Today, the wild West holds up a mirror to medieval
life. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
The American West developed
its own characteristic technologies for daily life.
We all know the flavor: log cabins, windmills, card
games, heavy horse-drawn wagons, whiskey, large
saddles and -- I might ominously add -- death by
Historian Lynn White has pointed out a startling
feature of all these technologies. Log cabins were
a medieval form of housing. The earlier Romans and
later Europeans used much different building
technologies. The Romans and later Europeans drank
beer and wine. But, in the 12th century, medieval
Europeans invented distillation, and whiskey became
the drink of choice. Romans and 18th-century
gamesmen used dice, but you would find only cards
in medieval or Western saloons. The Western saddle was a direct
adaptation of the old medieval war saddle. With its
high cantle and its pommel, it gave a working rider
a very sure seat upon a horse.
Those comparisons can be found right down the line.
The Romans executed people by crucifixion, and the
later Europeans used beheading or shooting. But hanging
and other forms of strangulation were standard
medieval forms of capital punishment. For that
matter, the Western posse was precisely the
medieval sheriff's posse comitatus -- a
group of citizens called to public service.
The strange parallel grows more puzzling when we
learn that the middle-class settlers of New England
tried to recreate what they'd left behind instead
of looking for the most efficient technologies.
They tried to go straightaway to the beam and plank
house-construction they'd left in England, even
when log houses made better sense.
But the settlers of the West were generally the
European lower classes. They were peasants, workmen
and people who'd lived away from the sophisticated
centers of Europe. Their lives had generally been
closer to the technologies of the Middle Ages. More
than that, these people found their way more
quickly to the sort of roughhewn methods that
worked so well in both the medieval world and the
undeveloped West. Of course, they were also people
who held little nostalgia for current European
White's suggestion bothered many other historians.
He didn't explain the similarity, and people don't
like what cannot be explained. Yet, in a way, it
seems fairly evident. The technologies of the 11th
to the 14th centuries were direct, practical, and
inventive, and so too were those of the the Western
immigrants. Both medieval society and Western
society were open to change and variety.
The old West provides such an accurate mirror of
medieval life just because it was populated by free
and inventive people adapting to harsh
circumstances. The medieval mind, as it turns out,
was what it took to open up America.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds