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.
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“The flame of human ingenuity burned with surprising intensity during the medieval centuries…The Gieses here explode the myth of the Dark Ages, showing that the Fall of Rome did not plunge Europe into stagnation and lethargy.”