Medieval technology

Pumhart von Steyr, a 15th-century supergun
Medieval port crane for mounting masts and lifting heavy cargo in the former Hanse town of Gdańsk[1]

Medieval technology refers to the technology used in medieval Europe under Christian rule. After the Renaissance of the 12th century, medieval Europe saw a radical change in the rate of new inventions, innovations in the ways of managing traditional means of production, and economic growth.[2] The period saw major technological advances, including the adoption of gunpowder, the invention of vertical windmills, spectacles, mechanical clocks, and greatly improved water mills, building techniques (Gothic architecture, medieval castles), and agriculture in general (three-field crop rotation).

The development of water mills from their ancient origins was impressive, and extended from agriculture to sawmills both for timber and stone. By the time of the Domesday Book, most large villages had turnable mills, around 6,500 in England alone.[3] Water-power was also widely used in mining for raising ore from shafts, crushing ore, and even powering bellows.

European technical advancements from the 12th to 14th centuries were either built on long-established techniques in medieval Europe, originating from Roman and Byzantine antecedents, or adapted from cross-cultural exchanges through trading networks with the Islamic world, China, and India. Often, the revolutionary aspect lay not in the act of invention itself, but in its technological refinement and application to political and economic power. Though gunpowder along with other weapons had been started by Chinese, it was the Europeans who developed and perfected its military potential, precipitating European expansion and eventual imperialism in the Modern Era.

Also significant in this respect were advances in maritime technology. Advances in shipbuilding included the multi-masted ships with lateen sails, the sternpost-mounted rudder and the skeleton-first hull construction. Along with new navigational techniques such as the dry compass, the Jacob's staff and the astrolabe, these allowed economic and military control of the seas adjacent to Europe and enabled the global navigational achievements of the dawning Age of Exploration.

At the turn to the Renaissance, Gutenberg’s invention of mechanical printing made possible a dissemination of knowledge to a wider population, that would not only lead to a gradually more egalitarian society, but one more able to dominate other cultures, drawing from a vast reserve of knowledge and experience. The technical drawings of late-medieval artist-engineers Guido da Vigevano and Villard de Honnecourt can be viewed as forerunners of later Renaissance works such as Taccola or da Vinci.

Civil technologies

The following is a list of some important medieval technologies. The approximate date or first mention of a technology in medieval Europe is given. Technologies were often a matter of cultural exchange and date and place of first inventions are not listed here (see main links for a more complete history of each).


Heavy plough (5th to 8th centuries)

The heavy plough with a mouldboard appears in the 5th century in Slavic lands, it was then introduced into Northern Italy (the Po Valley) and by the 8th century it was used in the Rhineland. Essential in the efficient use of the rich, heavy, often wet soils of Northern Europe, its use allowed the area's forests and swamps to be brought under cultivation.

Hops (11th century)

Added to beer, its importance lay primarily in its ability to preserve beer and improve transportability for trade.

Horse collar (6th to 9th centuries)

Multiple evolutions from classical harness (Antiquity), to breast strap harness (6th century) to horse collar (9th century), allowed more horse pulling power, such as with heavy ploughs.

Horseshoes (9th century)

Allowed horses to adapt to non-grassland terrains in Europe (rocky terrain, mountains) and carry heavier loads. Possibly known to the Romans and Celts as early as 50 BC.

Wine press (12th century)

The first practical means of applying pressure on a plane surface. The principle later used for the printing press.

Architecture and construction

Artesian well (1126)

A thin rod with a hard iron cutting edge is placed in the bore hole and repeatedly struck with a hammer, underground water pressure forces the water up the hole without pumping. Artesian wells are named after the town of Artois in France, where the first one was drilled by Carthusian monks in 1126.

Central heating through underfloor channels (9th century)

In the early medieval Alpine upland, a simpler central heating system where heat travelled through underfloor channels from the furnace room replaced the Roman hypocaust at some places. In Reichenau Abbey a network of interconnected underfloor channels heated the 300 m2 large assembly room of the monks during the winter months. The degree of efficiency of the system has been calculated at 90%.[4]

Rib vault (12th century)

An essential element for the rise of Gothic architecture, rib vaults allowed vaults to be built for the first time over rectangles of unequal lengths. It also greatly facilitated scaffolding and largely replaced the older groin vault.

