Cathedral Forge and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages

by Frances Gies

Paperback, 1995



Call number




HarperCollins (1995), Paperback


In this account of Europe's rise to world leadership in technology, Frances and Joseph Gies make use of recent scholarship to destroy two time-honored myths. Myth One: that Europe's leap forward occurred suddenly in the "Renaissance," following centuries of medieval stagnation. Not so, say the Gieses: Early modern technology and experimental science were direct outgrowths of the decisive innovations of medieval Europe, in the tools and techniques of agriculture, craft industry, metallurgy, building construction, navigation, and war. Myth Two: that Europe achieved its primacy through "Western" superiority. On the contrary, the authors report, many of Europe's most important inventions - the horse harness, the stirrup, the magnetic compass, cotton and silk cultivation and manufacture, papermaking, firearms, "Arabic" numerals - had their origins outside Europe, in China, India, and Islam. The Gieses show how Europe synthesized its own innovations - the three-field system, water power in industry, the full-rigged ship, the putting-out system - into a powerful new combination of technology, economics, and politics. From the expansion of medieval man's capabilities, the voyage of Columbus with all its fateful consequences is seen as an inevitable product, while even the genius of Leonardo da Vinci emerges from the context of earlier and lesser-known dreamers and tinkerers. Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel is illustrated with more than 90 photographs and drawings. It is a Split Main Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Essa
Fascinating exploration of science and technology in the Middle Ages, touching on---and shedding some light on---almost every aspect of medieval live imaginable: architecture, astronomy, agriculture, clothing, religion, shipbuilding, timekeeping, travel, and much more. It flows fairly smoothly and
Show More
should be accessible to laypeople as well as to specialists. Notes and a bibliography provide options for further research.
Show Less
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
For those who think that the middle ages were dark and devoid of serious learning and achievement this book provides the antidote. Filled with interesting detail about the technological progress and prowess of civilization in the middle ages Frances and Jospeh Gies make the case that the dark ages
Show More
were not so very dark. They argue that there were continuing achievements in science and other areas that provided the foundation that led directly into the Renaissance. The lines between eras cannot be drawn so very neatly.
Show Less
LibraryThing member heidilove
Gies and Gies do a great job, once again. This time they present us with the technology of the middle ages and show how it was incorporated into and influential upon the Medieval West. Many a thesis topic lurks undiscovered in the paragraphs, rendering this general work of great relevance to
Show More
scholars as well.
Show Less
LibraryThing member TLCrawford
I truly enjoyed reading Frances and Joseph Gies’ Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages. When I first picked the book up I was primarily interested in learning about the evolution of the workplace. That was one of many things I learned reading the book. The
Show More
Gies’ explain that Rome’s gynaeceums (woman’s quarters?) were not just where woman congregated but were filled with looms and material for cloth making. They explain the ‘putting out’ system that developed and spread virtual factories across entire towns. They even illustrate an assembly line system developed in Venice to load ships. I would have been happy with those bits of knowledge but they also illustrated, vividly, the small steps that advanced technology throughout the Middle Ages. Incremental improvements like those that took the waterwheel from producing a mere fraction of one horsepower when it was first developed to yielding nearly sixty horsepower by the 1500s.

I also learned some amazing trivia. The barrel is the only pure European invention. Clothing sewn from pieces of cloth developed in Northern Europe where people were accustomed to piecing together clothing from hides. Leonardo DeVinci devised mitered edges for the Chinese style doors on canal locks that allowed them to better seal. There were many other little revelations but for me the biggest discovery was how historians learned these things. A sixth century Chinese scholar wrote that he dare not use the writings of the sages for toilet paper is proof that toilet paper was used in China at that time. Because written history has to a great extent focused on the rich and powerful learning about the common folk, the work they do, and the way they live is often difficult. Seeing how the authors pulled this information from paintings, statues, drawings, and writings on unrelated topics was truly educational. If your idea of history is memorizing names of kings, popes and generals this is not the book for you. If you are interested in how things work and how technology progresses I cannot recommend this book more highly.
Show Less


Original publication date


Physical description

368 p.; 7.8 inches


0060925817 / 9780060925819
Page: 0.2722 seconds