- The Medieval New: Ambivalence in an Age of Innovation by Patricia Claire Ingham
The Medieval New both is and isn't a book about technology in the usual sense, and it is also a book that speaks well beyond the time period it covers. Throughout, Patricia Ingham has one eye firmly and cautiously watching the present and our ideas about innovation (with its root, nova, "new," always on her mind) as she examines how the Middle Ages dealt with change and novelty. The attendant ideas of creativity, creation, and innovation, all of which are crucial to the modern concept of technology, regularly redirect her investigation of texts from the twelfth though the fifteenth centuries to societal concerns of the twenty-first. How the modern world understands novelty, design, "creative destruction," and the inherent tension that we see, for example, in the modern university being forced to radically innovate while being the guardian of knowledge, all find parallels in the medieval ambivalence over innovation. Ingham's book warrants consideration by historians who are interested in the broader history of ideas surrounding technology, particularly as they manifest themselves in Scholastic philosophy and its commentators, though it has less to offer on the medieval material world itself. The very diversity of subjects and directions in which she takes them may inhibit historians of technology from seeing the book's direct relevance to our wider field, but sometimes it is this sort of lateral-thinking approach which bears the richest fruit.
The book is organized around three medieval concepts, roughly along the lines of creation (ex nihilo), genius (ingenium), and curiosity (curiositas) and how medieval thinkers dealt with the inherent tensions within each concept: How can something come from nothing? What is the moving force of that change? Is it even safe to wonder about this and other things? As her account of individual stories and works shows, these medieval Latin terms were broader than the modern terms would indicate, but it is not terribly difficult to see how those concepts also lie at the heart of (technological) innovation then and now. Ingham argues that it is the struggles that medieval thinkers had with these concepts and their implications for sin and salvation that still underlie our modern understanding of technology itself.
Ingham approaches her topic from the standpoint of medieval literature and philosophy, but this work is not at all circumscribed by that period or those subjects. Each section is anchored by a modern writer or twentieth-century philosopher (Barthes, Lacan, and Deleuze make appearances, as do Latour and Kuhn) and she opens with Henry Adams's nineteenth-century meditations on medieval architecture (not his expected [End Page 965] "Virgin and Dynamo Revisited") to highlight her method of juxtaposing historicism in a time, and the historical understanding of/within that time.
Specifically, she is motivated by the seeming contradiction of the Middle Ages as a conservative era skeptical of change that nonetheless saw "radical expansions of possibilities in the realms of the arts and sciences" (p. 27). Understandably, she then begins with the medieval heavyweights of Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon to explore their attitudes toward the "new" and its creation out of nothing (and how that could even be). The tension in Bacon being perceived as simultaneously an innovator and a necromancer are a good example of this problem.
There are three main sections of the book, one on each of the concepts, with each section including a pair of chapters that investigate a plethora of examples—from alchemy to the Voynich manuscript; from poetry about a mechanical horse to novelties in the economic structure of the proto-capitalist laboratory; from Chaucer's Squire's Tale to Columbian narratives of the "New" World—all in order to circumscribe this slippery concept of novelty. She draws deftly from a vast array of medieval literature, and investigates the physical, metaphysical, emotional, and even sometimes legal understanding of how new concepts appeared and were debated. Readers hoping for the investigation of any specific medieval...