paleo Ideofact

Friday, May 17, 2002
Archive hell
If there's one thing I hate about Blogger, it's the archive problem. I give up. I'm never going to repost them.

I've added some links, but not all of them yet; I'm working on it. The archives seem to have a will of their own; I'm going to try to repost them now, but I'm giving them just one chance, then going to bed.

Thursday, May 16, 2002
The forest for the trees
I was looking for a good way to get into this topic, but a friend's gentle criticism is better than anything I could come up with:
Allison, your blog is insane.

For example this huge long discussion you get into about horse collars and windmills is absurd.
Actually, I kind of agree with him, and one of the reasons I decided I didn't want to go to grad school to study this stuff is that you spend a lot more time arguing about the obscure bric-a-brac of the past than the big picture. But you really can't have one without the other.

If Carlos Yu is anything like me, he's rifling through indexes, looking for cites and getting ready to unload what I'm sure will be another erudite response to what I've written that'll challenge the factual basis of the idea that medieval Europe was a technological powerhouse. If he's not like me, and I really hope for his sake that he isn't, he's going to realize that instead of doing that he could be out having a beer with friends, or reading a good book, or enjoying a spring evening, instead of arguing with some blockhead with a website that hardly anybody reads. We'll see.

In any case, what's lost in the lengthy discussion of windmills, horse collars and the like is what, I think, we're really talking about. I tried to get back to this in my Apology post, but didn't quite pull it off. By the way, I never apologized: For those like my friend who suffered through my lengthy and non-essay-like response to an email, I'm sorry -- I should have warned you that you were entering the nitty-gritty of the factual debate on techonology. If it's any consolation, it could have been a lot uglier: We could have discussed the differences between the undershot wheel, the overshot wheel, and the horizontal wheel, or argued about tidal basin mills (they appeared first in Basra around 1000 a.d., and in England around 1050; the English abandoned them in favor of windmills, because English tidal mills could operate at most between six and eight hours a day; I don't know much about the efficiency of the Basra tidal mills).

But in any case, all that is missing the larger point. I quoted Joel Mokyr's The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress below, but here's another quote that, I think, adds a little more perspective to the debate:
If the West is on the whole comfortable, even opulent, compared to the appalling poverty in most of Asia and Africa, it is in large part thanks to its technology. As one author has put it, we have to "give credit to just those dull, everyday, pragmatic, honest betterments in simple technology...that were taking place in Europe...doses of which would wash away much of the misery in the world today." Western technological superiority has deep historical roots, and can only be understood--if at all--by an analysis that is willing to look back centuries, even millennia. To be sure, technology cannot take all the credit: the development of law, trade, administration and institutions were all part of the story. Yet, as I shall try to show, technological creativity was at the very base of the rise of the West. It was the lever of riches.
One of the good things about the "in-your-face," or at least "in-your-facts," challenge of Mr. Yu is that it forced me to look at a few books I'd been meaning to get for some time, like Mokyr's. The one quibble I have with him is that the quote vaguely suggests that the progress of technology wasn't related to the development of law, trade, administration and institutions; all affected one another, with the general trend being what we might term progress. But that's a post for another day.

We're trying
Arab News claims that a correspondent for its sister publication, Asharq Al-Awsat, has interviewed Mullah Omar. I say claimed, because the correspondent handed a list of questions to Omar's "special information advisor" (the pay and hours are lousy, but there must be some benefit to flakking for the Taleban); the questions were translated from Arabic into Pashto, answered, translated back, and returned. I suppose you have to weigh the credibility of the Saudi press in determining whether the report is real or not.

There isn't a lot reproduced from the interview itself, although there is this quote:
"As for Afghanistan, I can say that the war has just started, its fires have been kindled. That fire will reach the White House because it is the seat of all injustice and oppression and where they launched a war against Islam and Muslims without any legitimate reason...."
I keep forgetting that killing 3,000 people on U.S. soil isn't a legitimate reason to go to war. Can Omar really believe this? Or can the Saudi special information advisor who had this published think this is going to make Americans have second thoughts? Then there's this:
Omar said those who carried out the attacks in the United States had a clear objective. “What is important for the US now is to find out why they did that. America should remove the cause that made them do it.”
Forgive my obtuseness, but isn't the whole operation in Afghanistan designed to remove the cause?

