- Fifty Years of Medieval Technology and Social Change: AVISTA Studies in the History of Medieval Technology, Science, and Art ed. by Steven A. Walton
Edited by Steven A. Walton. London: Routledge, 2019. Pp. 218.
Lynn White Jr. was a founding member of the Society for the History of Technology, and a renowned professional historian of technology, working from the 1940s to the 1970s. His short but influential book, Medieval Technology and Social Change (1962), sparked enormous interest in the contributions of the Middle Ages to western technological development and continues to exercise the minds of historians to this day.
This homage to White explores how Medieval Technology and Social Change (MTSC) and White's oeuvre in general contribute to various strands of scholarship in history and several other humanities and social science disciplines. Edited by Steven A. Walton, the book is partially the outcome of sessions held at the Kalamazoo International Congress on Medieval Studies and the Leeds International Medieval Congress in 2012 to celebrate MTSC's semicentennial. It also contains papers exploring themes first articulated by White on medieval technology as well as rural and environmental studies.
Walton contributes both the introductory essay and a chapter on White's central claims in MTSC. The introduction discusses White's mixed scholarly legacy, revealing that American historians of technology have generally been far more positive in their assessments than scholars from other countries and research fields. Walton sifts through the evidence that has emerged subsequent to the book's publication, which both supports and undermines White's claims. His observation regarding Thomas Kuhn's failure to initiate a new field of study would, however, be news to post-Kuhnian historians of science and exponents of the sociology of scientific knowledge! The introduction concludes with a comprehensive bibliography of White's published work. Walton's second essay reviews how MTSC was received by historians of various persuasions; how it was used in teaching; and to what extent the influence of the book and interest in the history of medieval technology over the last five decades are revealed by sales records, Google n-grams, and international bibliographies.
Covering similar ground as Walton, B. B. Price's paper is an overview of how well the work of White, Lewis Mumford, and Jean Gimpel—described as three "giants" in the history of technology—has withstood subsequent critique and continues to be used pedagogically. The paper brings together intriguing biographical details about their various influences and scholarly networks. That said, Price makes some uncharitable observations about Michael J. T. Lewis's work on the wheelbarrow, misinterprets John Langdon's work on medieval milling, and is overly credulous of Mum-ford's and White's claims that exploitative attitudes to nature emerged in the second half of the Middle Ages. [End Page 1214]
The influence and reception of MTSC and White's famous paper, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis" (1967) are the focus of Elspeth Whitney's incisive overview. Whitney explains how "Roots" has been variously received by scholars in ecotheology, ecocriticism, environmental ethics, and environmental history. Substantial evidence informs her conclusion that White was a Christian determinist. She also details the puzzling neglect by environmental historians of the medieval period and its contribution to understanding contemporary attitudes toward nature.
George Brooks comprehensively reviews White's arguments regarding the supposed medieval invention of the crank, and the evidence following the publication of his views in MTSC. A standout is Brooks's discussion of the use of hand cranks in Hellenic theatrical devices.
C. R. J. Currie's paper on the elements of medieval clock design and construction is technically detailed, but the author does not connect his discussion to the book's overall themes. The same applies to the book's final two chapters, in which Constance Berman analyzes manuscript evidence of Cistercian nunneries' land acquisitions and forest management practices in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century northern France, and Chantal Camenisch discusses the causes of fifteenth-century subsistence crises in the Burgundian Low Countries. While both chapters are well written and interesting...