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TRACK 4: GOD, THE MASTER CRAFTSMAN

The other agent of Europe's energy emergence was the Church. I know — objective science and technology strike us as neutral at best on religious matters. At worst, they seem adversarial. But those antagonisms grew up later — after new experimental sciences began contradicting grossly literal readings of the Bible.

So it's easy to forget the driving energy of the Black Friars of the Benedictine Order — easy to forget where their energy took us. The Benedictines played a key role in creating a new social order based on external power sources. That role began in earnest after the Cistercian monastic order was founded as a Benedictine reform in the year 1098. Saint Bernard took charge of the Cistercians 14 years later and he gave the order a direction that would transform European civilization. The Cistercians were still a branch of the Benedictines — but a strict branch that fled worldly commerce to live remote from the habitation of man.

Bernard had a special devotion to the Virgin Mary. She was their primary intercessor. The Cistercians would sing the hymn Ave Stella Maris or Hail Star of the Sea to her.

There, in that remote, otherworldly sound, we hear the words Vitam præsta puram — bestow a pure life. They did reach for that pure life — just as St. Bernard mandated — a life remote from human habitation. But how they did it!

The Cistercians created their own economic independence based on the highest technology of the day. They showed the world how far one could take the waterwheel. By the mid-12th century the order held the cutting edge of hydro-power and agricultural technology.

Cistercian Water Wheel
Undershot waterwheel at the 12th century Cistercian monastery in Braine-le-Château, Belgium.
[Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

A typical Cistercian monastery straddled an artificial stream brought in through a canal. The stream ran through the monastery's shops, living quarters and mesh halls, providing power for milling, wood-cutting, forging, and olive crushing. It also provided running water for cooking, washing and bathing, and finally for sewage disposal. Those monasteries were, in reality, the best organized factories the world had ever seen. They were versatile and diversified. If they represented a rather strange way of living remote from the habitation of man — well, why not?

God Depicted as a Master Craftsman
God depicted as the Master Craftsman in a medieval drawing cited by Gimpel (see sources, below).

And, this connection between religion and technology was no fluke. We need only look at Medieval iconography to see how deep the connection ran. One mathematical instrument appears again and again in medieval religious icons. It was a pair masons' dividers. When medieval artists show us God, He often appears as the Master Craftsman, holding a great pair of dividers. The act of engineering really was seen as an earthly analog of the creation.

So energy production kept expanding. Around 1200 AD another power-generating technology arose alongside the water wheel. It was the medieval windmill with its driving fan facing into the wind. It may have been an adaptation of the quite-different Persian windmill. Or it may have been an independent invention.

The Persian windmill had vertical fans mounted inside a tower which admitted the wind through vertical slots in its side. It'd been used here and there in the Islamic world for several centuries when Crusaders arrived. But the European windmill was quite different, and typically generated twice the power of a water wheel. It also powered whole new regions without streams running through them — places like East Anglia, Holland, the Plains of LaMancha.

Painting of Battle of Valmy
This painting of the Battle of Valmy, 1792, includes an incidental view of a French windmill of a type that one might have seen there 600 years earlier. [Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

So why do so many view this great explosion of technology as a Dark Age? Well, the people who wrote the record of medieval political history were generally remote from the world of making things. The scribes of kings wrote about armies and slaughter. And that was dark indeed. But those writers ignored the engineers who were reshaping their world — right under their noses.

The Cistercian engineers did more than just develop new technology. They also spread it throughout Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries. Their 742 monasteries were major agents of change that had completely altered medieval life by the mid-13th century. They spread their Gospel of power technology and Europe listened. And the result? Well, it's too bad that Europe could not have heeded William Blake's warnings about Reason being the bound or outward circumference of Energy. Let's see what happened next.

Sources

These ideas are also discussed by L. White, Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966): Chapter III.

But for more on the Cistercians in particular, see J. Gimpel, The Medieval Machine. (New York: Penguin Books, 1976).