Some time tomorrow (well, actually today, but I'm going to bed now and won't do it until tomorrow) I'll get some new links up. The amazing disappearing archives seem to be back, although I imagine that, like peace, that's just a temporary phenomenon.

Wednesday, May 15, 2002
Below is a lengthy email from Carlos Yu and my response to it on the subject of medieval technology. Mr. Yu takes exception to much factual information, to which I respond. Here I would like to respond to a passage of his, that may be of more interest to the general reader than the question of whether the medieval horse collar represented that much of an advance over its Roman predecessor.

He writes:
This, unfortunately, puts a very large coffin nail into the Gimpel and White thesis of medieval exceptionalism. If medieval people were only incrementally more able to extract power from horses (water, the wind, the soil) than their ancestors, then where did this new attitude towards the individual, rights, et cetera come from? So the mystery still remains.
Below, I think I've put forward a fairly decent defense of the factual basis of the thesis, although I'm sure Mr. Yu will be me emailing me to suggest otherwise, and I hope he does. But, taking a slightly different tack, there is the question of European exceptionalism, which I don't think anyone would question vis-a-vis individual rights, etc, which I assume includes technology. Starting from, say, 1700, the technological superiority of Europe was unmatched. But take it back a bit further. Why was it that, during the Crusades, it was the Muslims who adopted European arms and tactics, and not the other way around? Why was it that in the England of the 11th century there was one mill for every 50 households, or somewhere between 223 and 357 people? In the first 50 years of the existence of the European printing press, more books were produced than in the entire history of humanity prior to its invention. Why?

I think Lynn White's thesis isn't so much that technology gave rise to European exceptionalism; rather, in describing European technology, and comparing innovation and diffusion in Europe to innovation and diffusion elsewhere, he grew interested in why it was that Europeans, even medieval Europeans, reacted so differently to technology than those in other cultures. White never claims that Europe was the source of all innovation. But time after time, technologies developed elsewhere found far wider application in Europe than they did in the regions in which they were developed, and the consequences of that seem self-evident: Europe and the West (if one wants to include America, which is exceptional in a somewhat different way) dominated the world as no other culture had done before.

The question I asked before is what went right in Europe. I think it's a question still worth asking, and still worth answering. Lynn White attempted to do so, which is one of the reasons I value his writing so much.

Still sadly
Carlos Yu was kind enough to respond to the post immediately below, at length. He writes:
Well, where to begin.

It's certainly no crime to be mistaken through the use of outdated sources. And Lynn White and Jean Gimpel on the windmill and the horse collar are certainly outdated.

Re: the windmill in the Islamic world. Lynn White, writing in 1962, was unaware of any substantiated claims of the windmill outside of Seistan in the Islamic world. Forty years later, the Encyclopedia Britannica Online can state with no reservations that "in technology, Muslim Spain was noted for its windmills." In fact, at this point, the claim now goes the other way, as in Mechanics of Pre-industrial Technology, Cotterell and Kamminga, which states "the origin of the European windmill is obscure, but there is a tradition that the concept was brought back by crusaders at the end of the eleventh century."

Your source is not at his most convincing when he uses Crusader doggerel to 'prove' that the Germans brought the windmill to Syria. (Using similar sources, I can 'prove' that at that time Muslims actually worshipped entities named Mahound and Apollon, and that the offspring of a black woman and a white man was then piebald.) But it's essential to his thesis that any diffusion of the windmill must have proceeded from west to east, and not the other way around -- so the Seistan windmills become an isolated peculiarity, and gemutlich Crusaders put together a Peace Corps project for the Syrian locals. Pure special pleading.

