Today, we meet a medieval inventor. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
The glorious High Middle
Ages were dying out when the Hundred Years' War
began in 1337. For over two centuries Europe had
directed remarkable energy into new technology that
was both liberating and civilizing. But she'd also
directed this energy into a set of eight crusades.
At first the crusades reopened pilgrim travel to
Jerusalem. They also opened up East-West commerce
of goods and ideas. Both Moslems and Europeans had
the strength of religious tolerance and
open-mindedness at the outset.
The crusades led both sides to trade all that for
the most self-destructive sort of prejudice and
hatred. Fragmentary crusades still went on during
the Hundred Years' War, as the Moslems finally
drove the Europeans out. But now a dyspeptic
Europe, engulfed in religious persecution and
internal war, was turning its bile on itself.
In 1335, as the High Medieval Period was ending, a
physician and engineer named Guido da Vigevano
attached himself to Philip VI of France, whom he
expected to go on an obligatory crusade. To
strengthen his position with Philip, Guido wrote a
sort of crusade handbook for him. Nine folios of
the book advise the king on how to look after his
health on the journey, and the other 14 folios
advise him in military technology.
Historian Rupert Hall points out muddy
inconsistencies between the text and sketches of
military apparatus. But in broad outline, Guido's
devices are clear enough; and they're a kind of
last breath of the soaring medieval imagination.
Guido recognizes that wood is hard to find in the
Holy Land, so he advises breaking siege equipment
into prefabricated elements that can be carried on
horses. He says a lot about joints and assembly. He
includes folding attack boats and pontoon bridges.
He's designed two self-propelled battle wagons.
One's crank-driven, and the other's powered by a
very sophisticated windmill. He proposes innovative
body armor and siege equipment.
King Philip never got to the Holy Land, and no one
ever tried to build Guido's wonderful machinery.
Two years after Guido presented his book, Philip
started the Hundred Years' War by seizing an
English-held duchy in what is now southwestern
Today I look at Guido's marvelous Picaso-like
sketches -- without perspective or
three-dimensionality -- ideas tumbling one over the
other -- a kind of fantasy armory for beating back
a fantasy enemy, while the practical world outside
was bent on a far more straightforward kind of
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds