One-Minute Essays
Medieval Technology and Agriculture Arts & Humanities Science/Technology Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening
Studying political history, we find a strong break between the medieval and modern worlds in the 16th-century Reformation and 18th-century revolutions. When viewed through other lenses, such as demographics and material culture, continuities stand out more strongly than discontinuities – some scholars have gone so far as to claim that the origins of modernity can be found in the High Middle Ages if one views the world this way.[1] Consequently, while the later 19th century saw profound changes in modes of production, economic organization, and class structures in both Europe and America, for the first two centuries of American existence as a colony and later as an independent sovereign entity, the technological experience differed little here from that in Europe. More importantly, however much we may believe in “American Exceptionalism,” American technology was merely a transplantation of Old World ways of doing and making to a new continent. The variables that slowly transmogrified American technology were social, geographical, and environmental, causing changes in degree and in emphasis, but not in kind. Studying the industrial world before the onset of the Industrial Revolution’s sweeping 19th-century changes provides a glimpse of cultural continuity between the European Middle Ages and the Great American Experiment.[2] And despite a call to consider many unsolved concerns in the history of American technology, the aspect of material and technical continuity included, no synthetic undertaking has brought together the research of the last three decades with an eye on both America and its technical roots.[3]
Although the American colonies before independence were nominally offshoots of British ventures, the multi-national nature of many of the early colonies should not be forgotten. Similarly, as the majority of colonists were workers and artisans, they did not give up their toolkits along with their political allegiances. Many of the trades initially practiced in the Americas were mercantile ventures of strictly medieval technologies; timbering, furriers, and shipbuilding all flourished in this world where “hewers of wood and drawers of water” could forge entire societies from the primary extractive industries – all in the medieval style initially.[4] Others were necessary for the settlers’ survival,[5] and often developed as different technological heritages came into contact with one another:[6] Dutch skills with wind power and water-management spread through the Hudson valley while German woodworking, construction, iron manufacturing knowledge spread from the Delaware valleys westward. English, and Scottish (and later Irish) styles took root throughout New England where they also connected with French technique established further north in the St. Lawrence watershed. Although the initial colonial buildings tended to be built of ‘proper’ English wattle and daub, colonists striking out westward found that the Scandinavian-style log home made more sense in a land literally full of trees. And as the American Colonies spread south and westward a century later, they encountered strong survival of medieval Iberian techniques originally planted in Mexico in the 16th century.[7] Of course, these groups all had access to similar ranges of technologies, but their stylistic implementation differed from region to region. Further, the environmental differences of the vast American continent imposed differing demands upon these technologies, and consequently, on the settlers’ ingenuity. Iron-working for example – to the extent it was permitted by the British – developed differently in New England than in the Mid-Atlantic states. The essential industries of milling, shipbuilding, charcoaling, and domestic foodstuffs also had differential development across America. The planter in South Carolina in the 17th century had a very different experience than his brethren in Maine at the same time, and even if their technological toolkits were the same upon leaving England, they soon diverged as conditions warranted. Connected to the agricultural technology, the land-holding patterns in each colony often reflected imported legal traditions from the various settlers’ homelands.
In the last two decades, the field of colonial studies has grown from a marginal offshoot of European history to a field in its own right, and indeed, the movement to colonize has been seen as indicative of the medieval Europeans’ new-found mobility and surplus, even within Europe itself.[8] Similarly, the organizing principle of “The Atlantic World” has come to provide focus to what we now consider to be a more accurate tapestry of how 16-18th century peoples surrounding that ocean understood their world. Within the history of technology, seminal work exists on colonial expansion, especially in the 19th century and for the non-breakaway colonies of Old Europe,[9] but due to over-reliance on the idea of American Exceptionalism, little has been done in an overall manner to link the material world of American back to its roots.
The importance of understanding the built environment is important for every citizen. We do not live in a solely political world, but rather a politically and culturally mediated material world. And it would be foolish to think that while in the last third of the 18th century the colonists profoundly rethought their socio-political relationships, they also completely reordered their material world. In fact, much evidence points to the contrary conclusion for their technologies.[10] Speaking for the built environment, the American experience is not about revolution, but rather about diffusion, evolution, and ingenuity.
In agriculture as well, methods of farming and seed crops were directly imported from Europe and the settlers’ experiences at home came to be applied as best they could in the new world.[11] Here, of course, the ecology and environment differed from that Europeans came from, so their techniques needed to be adapted to new soils, different growing seasons, and new crops.

  1. [back] David Levine, At the Dawn of Modernity: biology, culture, and material life in Europe after the year 1000 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).
  2. [back] The most fundamental studies of this connection are dated, but nonetheless crucial: Lynn White, Jr, “The Legacy of the Middle Ages in the American Wild West,” Speculum 40 (1965): 191-202 [rpt. in his Medieval Religion and Technology (Berkeley, 1987), pp. 75-92]; Luis Weckmann, “The Middle Ages and the Conquest of America,” Speculum 26 (1951): 130-141. And in general, see Lynn White, Jr., “The Medieval Roots of Modern Technology and Science,” in Katherine Fischer Drew and Floyd Seyward Lear (eds.), Perspectives in Medieval History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963).
  3. [back] George H. Daniels, "The Big Questions in the History of American Technology," in Herbert J. Bass (ed.), The State of American History (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1970), pp. 197-219.
  4. [back] The phrase is Harold Innis’. For these industries, see Joseph A. Goldenberg, Shipbuilding in Colonial America (Mariners Museum, Newport News / University Press of Virginia, 1976); Esther Cameron, Leather and Fur : aspects of early medieval trade and technology (London: Archetype Publications, 1998), and more generally Edwin Tunis, Colonial Craftsmen and the Beginnings of American Industry (New York: World Publishing, 1972).
  5. [back] Joyce E. Chaplin, Subject Matter : technology, the body, and science on the Anglo-American frontier, 1500-1676 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).
  6. [back] On the ideas of boundary negotiation, see Christine Daniels and Michael V. Kennedy, Negotiated Empires : centers and peripheries in the Americas, 1500-1820 (New York: Routledge, 2002).
  7. [back] On the architectural legacy, see Henry Chandlee Forman, The Architecture of the Old South; the medieval style, 1585-1850, 2d ed. (New York: Russell & Russell, 1967) and Rafael J. López Guzmán, Arquitectura Mudéjar : del sincretismo medieval a las alternativas hispanoamericanas (Madrid: Ediciones Cátedra, 2000).
  8. [back] Michel Balard and Alain Ducellier, Coloniser au Moyen âge (Paris: A. Colin, 1995).
  9. [back] Daniel R. Headrick, "The Tools of Imperialism: Technology and Expansion of European Colonial Empires in the Nineteenth Century," Journal of Modern History 51 (1979): 231-63, and see David Arnold, Science, Technology, and Medicine in Colonial India (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000) or Zaheer Baber, The Science of Empire : scientific knowledge, civilization, and colonial rule in India, (Albany: SUNY Press, 1996), as well as Jan Todd, Colonial Technology : science and the transfer of innovation to Australia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
  10. [back] See Judith McGraw (ed.), Early American Technology: Making and Doing Things from the Colonial Period to 1850 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994); Brooke Hindle (ed.), America’s Wooden Age: aspects of its early technology (Sleepy Hollow Press, 1985); and Leonard Everett Fisher, A Brief Outline of the Origins of the Glassmaker, Silversmith, Wigmaker and Hatter in the American Colonies (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of History and Technology, Smithsonian Institute, 1972).
  11. [back] Grenville G. Astill and John Langdon, Medieval Farming and Technology: the impact of agricultural change in northwest Europe (Leiden ; New York: Brill, 1997) and Del Sweeney, Agriculture in the Middle Ages : technology, practice, and representation (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995).