Gimpel – “The Success of Medieval Technology” (Chapter 9 – Epilogue)

Whenever people reference the Middle Ages (also referred to as the Dark Ages), we generally begin to think about the Black Death (Plague) and the lack of innovation during that time. Even history textbooks “gloss-over” this time period, immediately shifting focus to the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution. However, in Chapter 9 of Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine, he focuses on the technological, political/policy, and social attributes of this timeframe.

Black Death – this is generally “the phrase” associated with the Middle/Dark Ages. While the first “half” of the Middle Ages were subject to the Black Death, the second “half” only dealt with the repercussions of the first. The term “Dark” is meant to connotate and represent the lack of intellectual stimulation and development over this time period [1]. However, Gimpel says that there were some developments in various categories – while those categories may or may not be seen as productive. For example, Gimple describes how people began pursuing “rigid” Christian/Catholic faiths and various forms of mysticism. In fact, many devout mystics believed the sins of humankind were the fault causing the Black Death, and thus publicly harmed/sacrificed themselves as offerings to atone for the sins of all [2]. This was new style of thinking developed from this era, as “old” Christians/Catholics generally didn’t condone self-harm as atonement; furthermore, this mindset and these actions were not beneficial and did not aid in restoring society. That said, this population could not have known the effect or lack thereof these actions would have at this time.

Even from a cultural dynamic, people during this time began believing in witches and sorcery, thus provoking mania and hysteria. The extent of this hysteria is similar to the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts during 1692. These trials took place in the village of Salem once a group of girls claimed to be possessed by the devil. During this event, hundreds of people were accused (most convicted) for practicing a form of witchcraft or sorcery; thus, the town eventually became even more stressed and hysterical from the massive number of accusations [3]. The same amount of hysteria was present in Europe during the Middle Ages, as just like the Salem Witch Trials, people were accusing each other of practicing a form of witchcraft or sorcery.

Furthermore, the economic situation of the Middle Ages was in the process of redefining itself. Massive population declines and food fluctuations caused huge oscillations in food prices, as much as 200% change [2]. Part of the reasons were from the Black Death, while others were from poor living conditions, and still others were from the feudal system and the various wars that had a massive impact on populations. Gimpel also mentions the Crusades and frequencies of wars forced feudal vassals and lords to sacrifice resources and labor as expense. This further affected the population standing and amount of finances and tribute available (as either taxes or support) thus destabilizing the economy further and further [4]. Any forms of “salaries” or payments were so inflated and non-uniform that general servants demanded to be paid the same as seniors or leaders. Only when the Renaissance arrived did the economy of Europe become somewhat stable.

With the exceptions of the mechanical clock, cast iron, and the suction pump, considering the Middle Ages as the Dark Ages isn’t a bad consideration. However, when all of the political/policy changes and social developments are taken into account, a lot of intellectual development did occur during this timeframe.


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[1]”Migration period | European history”, Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 23- Oct- 2018].

[2]J. Gimpel, The Medieval Machine. Westford, Massachusetts: Penguin Books, 1976, pp. 199 – 252.

[3]H. Editors, “Salem Witch Trials”, HISTORY, 2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 24- Oct- 2018].

[4]”Medieval Life – Feudalism and the Feudal System – History”, History On the Net, 2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 24- Oct- 2018].

3 Replies to “Gimpel – “The Success of Medieval Technology” (Chapter 9 – Epilogue)”

  1. This a very informative and easy to read summary. I never really thought of anything coming out of the dark ages and never stopped to think about not just physical things. I learned a lot of things about the other reasons of the dark ages other than the black plague. This article was very helpful and I learned a lot.

  2. Corwin,

    Great post here. Nicely conveyed to an audience and the writing flows. I however wish there was a little bit explaining the Black Death. It may be assumed, but as you say when textbooks gloss-over the subject, it could benefit the reader to understand the context behind. Nonetheless, great job!


  3. Your post did a great job summarizing the societal and economic situation of the Middle Ages. In order to understand the technology that is developed in a certain time period, it is necessary to examine the state of people and society as a whole. I enjoyed how you related to the Salem Witch trials, which did not happen in Europe, but is still relevant as it shows the hysteria that can occur when people become unsure of their beliefs. That being said, I would have liked to see more information or external sources/links about similar hysteria in Europe, as this was where the heart of the Dark Ages was. Overall, great post and it was a joy to read.

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