Jean Gimpel’s Chapter 4: Environment and Pollution in “The Medieval Machine”

In this chapter the historian, Jean Gimpel, discusses the effects of the industrial revolution of the Middle Ages on the environment in Western Europe. Gimpel makes it quite clear that there were very great adverse impacts as a result of this increase in industry mostly on the forests because of heavy deforestation, whether it be for the use of timber in various constructions or for charcoal for iron forges.

Gimpel focuses on the topic of fuel and seems to emphasize that as a major source of pollution during the Middle Ages. One example he gives is how those who worked in the iron industry had to build their forges in the forest due to how much charcoal they would need. Gimpel provides an estimation that one furnace could erase the nearby trees in a one kilometer radius in just forty days.

Another fuel source attributed to heavy pollution in the reading was coal. Coal was certainly a profitable market and caused places like Newcastle to become increasingly relevant. However, along with these profits came heavy detriments to the environment, eventually leading to London becoming the first city tainted by air pollution

Eventually, the people of the region began to feel the effects of the pollution through their health and the land so the governments decided to implement measures designed to counter it. Gimpel highlights several examples with regards to deforestation and air pollution and animal slaughter among others in order to show that while people did notice these effects, they ultimately had minimal impact in improving the environment. One example of this was a proclamation meant to decrease the number of kilns given by the city of London to counter its air pollution, which ultimately did not do anything due to an unsuccessful commission. Gimpel seems to point towards an insufficient regulation of natural resources as a cause of the pollution of the era.

Another important form of pollution discussed besides air and deforestation was water pollution. Gimpel emphasizes the strong government response in order to show that it was stronger than for other forms of pollution and actually had effects on the medieval society. One example given is how water pollution caused the English parliament to pass the first nationwide legislation against pollution.

To conclude the chapter, Gimpel makes an interesting point that hygiene decreased as pollution increased.

Word Count: 389

The below linked article was one that I found interesting because it highlights various raw materials, such as coal or leather, and discusses how they contributed to medieval pollution.

One Reply to “Jean Gimpel’s Chapter 4: Environment and Pollution in “The Medieval Machine””

  1. Aziz,

    Thank you for providing the class with a summary of this chapter. You mention at the very end that Gimpel states hygeine decreased and pollution increased. Did Gimpel elaborate on this statement? I am curious to know the correlation.


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