Today, let's talk about monks and waterwheels. 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 Cistercian monastic order
was founded in the year 1098. By 1098 the waterwheel
had just revolutionized Western Europe by providing a
cheap and convenient power source. It had replaced
the backbreaking labor of grinding grain, fulling
wool, and sawing wood that had been the beginning and
end of most people's lives.
When St. Bernard took over the order over 14 years
later, he moved it in a direction that would complete
the change of European civilization that the
waterwheel had begun. You see, the Cistercians were a
strict branch of the Benedictine order who fled
worldly commerce to live "remote from the habitation
of man." But under St. Bernard, they achieved this
life by setting up an economic independence based on
the highest technology of the day.
By the middle of the 12th century the Cistercians had
reached the cutting edge of hydro-power and
agricultural technology. A typical monastery
straddled an artificial stream brought in through a
canal. The stream ran through the monastery shops,
living quarters, and refectories, 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.
These monasteries were, in reality, the best
organized factories the world had ever seen. They
were versatile and diversified. Of course, they
represented a rather strange way of living "remote
from the habitation of man," but that's another
We're too often told that this period of history was
a Dark Age. The reason is that the people who wrote
Medieval political history were remote from the world
of making things. The scribes of the kings wrote
about armies and slaughter. They didn't devote much
time to the engineers who were really changing the
And the engineers of the Cistercian order didn't just
develop this new technology; they also spread it
throughout Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries.
Their 742 monasteries were major agents of changes
that completely altered Medieval life.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Gimpel, J., The Medieval Machine. New
York: Penguin Books, 1976.
This Episode has been rewritten and updated as
Photo by John Lienhard
A 19th-Century Waterwheel Still Grinding Grist in
County Clare, Ireland
Image courtesy of the University of
Kentucky's Special Collections Library
A 17th-century European fulling mill from
Böckler's Theatre of New Machines,
probably quite similar to the Cistercian ones
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H.
Episode | Search Episodes |