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Reviewed by:
  • L’Outil *
  • Kelly DeVries (bio)
L’Outil. By Johan David. Turnhout, Belg.: Brepols, 1997. Pp. 164; figures, notes/references, appendices, index.

In 1972, under the direction of the prominent medieval historian Leopold Genicot, the Belgian scholarly press Brepols launched a series of lengthy bibliographical essays/monographs under the title, “Typologie des Sources du Moyen Age Occidental.” Meant to serve a scholarly base of medievalists ranging from graduate students to professors, this series of thin books has [End Page 132] been one of the most successful collections of introductory and bibliographical aids ever introduced to the academic community. By publishing three to four titles a year, the series has steadily grown to seventy-eight volumes, covering everything from necrological documents to Latin treatises on the virtues and vices, from astronomy to arms and armor. With number seventy-eight in the series, it has also finally arrived at tools.

Almost without exception, all of these volumes are of the highest quality, and Johan David’s L’Outil is no exception. This is a wonderful guide to the history of medieval tools. Before reading L’Outil, I prided myself on a fairly adept knowledge of medieval technology, but on almost every page there was something which I had not previously known. Like many historians of technology, I must admit that most of my research has been directed at larger technologies, “big” or “revolutionary” machines or systems. I had sadly neglected the smaller machines—tools—that were so important to existence during the Middle Ages. Files, chisels, scissors, hammers, shovels, spades, axes, and so forth, were all as important in medieval society as they are to our own, perhaps even more important, as so many more occupations in the Middle Ages depended on these tools than do today. Yet I had neglected their study and thereby undoubtedly had diminished their importance. (Perhaps I am alone in this neglect, but I doubt it.)

Fortunately for me, L’Outil has done just what the editors of the “Typologie des Sources du Moyen Age Occidental” series desired when they assigned David the task of introducing the subject to medievalists. David begins, as is customary in the series, with a lengthy, although far from conclusive, bibliography. This is broken down first into larger, more general categories—other bibliographies, tools in general, tools for a material, tools considered individually, tools on other continents (other than Europe) at the same time, and materials from which tools were made—and then into more specific categories. For example, “tools for a material” is divided into wood, metal, stone, cloth, leather, horn and bone, agriculture, domestic instruments, medical instruments, tools for design, painting, and writing, and tools for clock-making. The bibliography contains articles as well as books, and it includes works written in many western European languages.

David then follows with four chapters (which include even more references not listed in the bibliography) meant to introduce the questions and some of the answers generated by the advanced study of the history of medieval tools. His first chapter, “Les techniques et l’outil,” introduces the subject’s methodology: definitions, classifications, terminology (which includes an amazingly intricate chart on names for the parts of tools in medieval French, English, German, Spanish, Italian, and Dutch—this should be in the hands of every historian of technology), evolution, and diffusion. In the second chapter, “L’outil: ses characteristiques,” David identifies the characteristics of different tools. He covers manufacture and utilization, the “destination,” by which he means the tool’s end use, form, proportions, [End Page 133] material, mode of utilization, function, efficacy, and cost. The third chapter, “Sources pour l’histoire de l’outillage,” indicates the best sources for the study of medieval tools; after an introduction to medieval sources in general and to the reasons why most of the traditional ones are inadequate for the study of tools, David discusses how to use the extant objects themselves, artistic representations, written sources, and experimentation—the reconstruction of these tools to better understand their medieval history. (David’s footnotes in this chapter and the one following are especially rich.) And, in the fourth chapter, “L’outil, source pour l’historien,” he discusses for what genres...

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