And Abbot Samson's reaction to Herbert's windmill is generally taken as a sign of the windmill's novelty, not as the absence of it.

Incidentally, Hama on the Orontes in Syria, which Hafiz Assad half-demolished in order to liquidate the Muslim Brotherhood, has been famed for its waterwheels since the 6th century. Still a few waterwheels -- not the originals -- there.

Re: the blasted horse collar nonsense. Here's Gimpel on the classical horse collar: "As soon as the horses started to pull, the neck straps pressed on their jugular veins and windpipes, strangling them and making them throw back their heads like the horses of the Parthenon. Lovers of Greek art have always celebrated the rare genius of the Greek sculptor who gave such dignity to the horse, without realizing that the horse they celebrated had his head raised to avoid strangulation." According to Gimpel and White, the medieval invention of a padded chest collar circa the twelfth century allowed vastly greater amounts of work to be extracted from horses, with important social and economic consequences.

Unfortunately, this is based on a misinterpretation of the iconographic evidence. The French researcher Richard Lefebvre des Noëttes in 1910 attempted to duplicate the Roman horse collar, and found that his version caused horses to choke, and cut into the carotid artery. Lefebvre des Noëttes published in 1931, and managed to persuade a number of influential historians, including Gimpel and Lynn White, who used it to promote their own views of medieval European ingenuity and exceptionalism. After all, if even the Romans, those engineers par excellence of the ancient world, couldn't even harness a horse half as well as their medieval descendants... well, those medieval inventors must have been pretty hot stuff.

In 1977, Spruytte published his own harness reconstructions, based on new, better iconographic evidence, and compared them to Lefebvre des Noëttes's results. The weight that a horse could pull with the new harness was twice that Lefebvre des Noëttes had estimated, and with no choking or pinching of the carotid artery. Further research was done, substantiating these later results.

This is now the accepted view among classicists, making it into such standard texts as Greene's The Archaeology of the Roman Economy.

This, unfortunately, puts a very large coffin nail into the Gimpel and White thesis of medieval exceptionalism. If medieval people were only incrementally more able to extract power from horses (water, the wind, the soil) than their ancestors, then where did this new attitude towards the individual, rights, et cetera come from? So the mystery still remains.

By the way, White on the stirrup has been superseded as well, and that deep plow business looks kind of iffy. (But horseshoes seem to have been new; that must explain it.)

Re: the windmills on the Iranian plateau. According to the best figures I have found, the horizontal mills of Seistan are about half as efficient as their vertical counterparts; this is due to the shielding necessary to channel the air flow past the vanes. Of course, half as efficient is very different from not having any at all.

Re: the novelty of the windmills in Spain. Windmills, before they were called molinos de viento in Spanish, were often called atahona, derived from the Arabic al-tahuna, meaning a grinding mill. (The cognate, atafona, is still used for animal-powered mills in Portuguese.) Even in Christian Spain, they date back to the 13th century. Both horizontal and vertical windmills seem to have been present, partially but not completely corresponding to areas of Islamic versus Christian influence.

Re: the lack of good historiography on Islamic mills. There just isn't a lot out there. Donald Routledge Hill is a good place to start; he has written several surveys of Islamic technology and engineering. The most easily available is a short piece in the May 1991 issue of Scientific American. There's an excellent if short discussion of mills in Jonathan Bloom's Paper before Print, his recent history of Islamic papermaking, with emphasis on the water-driven trip hammer mill used throughout the Islamic world.

Re: the papyrus on the noria. I was unaware that an earlier example than Antipater of Thessalonika's poem had been found; thank you! Do you have a cite?

Re: "As for the Song Dynasty, and China in general, Chinese engineering was certainly prodigious. However, what good are labor saving devices if the ruling classes of society prevent their diffusion to the laborers?"

Correct me if I am wrong, but you seem to be implying that the ruling classes of the Song dynasty prevented the diffusion of labor saving devices to the laborers.

