops sold the best or netted the most profit, about quickness of turnover, capital investment, and other standard bits of today's economic wisdom, he could not have known what you were talking about. Such matters were totally beyond the ken of the ancient farmer, peasant, or owner of vast estates. One of Cato's hard and fast rules was that a farmer "should be a seller, not a buyer." The same rule is expressed in different language by Columella, another expert on agriculture who wrote in the first century A.D. Some landowners, he tells us, "avoid annual expenses and consider it the best and most certain form of income not to make any investments." In other words, money not spent is money earned. If it costs more to install a watermill than a donkey-mill, then a donkeymill it shall be.

As a matter of fact, profitability of operation was so far from the ancient farmer's mind that he did not even have the bookkeeping that would make it possible. We happen to have some of the records_they were a lucky find in an archaeological excavation_ from a big Egyptian estate of the third century B.C. They reveal that the system of accounting in use was fine for the control of stock and staff but could not possibly yield the information required for efficient exploitation. The owner had not the slightest idea which of his numerous crops was the most profitable, what his cost per crop was, and so on.

We see, therefore, that it was not lack of knowledge which lay behind the poor technological record of the ancients but their lack of interest. The attitude of mind that made the artisan a human being of a lesser order, that glorified landowning as against land use, that left industry at a relatively primitive level, rendered technological advance of scant moment. And so we need not be surprised that the water mill and the windmill, though known, were, in the one case, far from fully exploited, and, in the other, not exploited at all. But what was it that changed matters so dramatically in the tenth century? Why was it that, from then on, men grasped eagerly at all ways to ease their labor, to increase their productivity?

Lewis Mumford thinks that the answer is to be found in that quintessentially medieval institution, the monastery. "The monastery," he writes, "through its very other-worldliness, had a special incentive to develop mechanization. The monks sought . . . to avoid unnecessary labor in order to have more time and energy for meditation and prayer; and possibly their willing immersion in ritual predisposed them to mechanical (repetitious and standardized) solutions. Though they themselves were disciplined to regular work, they readily turned over to machinery those operations that could be performed without benefit of mind. Rewarding work they kept for themselves: manuscript copying, illumination, carving. Unrewarding work they turned over to the machine grinding, pounding, sawing."

It is an intriguing theory, but hard to prove. The earliest mills did arise in monasteries, but that could very well be nothing more than a reflection of the key position enjoyed by monasteries in the life of the times. At any rate, in short order, mills were saving labor everywhere, not merely in the monasteries. The earliest medieval mill we know of dates from 983, as we mentioned earlier; within a century there were at least 5,624 in England alone, serving some 3,000 communities.

Yet Mumford was on the right track in seeking an explanation in that feature which most of all divides the medieval world from the ancient: religion. Unlike the deities of paganism, the Christian god was a creator God, architect of the cosmos, the divine porter who shaped men from clay in his own image. In the Christian conception, all history moves toward a spiritual goal and there is no time to lose; thus work of all sorts is essential, becomes in a way a form of worship. Such ideas created a mental climate highly favorable for the growth of technology.

But this alone cannot explain what happened in medieval Europe. There were, after all, two forms of Christianity: that practiced in the Greek east as well as that of the Latin west, both equally ardent in embracing the fundamentals of Christian teaching; yet technology got no further in the east than it did in ancient Greece and Rome. Progress was limited to the Latin west. Why?

This is a problem that has particularly engaged the attention of Lynn White, whose work on medieval technology we had occasion to mention earlier. He looks for the explanation in a basic difference in spiritual direction between the two churches: the eastern generally held that sin is ignorance and that salvation comes by. illumination, the western that sin is vice and that rebirth comes by disciplining the will to do good works. The Greek saint is normally a contemplative figure, the Latin an activist.

The effect of this theological difference was to restore respectability not only to the artisan but to manual labor, to remove the disrepute under which it had suffered during all of ancient times. And in this, monasticism played a significant role. From the beginning, the monks had been mindful of the Hebrew tradition that work was in accordance with God's commandment: Here, too, there was a division between east and west. The east had not suffered invasion and pillage as had the west; its level of culture had not descended as low, its intellectual and literary life continued much as before, and in this climate the Greek monks tended to concentrate on sacred studies. But in the west, civilization had fallen so devastatingly low that the monks had to assume responsibility for all aspects of culture, profane as well as sacred, the life of the body as well as that of the mind. Out of this grew an interest in practical affairs in general and, in particular, in the physical aspects of worship, a line of interest that led to the embellishment of the church and of the service through technology. Whereas eastern churches forbade music, holding that only the unaccompanied voice can worthily worship God, we find the cathedral at Winchester as early as the tenth century boasting a huge organ of 400 pipes fed by 28 bellows that required 70 men to pump them. By the middle of the twelfth century organs were given a part in the supreme moment of the service, the Mass itself. The east never permitted clocks in or on their churches; in the west, as soon as mechanical clocks were introduced they appear both on towers outside and walls inside.

The writings of western monks express their delight not only at the mechanical devices that embellished their religious life but at those that made their secular activities so much easier, the waterpowered machines that did the milling, fulling, tanning, blacksmithing, and other such tasks. As one of: them puts it: "How many horses' backs would have been broken, how many men's arms wearied, by the labor from which a river, with no labor, graciously frees us?" Technology was hailed as a Christian virtue. In a psalter that was illuminated near Reims about A.D.. 830 an illustration of one of the psalm shows David leading a small body of the righteous against a formidable host of the ungodly. "In each` camp," writes White, "a sword is being sharpened conspicuously. The Evildoers are content to use a old-fashioned whetstone. The Godly, however, are employing the first crank recorded outside China to rotate the first grindstone known anywhere. Obviously the artist is telling us that technological a.' advance is God's will."

The western attitude toward work and toward. technology , as an expression of Christian faith, thus stands in contrast equally to the ancient Greco-Roman attitudes and that of the medieval eastern church. It is dramatically symbolized in a manuscript of the Gospels produced at Winchester shortly after the year 1000. Here, God is portrayed as He would never be in the eastern church, as a master craftsman holding scales, a carpenter's square, and a pair of compasses. He is at the opposite pole from Homer's Zeus, who joined his fellow deities in laughing unquenchably at the gnarled, limping Hephaestus.

Labels: , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home

Technorati Profile