Chimney (12th century)

The earliest true chimneys appeared in Northern Europe during the 12th century, and with them came the first true fireplaces.

Segmental arch bridge (1345)

The Ponte Vecchio in Florence is considered medieval Europe's first stone segmental arch bridge.

Treadwheel crane (1220s)

The earliest reference to a treadwheel in archival literature is in France about 1225,[5] followed by an illuminated depiction in a manuscript of probably also French origin dating to 1240.[6] Apart from tread-drums, windlasses and occasionally cranks were employed for powering cranes.[7]

Stationary harbour crane (1244)

Stationary harbour cranes are considered a new development of the Middle Ages; its earliest use being documented for Utrecht in 1244.[8] The typical harbour crane was a pivoting structure equipped with double treadwheels. There were two types: wooden gantry cranes pivoting on a central vertical axle and stone tower cranes which housed the windlass and treadwheels with only the jib arm and roof rotating.[1] These cranes were placed on docksides for the loading and unloading of cargo where they replaced or complemented older lifting methods like see-saws, winches and yards.[8] Slewing cranes which allowed a rotation of the load and were thus particularly suited for dockside work appeared as early as 1340.[9]

Floating crane

Beside the stationary cranes, floating cranes which could be flexibly deployed in the whole port basin came into use by the 14th century.[1]

Mast crane

Some harbour cranes were specialised at mounting masts to newly built sailing ships, such as in Gdańsk, Cologne and Bremen.[1]

Wheelbarrow (1170s)

The wheelbarrow proved useful in building construction, mining operations, and agriculture. Literary evidence for the use of wheelbarrows appeared between 1170 and 1250 in north-western Europe. The first depiction is in a drawing by Matthew Paris in the mid-13th century.


Oil paint (by 1125)

As early as the 13th century, oil was used to add details to tempera paintings and paint wooden statues. Flemish painter Jan van Eyck developed the use of a stable oil mixture for panel painting around 1410.[10]


Hourglass (1338)

Reasonably dependable, affordable and accurate measure of time. Unlike water in a clepsydra, the rate of flow of sand is independent of the depth in the upper reservoir, and the instrument is not liable to freeze. Hourglasses are a medieval innovation (first documented in Siena, Italy).

Mechanical clocks (13th to 14th centuries)

A European innovation, these weight-driven clocks were used primarily in clock towers.


Compound crank

The Italian physician Guido da Vigevano combines in his 1335 Texaurus, a collection of war machines intended for the recapture of the Holy Land, two simple cranks to form a compound crank for manually powering war carriages and paddle wheel boats. The devices were fitted directly to the vehicle's axle respectively to the shafts turning the paddle wheels.[11]


Blast furnace (1150–1350)

European cast iron first appears in Middle Europe (for instance Lapphyttan in Sweden, Dürstel in Switzerland and the Märkische Sauerland in Germany) around 1150,[12] in some places according to recent research even before 1100.[13] The technique is considered to be an independent European development.[14]


Paper mill (13th century)

The first certain use of a water-powered paper mill, evidence for which is elusive in both Chinese[15][16] and Muslim paper making,[17] dates to 1282.[18]

Rolling mill (15th century)

Used to produce metal sheet of an even thickness. First used on soft, malleable metals, such as lead, gold and tin. Leonardo da Vinci described a rolling mill for wrought iron.

Tidal Mills (6th century)

The earliest tidal mills were excavated on the Irish coast where watermillers knew and employed the two main waterwheel types: a 6th-century tide mill at Killoteran near Waterford was powered by a vertical waterwheel,[19] while the tide changes at Little Island were exploited by a twin-flume horizontal-wheeled mill (c. 630) and a vertical undershot waterwheel alongside it.[20][21] Another early example is the Nendrum Monastery mill from 787 which is estimated to have developed seven to eight horsepower at its peak.[22][23]

Vertical windmills (1180s)

Invented in Europe as the pivotable post mill, the first surviving mention of one comes from Yorkshire in England in 1185. They were efficient at grinding grain or draining water. Stationary tower mills were also developed in the 13th century.

