The Medieval Revolution in Technology
Medieval Revolution in Technology: a revolution primarily in
agricultural technology which got underway around the time of Charlemagne,
and which made the medieval world agriculturally more productive than the
ancient world had been.
Major developments of the technological revolution:
(1) Three field system
(2) Heavy iron plow
(3) Tandem yoke
(4) Horse collar
(5) Tandem harness
Lynn White, Jr.: One of the leading American historians of
the 20th century who taught for many years at UCLA; White spent his career
studying and writing about the technological change in the Middle Ages and
its social implications.
Note: most of the inventions of the medieval technological revolution
contributed to the efficient harnessing of animal power. Although
the ancient world had possessed a number of domesticated animals, it had failed
to make efficient use of animal power and had therefore remained largely dependent
upon human labor.
Two Field System: the most common system of crop rotation
developed in the ancient world. A piece of arable land was divided
into two parts, or fields. In any given year, only one field was planted;
the other was left fallow, or unplanted, in order to give it the chance to
renew itself. The following year, the fields were reversed: the one
which had been planted now lay fallow; while the field which had renewed
itself was now planted. Along with animal fertilizer, the two field
system had been the standard method of combatting soil exhaustion in the
Three Field System: a new system of crop rotation, which was
introduced into the west sometime around the eighth century, and which provided
a new answer to the ancient problem of soil exhaustion. Under this system,
the farm land of the manor would be divided into three parts or fields; and
a number of different crops would be rotated among these fields on a complex
The three field system had two great advantages over the older two field
(1) more crops could be produced on a given piece of land each year
(2) the production of those crops would require less labor
Note: Students should be able to calculate the crop yield
and the labor necessary to produce that yield from a given piece of property
farmed according to each system. This will be demonstrated by the professor
The three field system could not be used all over Europe. Since it
required both an autumn and a spring planting, it could not be used in southern
Europe, where the lower levels of rainfall made a spring planting impractical.
Consequently, the revolution brought about by the three field system was
limited to northern Europe. As a result of this revolutionary system
of farming, northern Europe began to outstrip southern Europe in agricultural
production. Many historians believe that this economic advantage helped
shift Europe's cultural center of gravity northward.
Heavy plow: a plow with wheels and a carefully shaped iron
plowshare to break the ground. It was invented to plow the much heavier
soils of northern Europe. Lighter plows had been adequate for farming
the thinner soils of the Mediterranean world; consequently, the ancients
had not made the break-through to a heavier, more efficient plow.
Oxen: principal laboring animal of the ancient world. Continued
to be important in the Middle Ages.
Tandem yoke: a method of harnessing oxen which allowed pairs
of them to be lined up, one in front of the other, so they would all be pulling
in the same direction. This greatly increased the efficiency of their
Horse collar: permitted the horse to be used as an effective
work animal for the first time. The yoke which had been used with horses
before the Middle Ages had been poorly designed. Not only had it failed
to maximize the horses pulling power; it had impinged on his wind pipe, thus
tending to cut off his air supply whenever he tried to pull a heavy load
or a plow.
Tandem harness: a method of harnessing pairs of horses, one in front
of the other.
Horseshoe: a medieval innovation which gave the horse greater
traction and helped protect against split hooves.
Production increased enormously as animal power and the three field
system made it possible to raise increasing amounts of food. At the
same time that technology stimulated production, and therefore population
growth, it also made it possible for a smaller percentage of the overall
population to grow the food needed by society. A combination of greater
agricultural productivity and the freeing up of part of the rural population
no longer needed in agriculture would ultimately help established the conditions
necessary for the medieval urban boom that witnessed a rebirth of cities.
Not all aspects of medieval life experienced technological change. The
Middle Ages was characterized by numerous co-existing and unscientific forms
An example can be seen in the so-called English System of measurement,
which is a holdover from the Middle Ages.
Four interrelated (and rather arbitrary) medieval measurements:
Rod: the whip used to keep the oxen moving. It had to
be long enough for the man behind the plow to hit the lead pair of oxen, in
the 8-ox team which was used for plowing. Eventually, the length of
such a whip was standardized at 16 and a half feet; and, in turn, this became
a measure of distance in the English system.
Furlong: (literally "a furrow long") the distance a team of
oxen was made to drag a plow before it was thought to need a rest. Eventually,
set at 40 rods.
Acre: a piece of land 40 rods long and four rods wide; in
other words, 160 square rods. Since the average strip of land held
by the peasant was this size, the acre became an important measurement in
the medieval economy.
Up until the early nineteenth century, similar erratic measurements survived
all over Europe. They were abolished only when a desire to be more
scientific led the men of the French Revolution to devise the Metric System,
the system of measurement in force in all civilized countries today.
To understand this medieval technological revolution in greater depth, see
the book assigned for this section of the course:
Lynn White, Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change