“The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages”~by Jean Gimpel | Chapter 1 Summary

During the Middle Ages, there was a revolution in the use of machines in Europe. Their applications in industries were expanded. This expansion of technology was one of the main factors which led to the dominance of the Western hemisphere over the rest of the world. Most common was the Mill, which converted the force generated from moving water or winds into work for grinding corn, crushing olives, fulling cloth, making paper, etc. These groups of machines, especially the corn mills, also served at a local meeting place for people.

By the twelfth century, during the Cistercian order, waterpower became a major economy in Europe. The technology became far more mechanized and was being used almost everywhere. Cistercian Monasteries thousands of miles away in lands like Portugal, Sweden, Hungary, and Scotland were using the similar concepts for water-powered systems with a universally similar concept for the monasteries themselves. Factories were set up in a region on the basis of availability of raw materials. Some major operations which utilized water power were crushing wheat, sieving flour, fulling cloth, tanning, cleaning, and activating bellows to generate flames for heating Vats to make beer.

The medieval society was very enthusiastic about mechanization and applications of technology. Due to the availability of slaves and irregular flow of streams, in the Mediterranean countries, the use of water mills was restricted in antiquity. Romans sometimes tried to meet with this problem by building aqueducts to bring water to the mills, but the cost of the setup was very high. Nevertheless, the policy of mechanization that the Cistercians followed in the middle ages was way advanced.

Thanks to the Domesday Book, which contains a brief record of the extent, value, ownership, and liabilities of land in England, we have a clear picture of English waterpower system in the latter half of the eleventh century. According to the records, there were 5624 watermills across English countries. Each watermill supplied to an average of 50 households. One of the major reasons to build this kind of mill system was to bring in rent.


In the thirteenth century, fulling mills brought in substantial profits such that many lords of the manor not only built new fulling mills but they also converted corn mills into fulling mills. This event is described as the industrial revolution of the thirteenth century and is described as “a revolution which brought poverty and discontent to certain old centres of industry but wealth, opportunity, and prosperity to the country as a whole.”

Medieval engineers didn’t limit themselves to harness energy from fast flowing rivers, they went ahead to explore the seas and established tidal mills. This was the medieval urge to discover new sources of energy.


In the twelfth century, medieval engineers also adapted the concepts from the water-powered mill to harness energy from the wind power. They adapted this technology successfully and soon water wheels driven by hydraulic power were replaced by sails driven by the power of the wind.


The industrial revolution of medieval Europe was established to explore and export its technological innovations. The engineers of the classical world were familiar with the works of these technical types of machinery but applied it to make toys and gadgets. The introduction of the cam and gear technology into the medieval world was an important contribution to the industrialization of the western hemisphere.   

2 Replies to ““The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages”~by Jean Gimpel | Chapter 1 Summary”

  1. Tejas,

    Great summary! I enjoyed your incorporation of pictures into the blog post. Did reading this chapter change your viewpoint on the evolution of the Industrial Revolution?


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