This in fact is precisely wrong. The Song dynasty actually had a system analogous to present-day agricultural extension services, to promote labor-saving practices, devices, and new crop varieties on the farm.

Other labor-saving devices the Song dynasty facilitated were the treadle-powered silk reeler, vitally important for the most important Chinese cottage industry, and the water-powered hemp spinner, the descriptions of which were published in a state-sponsored encyclopedia.

The iron and steel works of the Song dynasty, while state enterprises, were also far more efficient and productive -- and thus, labor-saving -- than anything else in the world, until Britain in the 18th century; and the techniques filtered down to small producers throughout China.

This is all pretty standard stuff; see, for instance, Elvin's The Pattern of the Chinese Past, though it is showing its age (from 1973) at this point. More recent material makes the Song achievement even clearer.

Do you have a specific example of the Song dynasty attempting to suppress a labor-saving device in mind? I can't think of one, and -- as you may have noticed -- I have some small interest in the subject.

On the other hand, I do have an example of a member of the English ruling class of about the same time attempting to suppress technological advancement; you quote the example yourself. But Abbot Samson was regarded as a great reformer.

Re: Alhazen's theory of optics. Odd that you brought this up, since not too long ago I attended a seminar that showed that his theory of grounding for distance cues had recently been duplicated, by Cold War psychologists studying how pilots estimate distance when parallax cues don't provide enough information.

Anyway. That should get you on the right track.
Again, thank you for taking the time to respond in such detail, for pointing to some books I'll try to track down, and for providing me with some arguments to ponder. First, regarding the windmill, I'm still curious to know why, if the windmill was widespread in the Islamic world, al-Jazari wrote at the beginning of the thirteenth century, ten years after the pope imposed tithes on European them, that the notion of a mill driven by the wind is nonsense. The quotation provided from Cotterell and Kamminga isn't quite definitive either. In any case, Joel Mokyr in The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress says of windmills that in Asia, they remained confined to Persia and Afghanistan until the twelth century; that while diffusion into Europe through Muslim Spain is possible, the design of European windmills, on horizontal pivots, differed radically enough from their Asian counterparts to suggest that European version was an independent innovation, and that, in any case, windmills were never used as widely in the Islamic world as they were in Europe. Nor was the use of other sources of inanimate power (i.e. -- watermills). His source for the contention was your own Donald Routledge Hill.

As for the doggerel as a source, I think it's a little more useful than relying on, say, the Kronos Quartet, but I'll let that one slide.

Moving on to the horse collar, I never said I agreed with Gimpel's art criticism. But the fact remains that the horse collar was a vast improvement over the classical harness, which it completely replaced. Here is an overview of the controversy. Note also that Spruytte did not use "better iconographic evidence," but rather the same evidence used by his predecessor. Finally, anyone who's spent a fair amount of time around a horse knows that you get maximum force out the horse with a collar high up on shoulders, not down low, as the ancient harness was. The medieval collar, in other words, did measurably increase the productivity of the horse, and yes, those medieval inventors were pretty hot stuff. As with the relative prevalence of mills, I'm not persuaded yet that a very large coffin nail has been put into the White thesis (I don't really credit Gimpel for it).

As for the stirrup, I don't recall mentioning it in my prior post; for those interested, there is a discussion of it here, here or here. I happen to think the heavy plow business isn't quite so iffy, but I grant you -- that's an opinion.

Regarding the windmills, half as efficient is quite a difference, wouldn't you agree? I have to add that Bloom's book, Paper Before Print, isn't nearly as supportive of your thesis as you would like it to be. In his discussion on mills, for example, Bloom writes:
The cam was known as early as the first century, as we can tell from the inventions of Hero of Alexandria, but its practical applications did not flourish until medieval Europeans used trip-hammer mills for, among other things, transforming rags into paper pulp, beating flax, fulling woolen cloth, hammering iron and copper, and making tanbark.

