Discoveries & Inventions in the Medieval Period

Written by frank b. chavez iii
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Discoveries & Inventions in the Medieval Period
Medieval windmills made grinding grain easier. (Goodshoot/Goodshoot/Getty Images)

The term Middle Ages refers to the period between the 5th century and 15th centuries. This period is often erroneously considered a time of intellectual stagnation and little creativity or inventiveness. However, it was actually a time of important technological developments in several areas such as agriculture, warfare and production.

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In the 12th century, farmers developed the three-field system. One field was used for winter crops such as wheat, one was used for summer crops such as legumes and one was left empty. The medieval diet improved, land use became more efficient and the soil retained its nutrients. The heavy plough was another important development. It featured a heavy knife for vertical cuts, a ploughshare for horizontal cuts and a mouldboard for turning the soil. It created ridges and valleys in the field called furrows. During droughts, water drained into the valleys and kept crops alive. During rain, the ridges protected crops from flooding.

Arms and Armour

Ninth century knights rode into battle in chain-mail armour originally developed between the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C. In the 13th and 14th centuries, knights began wearing metal plates. By the 15th century knights were almost completely encased in steel plate armour. Early foot-soldiers were equipped with relatively simple weapons such as spears and axes. They also carried missile weapons such as longbows and crossbows. In the 14th century, gunpowder entered Europe from China. The first hand guns were developed in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Siege Warfare

During a siege, an army surrounded an enemy town and tried starving it into submission. The besiegers bombarded the town with catapults and giant crossbows called ballistas. Catapults were loaded with rocks for smashing walls, severed heads for demoralising the enemy and dead animals for spreading disease. Defenders sometimes retaliated with "Greek Fire," a form of napalm developed in the 7th century. Historians believe it may have contained crude oil, sticky resins and sulphur. In the 14th and 15th centuries armies began blasting through castle walls with the first metal cannons.

Information Technology

In the 11th century, Chinese inventors experimented with movable type, or individual letters, for printing messages on paper. The large number of Chinese characters made this impractical. In the 15th century, Johannes Gutenberg used movable type in his printing press. In the 13th century scientists discovered that crystal lenses made reading easier. In the 1280s, historians believe that people in Florence, Italy, began using two framed crystals as an early form of spectacles. In the 13th and 14th centuries, inventors began creating clocks for tracking the movement of heavenly bodies and keeping track of time.

Production Technology

Mills were used for grinding grain between two giant stones. Early mills were powered by slaves, animals or waterwheels. The Persians invented the earliest known windmill between the 6th and 10th centuries. It featured horizontal sails connected to a vertical shaft that turned a millstone for grinding grain. Similar mills were also used for pumping water. In the 12th century, European windmills were used for grinding grain, pumping water and powering machines such as saws. Medieval lords paid for their construction and maintenance by charging the peasants fees for using them.

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