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Top 10 Inventions of the Middle Ages

Jamie Frater . . . Comments

The middle ages (5th – 15th Centuries AD), often termed The Dark Ages, were actually a time of great discovery and invention. The Middle ages also saw major advances in technologies that already existed, and the adoption of many Eastern technologies in the West. This is a list of the ten greatest inventions of the Middle Ages (excluding military inventions).

1. The Heavy Plough 5th Century AD

March

In the basic mouldboard plough the depth of the cut is adjusted by lifting against the runner in the furrow, which limited the weight of the plough to what the ploughman could easily lift. These ploughs were fairly fragile, and were unsuitable for breaking up the heavier soils of northern Europe. The introduction of wheels to replace the runner allowed the weight of the plough to increase, and in turn allowed the use of a much larger mouldboard that was faced with metal. These heavy ploughs led to greater food production and eventually a significant population increase around 600 AD.

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2. Tidal Mills 7th Century AD

400Px-Tidal Mill Brehat France

A tide mill is a specialist type of water mill driven by tidal rise and fall. A dam with a sluice is created across a suitable tidal inlet, or a section of river estuary is made into a reservoir. As the tide comes in, it enters the mill pond through a one way gate, and this gate closes automatically when the tide begins to fall. When the tide is low enough, the stored water can be released to turn a water wheel. The earliest excavated tide mill, dating from 787, is the Nendrum Monastery mill on an island in Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland. Its millstones are 830mm in diameter and the horizontal wheel is estimated to have developed 7/8HP at its peak. Remains of an earlier mill dated at 619 were also found.

3. The Hourglass 9th Century AD

Hourglass

Since the hourglass was one of the few reliable methods of measuring time at sea, it has been speculated that it was in use as far back as the 11th century, where it would have complemented the magnetic compass as an aid to navigation. However, it is not until the 14th century that evidence of their existence was found, appearing in a painting by Ambrogio Lorenzetti 1328. The earliest written records come from the same period and appear in lists of ships stores. From the 15th century onwards they were being used in a wide range of applications at sea, in the church, in industry and in cookery. They were the first dependable, reusable and reasonably accurate measure of time. During the voyage of Ferdinand Magellan around the globe, his vessels kept 18 hourglasses per ship. It was the job of a ship’s page to turn the hourglasses and thus provide the times for the ship’s log. Noon was the reference time for navigation, which did not depend on the glass, as the sun would be at its zenith.


4. Blast Furnace 12th Century AD

800Px-Yuan Dynasty - Waterwheels And Smelting

The oldest known blast furnaces in the West were built in Dürstel in Switzerland, the Märkische Sauerland in Germany, and Sweden at Lapphyttan where the complex was active between 1150 and 1350. At Noraskog in the Swedish county of Järnboås there have also been found traces of blast furnaces dated even earlier, possibly to around 1100. Knowledge of certain technological advances was transmitted as a result of the General Chapter of the Cistercian monks, including the blast furnace, as the Cistercians are known to have been skilled metallurgists. According to Jean Gimpel, their high level of industrial technology facilitated the diffusion of new techniques: “Every monastery had a model factory, often as large as the church and only several feet away, and waterpower drove the machinery of the various industries located on its floor.” Iron ore deposits were often donated to the monks along with forges to extract the iron, and within time surpluses were being offered for sale. The Cistercians became the leading iron producers in Champagne, France, from the mid-13th century to the 17th century, also using the phosphate-rich slag from their furnaces as an agricultural fertilizer.

5. Liquor 12th Century AD

Old Pot Still

The first evidence of true distillation comes from Babylonia and dates from the fourth millennium BC. Specially shaped clay pots were used to extract small amounts of distilled alcohol through natural cooling for use in perfumes, however it is unlikely this device ever played a meaningful role in the history of the development of the still. Freeze distillation, the “Mongolian still”, are known to have been in use in Central Asia as early as the 7th century AD. The first method involves freezing the alcoholic beverage and removing water crystals. The development of the still with cooled collector—necessary for the efficient distillation of spirits without freezing—was an invention of Muslim alchemists in the 8th or 9th centuries. In particular, Geber (Jabir Ibn Hayyan, 721–815) invented the alembic still; he observed that heated wine from this still released a flammable vapor, which he described as “of little use, but of great importance to science”