The history of the trip-hammer in the Islamic lands is largely a matter of speculation.
Bloom speculates that because the Chinese used trip-hammers to husk rice, and because rice was introduced into Islamic lands via China, the trip-hammer came with it. In all fairness, he does cite as evidence for his speculation a text from al-Biruni, an 11th century scholar, indicating trip hammers were used in Samarqand for flax, paper and goldsmithing, but this doesn't necessarily imply a wide diffusion; indeed, al-Biruni specifies Samarqand as the place where this was done, suggesting (at least to me) that this was a local practice (al-Biruni didn't spend his whole life living in Samarqand). And, as I paged through the book (thank you for pointing it out; I look forward to reading it), I came across any number of European improvements and innovations relative to paper, ranging from three-dimensional diagrams drawn on it to the wire used in the blocks in which the pulp is set. And I also noted that paper production in the Islamic world began to disappear in the centuries following its introduction into Europe, largely because Islam was buying its paper from Europe.

The noira is cited in Lynn White's Medieval Technology and Social Change; he cites an M. Rostovtzeff, Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World, p. 363.

In fairness to good Abbot Samson, he wasn't anti-windmill because of its innovativeness, he was anti-windmill because it was cutting into his profits. And I would appreciate it, in the interests of setting me straight, if you'd provide me with the sources suggesting that Jocelin regarded the windmill as a novelty.

As for al-Hazen, I'll have to track down the example I read a long time ago of a flaw in his theory, but I should state I never meant to say that the entire thing was unreliable--it was an amazing piece of science. Not as practical as eyeglasses were, but useful nonetheless.

Finally, I'm not as up on China as I am on Europe. I may well be wrong. I was thinking of the mechanical clock, which isn't exactly a labor-saving device, but was first developed, I believe, during the Song Dynasty, but didn't catch on. In Europe, the mechanical clock rapidly became a part of everyday life. I look forward to reading up on Chinese technology. As always, feel free to respond to any of the points I've raised.

Monday, May 13, 2002
Well, where to begin. Patrick Nielsen Hayden at Electrolite linked my post on Bernard Lewis' book, What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response. One of his readers offered some criticism of my post:
Bill Allison's piece on the lack of mills in the Islamic heartland vis-a-vis Islamic cultural stagnation is, sadly, inaccurate.

Tidal mills in Basra; windmills all throughout the Iranian plateau; water mills throughout Anatolia and Syria -- unsurprising, since the first reference to a mill of any sort is from the 1st century BCE Greek. When Don Quixote tilts at the windmills of La Mancha, thinking in his madness they are giants, he is attacking machines that had been introduced by the Arabs. And you probably know the piece on Kronos Quartet's _Pieces of Africa_ entitled "Waterwheel", or Hamza-el-Din's original recording on the oud, from Egyptian Nubia.

(Allison also makes reference to that blasted horse collar myth, which is based on faulty research from 1910, and has been debunked for over a generation. Argh.)

As for labor-saving devices, Song dynasty China had both medieval Europe and the Islamic world beat. That's a long story, and not a happy one either.
The reader, Carlos Yu, added this update:
... that should be "reference to a *water* mill of any sort", my bad. Why is it always the important word one leaves out?
Thank you to Electrolite for the kind words, and thank you to Mr. Yu for your interest. To answer the issues you raised:

He's right to the extent that I say watermills in the Islamic world were rare; I should have said comparatively rare. It's true that the water mill was known in the 1st century BCE; the first reference, however, was a century earlier. An Egyptian papyrus refers to a noria, which was a kind of irrigation wheel. Water mills were not widely used in the classical world, nor was their adoption in the world of Islam as common as it was in Europe. The Domesday Book of 1086 records something like 5,600 mills for 3,000 English communities. The population at the time was somewhere between 1.25 and 2 million; so for every 223 to 357 people, there was a mill. I don't think there were comparable numbers of water mills in the Islamic world; at least, I haven't seen anything to indicate this was the case.