Water hammer (12th century at the latest)

Used in metallurgy to forge the metal blooms from bloomeries and Catalan forges, they replaced manual hammerwork. The water hammer was eventually superseded by steam hammers in the 19th century.

Dry Compass (12th century)

The first European mention of the directional compass is in Alexander Neckam's On the Natures of Things, written in Paris around 1190.[24] It was either transmitted from China or the Arabs or an independent European innovation. Dry compass were invented in the Mediterranean around 1300.[25]

Astronomical compass (1269)

The French scholar Pierre de Maricourt describes in his experimental study Epistola de magnete (1269) three different compass designs he has devised for the purpose of astronomical observation.[26]

Scheme of a sternpost-mounted medieval rudder

Stern-mounted rudders (1180s)

The first depiction of a pintle-and-gudgeon rudder on church carvings dates to around 1180. They first appeared with cogs in the North and Baltic Seas and quickly spread to Mediterranean. The iron hinge system was the first stern rudder permanently attached to the ship hull and made a vital contribution to the navigation achievements of the age of discovery and thereafter.[27]

Printing, paper and reading

Movable type printing press (1440s)

Johannes Gutenberg's great innovation was not the printing itself, but instead of using carved plates as in woodblock printing, he used separate letters (types) from which the printing plates for pages were made up. This meant the types were recyclable and a page cast could be made up far faster.

Paper (13th century)

Paper was invented in China and transmitted through Islamic Spain in the 13th century. In Europe, the paper-making processes was mechanized by water-powered mills and paper presses (see paper mill).

Reading Saint Peter with eyeglasses (1466)

Rotating bookmark (13th century)

A rotating disc and string device used to mark the page, column, and precise level in the text where a person left off reading in a text. Materials used were often leather, velum, or paper.

Spectacles (1280s)

The first spectacles, invented in Florence, used convex lenses which were of help only to the far-sighted. Concave lenses were not developed prior to the 15th century.

Watermark (1282)

This medieval innovation was used to mark paper products and to discourage counterfeiting. It was first introduced in Bologna, Italy.

Science and learning

Arabic Numerals (13th century)

The first recorded mention in Europe was in 976, and they were first widely published in 1202 by Fibonacci with his Liber Abaci.


The first medieval universities were founded between the 11th and 13th centuries leading to a rise in literacy and learning. By 1500, the institution had spread throughout most of Europe and played a key role in the Scientific Revolution. Today, the educational concept and institution has been globally adopted.[28]

Textile industry and garments

Functional button (13th century)

German buttons appeared in 13th-century Germany as an indigenous innovation.[29] They soon became widespread with the rise of snug-fitting clothing.

Horizontal loom (11th century)

Horizontal looms operated by foot-treadles were faster and more efficient.

Silk (6th century)

Manufacture of silk began in Eastern Europe in the 6th century and in Western Europe in the 11th or 12th century. Silk had been imported over the Silk Road since antiquity. The technology of "silk throwing" was mastered in Tuscany in the 13th century. The silk works used waterpower and some regard these as the first mechanized textile mills.

Spinning wheel (13th century)

Brought to Europe probably from India.


Knights Templar playing chess, Libro de los juegos (1283)

Chess (1450)

The earliest predecessors of the game originated in 6th-century AD India and spread via Persia and the Muslim world to Europe. Here the game evolved into its current form in the 15th century.

Forest glass (c. 1000)

This type of glass uses wood ash and sand as the main raw materials and is characterised by a variety of greenish-yellow colours.

