Book recommendation: Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel by Frances & Joseph Gies

If you’re interested in know “How did we get here?” then I highly recommend Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel by Frances and Joseph Gies. It dispels the myth that Europe of 500 – 1500 CE was some mud-filled backwater just waiting for some brilliant Renaissance thinkers to come along.

The cover of my copy

Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t a glorious time either. But CF&W explains the development of specific technologies and how they changed society in a way that led directly to the (more celebrated) events of the Renaissance.

Probably one of the most important developments was of a merchant class as a center of power that could rival dynastic royalty. These developed into guilds and families that were patrons of those famed Renaissance artists as much as royal and religious wealth.

It also marked some of the first mechanical industry due to the shift of a source of power not dependent on animals (or people).

Is that person making a glass vase or jamming a wicked trumpet solo? Who can say?

The history of technology as recorded by Western historians is usually Euro-centric and that does leave out the larger context of how knowledge was flowing from Asia and Africa. It’s been a while since I’ve read CF&W, but I recall it doing a good job talking about how the origins of many things came from outside Europe. (And the back cover says so too, so I’m probably remembering right.) As you read any history, it’s worth keeping in mind the bias and agenda of the authors.

It’s an approachable and interesting read about a time you might not know a whole lot about. It looks like ThriftBooks has it, too.