As for Don Quixote charging at an Arab wind mill, well, I'm not sure what Mr. Yu's sources are, but the presence of the windmill startled Don Quixote. It was the novelty of the device, in other words, that set Quixote off. His charge at the windmill was a charge at the trappings of modernity; it would be highly unlikely that Cervantes would pick a familiar, everyday object known from the days of Andalusia to convey Quixote's inability to come to grips with the modern world. I don't think there's a single reference to or illustration of a windmill in Spain that dates to a few decades before Cervantes, but again, if I'm wrong, I'd be happy if someone would point to a source.

As for the windmills on the Iranian plateau, these were rather ineffecient vertical axis windmills (the vanes radiated outward from a central pivot like the blades on top of a helicopter) as opposed to the more efficient horizontal axis windmill which appeared no later in Yorkshire in 1185. In 1191, the chronicler Jocelin of Brakelond mentions windmills without any indication that they were a novelty, suggesting the 1185 date is far too late. Here's a quote from Jocelin, taken from Jean Gimpel's The Medieval Machine:
Herbert the Dean set up a windmill on Habardun; and when the Abbot heard this, he grew so hot with anger that he would scarcely eat or speak a single word. On the morrow, after hearing mass, he ordered the Sacrist to send his carpenters thither without delay, pull everything down, and place the timber under safe custody. Hearing this, the Dean came and said that he had the right to do this on his free fief, and that free benefit of the wind ought not to be denied to any man; he said he also wished to grind his own corn there and not the corn of others, lest perchance he might be thought to do this to the detriment of neighboring mills...
At roughly the same time, crusaders brought the windmill with them to the Middle East, an event memorialized in doggerel:
The German soldiers used their skill
To build the very first windmill
That Syria had ever known.
Lynn White Jr. makes much the same point I did about Islam not adopting the windmill, and also adds a conjecture which tends to support my notion that the water mill wasn't as widespread in the world of Islam as it was in Europe:
...the lands of medieval Islam were generally so arid that, even where there was enough water for agriculture, the flow of streams was too scanty or sporadic to operate many mills to grind grain. Windmills were an "obvious" solution, since dry country is notoriously windy because sparsity of vegetation helps to generate air currents. And in fact in the tenth century of our era the first functional windmills appeared in eastern Iran and Afghanistan, rotating on vertical axles. Here, surely, the Muslim world had discovered an answer to its "need" for mechanical power. But did Islam feel that need with any intensity? There is no evidence that the windmill of Sejistan ever spread to the rest of Islam: claims for windmills in Muslim Spain have not been substantiated. In 1185, on the other hand, the horizontal-axle windmill appeared independently in Yorkshire, seemingly invented by analogy with the Vitruvian watermill, and it spread over Europe almost explosively. Within seven years it had been taken to Syria by German crusaders. Yet fourteen years later after that, writing in Edessa in 1206, the leading Arabic author on engineering, al-Jazari, remarks that the notion of mills driven by the wind is nonsense: the wind is too fickle to power such a machine.
I've rambled on too long in this post, so I'll handle the last points as quickly as I can. I'm unaware of a debunking of the horse collar myth; from Mr. Yu's reference, I'm unsure of what he's referring to; if he'd be more specific, I'd be happy to respond. As for the Song Dynasty, and China in general, Chinese engineering was certainly prodigious. However, what good are labor saving devices if the ruling classes of society prevent their diffusion to the laborers? Sadly, Mr. Yu, this has been all too common in history. The one place where this did not happen, where technology was readily adopted and rapidly diffused, was Europe. And thus the question: What went right there, as opposed to everywhere else?

In any case, please feel free to email me if anything I've stated here is inaccurate; I would be happy to correct any misimpression I might have created. I'm certainly no professional historian, and I don't keep up with the current literature as much as I should. I'm always happy to learn something new, and I would hate to leave incorrect information up on Ideofact.

It couldn't happen here
Meryl Yourish has an important post on the demonstrations at San Francisco State University last week. I would try to add my own thoughts, but having read it I'm at a loss for words.

This is where some bloggers would write, "Go read it. Now." I'm a little more polite. Please read it. It's very important.