Grindstones (834)

Grindstones are a rough stone, usually sandstone, used to sharpen iron. The first rotary grindstone (turned with a leveraged handle) occurs in the Utrecht Psalter, illustrated between 816 and 834.[30] According to Hägermann, the pen drawing is a copy of a late-antique manuscript.[31] A second crank which was mounted on the other end of the axle is depicted in the Luttrell Psalter from around 1340.[32]

Liquor (12th century)

Alcohol distillation was introduced by Pūr Sinɑʼ (Persian ابن سینا or ابو علی‌ سینا or پور سينا Pur-e Sina; [ˈpuːr ˈsiːnɑː] "son of Sina";[full citation needed] August c. 980 – June 1037), commonly known as Ibn Sīnā, or in Arabic writing Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Al-Hasan ibn Ali ibn Sīnā. It was initially used as a medicinal elixir and was a popular remedy for the Black Death during the 14th century. Drinks such as vodka, gin and brandy come into form.

Magnets (12th century)

Magnets were first referenced in the Roman d'Enéas, composed between 1155 and 1160.

Mirrors (1180)

The first mention of a "glass" mirror is in 1180 by Alexander Neckham who said "Take away the lead which is behind the glass and there will be no image of the one looking in."

Illustrated surgical atlas (1345)

Guido da Vigevano (c. 1280 − 1349) was the first author to add illustrations to his anatomical descriptions. His Anathomia provides pictures of neuroanatomical structures and techniques such as the dissection of the head by means of trephination, and depictions of the meninges, cerebrum, and spinal cord.[33]

Quarantine (1377)

Initially a 40-day-period, the quarantine was introduced by the Republic of Ragusa as a measure of disease prevention related to the Black Death. It was later adopted by Venice from where the practice spread all around in Europe.

Rat traps (1170s)

The first mention of a rat trap is in the medieval romance Yvain, the Knight of the Lion by Chrétien de Troyes.

Soap (9th century)

Soap came into widespread European use in the 9th century in semi-liquid form, with hard soap perfected by the Arabs in the 12th century.

Military technologies


Jousting armor commissioned by Maximilian I in 1494

Plate armour (late 14th century)

Large and complete full plates of armour appear by the end of the 14th century.


Arched saddle (11th century)

The arched saddle enabled mounted knights to wield lances underarm and prevent the charge from turning into an unintentional pole-vault. This innovation gave birth to true shock cavalry, enabling fighters to charge on full gallop.

Spurs (11th century)

Spurs were invented by the Normans and appeared at the same time as the cantled saddle. They enabled the horseman to control his horse with his feet, replacing the whip and leaving his arms free. Rowel spurs familiar from cowboy films were already known in the 13th century. Gilded spurs were the ultimate symbol of the knighthood - even today someone is said to "earn his spurs" by proving his or her worthiness.

Stirrup (6th century)

Stirrups were invented by steppe nomads in what is today Mongolia and northern China in the 4th century. They were introduced in Byzantium in the 6th century and in the Carolingian Empire in the 8th. They allowed a mounted knight to wield a sword and strike from a distance leading to a great advantage for mounted cavalry.

Gunpowder weapons

Cannon (1324)

Cannons are first recorded in Europe at the siege of Metz in 1324. In 1350 Petrarch wrote "these instruments which discharge balls of metal with most tremendous noise and flashes of fire...were a few years ago very rare and were viewed with greatest astonishment and admiration, but now they are become as common and familiar as any other kinds of arms."[1]

Volley gun

See Ribauldequin.

Corned gunpowder (late 14th century)

First practiced in Western Europe, corning the black powder allowed for more powerful and faster ignition of cannons. It also facilitated the storage and transportation of black powder. Corning constituted a crucial step in the evolution of gunpowder warfare.

Scottish bombard Mons Meg

Supergun (late 14th century)

Extant examples include the wrought-iron Pumhart von Steyr, Dulle Griet and Mons Meg as well as the cast-bronze Faule Mette and Faule Grete (all from the 15th century).

Mechanical artillery

Counterweight trebuchet (12th century)

Powered solely by the force of gravity, these catapults revolutionized medieval siege warfare and construction of fortifications by hurling huge stones unprecedented distances. Originating somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean basin, counterweight trebuchets were introduced in the Crusader states by the 1120s, Byzantium by the 1130s and in the Latin West by the second half of the century.[34]

Missile weapons

Longbow with massed, disciplined archery (13th century)

Having a high rate of fire and penetration power, the longbow contributed to the eventual demise of the medieval knight class. Used particularly by the English to great effect against the French cavalry during the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453).

