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International Socialism, Summer 1965


John Ashdown

The Dynamite of Innovation


From International Socialism, No.21 (1st series), Summer 1965, p.30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Medieval Technology and Social Change
Lynn White Jr.
Oxford, 30s.

This small volume (the text is only 134 pp.) is a quite brilliant compendium on certain of the key technological changes that preceded and disciplined the outcome of feudalism. The account is terse, erudite, heavily larded with an impressive wide range of sources, and closely argued; it is further, immeasurably illuminated by extensive references to the findings of archeological research as well as orthodox historical evidence, and is particularly exciting in its attempt to assess some of the dramatic results of inter-influencing between Europe, China, Central Asia and India. The work for obvious reasons owes much to the pioneer efforts of Bloch and Lefebvre des Noëttes, to whom due credit is paid for stimulating further historical work on the development of technical innovations and tracing their explosive results on the structure of society.

Professor White is mainly concerned in the three essays included here to assess the origin and impact of certain key changes. In the first essay, he traces the origin of the iron stirrup to the eighth century when, under the Franks, this innovation permitted a new form of shock combat by cavalry, hitherto a force marginal to foot-troops in ordinary warfare. The stress of warfare suddenly came to rest upon the use of the horse, and since the maintenance of war horses was outside the financial reach of peasants, a special class of men was formed to maintain horses on lands accorded by the emperor: the twin relationships, the right to land held hereditarily by the knights in return for service in war to one’s liege, were thus founded as the key political relationships of European feudalism. More than this, shock combat necessitated heavier and heavier armour, raising the technical level of the metallurgical industries and stimulating the development of iron sources, while the need for more powerful means to penetrate armour prompted the innovation of the powerful cross-bow, the beginning of an innovatory stimulus in forms of propulsion, the modern results of which are only too clearly seen.

This crude repetition of some of Mr White’s points omits the closely worked detail of the original essay and the excitement of his account as he discovers more and more repercussions to his hypothesis, leading ultimately to the transformation of the social structure of the Germanic tribes settled in Western Europe. The second essay explores the development of the heavy plough in Northern Europe, the shift to the use of the horse instead of oxen in agriculture, the three-field rotation system, again with dramatic effects on the social structure of the village. Finally, he sketches the development of the use of water, wind and finally steam power, of the crank and cam. Thus, the key changes in technology which ultimately resulted in the industrial revolution and the rapid institutionalised change of modern capitalism are pushed back to the great climacteric of the eighth century and the beginning of feudalism. Feudalism was itself creative, and continued intellectual ferment throughout its history – it thus contained from its very inception the seeds of its own self-destruction. One can only be grateful for Professor White’s quite excellent exploration of some of these seeds.

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