Steel crossbow (late 14th century)

European innovation. Came with several different cocking aids to enhance draw power, making the weapons also the first hand-held mechanical crossbows.


Combined arms tactics (14th century)

The battle of Halidon Hill 1333 was the first battle where intentional and disciplined combined arms infantry tactics were employed. The English men-at-arms dismounted aside the archers, combining thus the staying power of super-heavy infantry and striking power of their two-handed weapons with the missiles and mobility of the archers using longbows and shortbows . Combining dismounted knights and men-at-arms with archers was the archetypal Western Medieval battle tactics until the battle of Flodden 1513 and final emergence of firearms.

Notes and references

  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Matheus 1996, p. 346
  2. Alfred Crosby described some of this technological revolution in his The Measure of Reality: Quantification in Western Europe, 1250-1600 and other major historians of technology have also noted it.
  3. Holt 1988, pp. 7–8, 11
  4. Hägermann & Schneider 1997, pp. 456–459
  5. Matthies 1992, p. 515
  6. Matthies 1992, p. 526
  7. Hall 1979, p. 48
  8. 1 2 Matheus 1996, p. 345
  9. Matthies 1992, p. 534
  10. Giorgio Vasari and Karel van Mander propagated a myth that van Eyck invented oil painting, but Theophilus (Roger of Helmarshausen?) clearly gives instructions in his 1125 treatise, On Divers Arts. The van Eyck brothers were among the earliest Early Netherlandish painters to employ it for detailed panel painting and achieved new effects through the use of glazes, wet-on-wet and other techniques. Gombrich, E. H. (1995). The Story of Art. Phaidon. pp. 236–39. ISBN 0-7148-3355-X.
  11. White, Jr. 1962, p. 112; Hall 1979, p. 80
  12. Archaeological Investigations on the Beginning of Blast Furnace-Technology in Central Europe
  13. Radomir Pleiner: Vom Rennfeuer zum Hochofen. "Die Entwicklung der Eisenverhüttung", 9.-14. Jh., in: Uta Lindgren (ed.): Europäische Technik im Mittelalter. 800-1400, Berlin 2001 (4th ed.), pp. 249-256 (255) ISBN 3-7861-1748-9
  14. Karl-Heinz Ludwig, Volker Schmidtchen: Propyläen Technikgeschichte. Metalle und Macht 1000-1600, Berlin 1997, p.389f. ISBN 3-549-05633-8
  15. Tsien, Tsuen-Hsuin 1985, pp. 68−73
  16. Lucas 2005, p. 28, fn. 70
  17. Burns 1996, pp. 414f.; Thompson 1978, p. 169
  18. Burns 1996, p. 418
  19. Murphy 2005
  20. Wikander 1985, pp. 155–157
  21. Rynne 2000, pp. 17, 49
  22. McErlean & Crothers 2007
  23. Nendrum Monastery mill
  24. Barbara M. Kreutz, “Mediterranean Contributions to the Medieval Mariner's Compass,” Technology and Culture, Vol. 14, No. 3. (Jul., 1973), p.368
  25. Frederic C. Lane, “The Economic Meaning of the Invention of the Compass,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 68, No. 3. (Apr., 1963), p.615ff.
  26. Taylor 1951, pp. 2ff.
  27. Lawrence V. Mott, The Development of the Rudder, A.D. 100-1600: A Technological Tale, Thesis May 1991, Texas A&M University
  28. Makdisi 1970, p. 264
  29. Lynn White: "The Act of Invention: Causes, Contexts, Continuities and Consequences", Technology and Culture, Vol. 3, No. 4 (Autumn, 1962), pp. 486-500 (497f. & 500)
  30. White, Jr. 1962, p. 110
  31. Hägermann & Schneider 1997, pp. 425f.
  32. White, Jr. 1962, p. 111
  33. Di Ieva 2007, pp. 1–4
  34. Paul E. Chevedden, "The Invention of the Counterweight Trebuchet: A Study in Cultural Diffusion", Dumbarton Oaks Papers, No. 54 (2000), pp.71-116 (104f.)


See also

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