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6. Eyeglasses 13th Century

Friedrich Herlin, Reading Saint Peter (1466)

In 1268 Roger Bacon made the earliest recorded comment on the use of lenses for optical purposes, but magnifying lenses inserted in frames were used for reading both in Europe and China at this time, and it is a matter of controversy whether the West learned from the East or vice versa. In Europe eyeglasses first appeared in Italy, their introduction being attributed to Alessandro di Spina of Florence. The first portrait to show eyeglasses is that of Hugh of Provence by Tommaso da Modena, painted in 1352. In 1480 Domenico Ghirlandaio painted St. Jerome at a desk from which dangled eyeglasses; as a result, St. Jerome became the patron saint of the spectacle-makers’ guild. The earliest glasses had convex lenses to aid farsightedness. A concave lens for myopia, or nearsightedness, is first evident in the portrait of Pope Leo X painted by Raphael in 1517.

7. The Mechanical Clock 13th Century AD

Image-5

The origin of the all-mechanical escapement clock is unknown; the first such devices may have been invented and used in monasteries to toll a bell that called the monks to prayers. The first mechanical clocks to which clear references exist were large, weight-driven machines fitted into towers and known today as turret clocks. These early devices struck only the hours and did not have hands or a dial. The oldest surviving clock in England is that at Salisbury Cathedral, which dates from 1386. A clock erected at Rouen, France, in 1389 is still extant (photo above), and one built for Wells Cathedral in England is preserved in the Science Museum in London.


8. Spinning Wheel 13th Century AD

Polonaisemah

The spinning wheel was probably invented in India, though its origins are obscure. It reached Europe via the Middle East in the European Middle Ages. It replaced the earlier method of hand spinning, in which the individual fibres were drawn out of a mass of wool held on a stick, or distaff, twisted together to form a continuous strand, and wound on a second stick, or spindle. The first stage in mechanizing the process was to mount the spindle horizontally in bearings so that it could be rotated by a cord encircling a large, hand-driven wheel. The distaff, carrying the mass of fibre, was held in the left hand, and the wheel slowly turned with the right. Holding the fibre at an angle to the spindle produced the necessary twist.

9. Quarantine 14th Century AD

Quarantine

In the 14th century the growth of maritime trade and the recognition that plague was introduced by ships returning from the Levant led to the adoption of quarantine in Venice. It was decreed that ships were to be isolated for a limited period to allow for the manifestation of the disease and to dissipate the infection brought by persons and goods. Originally the period was 30 days, trentina, but this was later extended to 40 days, quarantina. The choice of this period is said to be based on the period that Christ and Moses spent in isolation in the desert. In 1423 Venice set up its first lazaretto, or quarantine station, on an island near the city. The Venetian system became the model for other European countries and the basis for widespread quarantine control for several centuries.

10. The Printing Press of Gutenberg 15th Century AD

The Gutenberg Bible

Although movable type, as well as paper, first appeared in China, it was in Europe that printing first became mechanized. The earliest mention of a printing press is in a lawsuit in Strasbourg in 1439 revealing construction of a press for Johannes Gutenberg and his associates. (Scant evidence exists to support claims of Laurens Janszoon Coster as the inventor of printing.) The invention of the printing press itself obviously owed much to the medieval paper press, in turn modeled after the ancient wine-and-olive press of the Mediterranean area. A long handle was used to turn a heavy wooden screw, exerting downward pressure against the paper, which was laid over the type mounted on a wooden platen. In its essentials, the wooden press reigned supreme for more than 300 years, with a hardly varying rate of 250 sheets per hour printed on one side.

Notable Omissions: The Wheelbarrow, The Treadwheel Crane
Sources: Wikipedia, Britannica

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Jamie Frater

Jamie is the owner and chief-editor of Listverse. He spends his time working on the site, doing research for new lists, and collecting oddities. He is fascinated with all things historic, creepy, and bizarre.

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  • #5 should be the top inventiono of all time! :)

    Maybe behind the computer.

    • Mememmmmmeeeeeeeeeeemmmmmmmmmmme

      You are such a plague

  • Juggz: it is certainly the one I get the most enjoyment out of in my day to day life :)

  • Fe

    thank goodness for whoever figured out that little bits of curved glass could help improve a person's eyesight. :) I walk into walls without my glasses.

    I wouldn't call the Middle Ages cool, but I would call them fascinating.

    • Jeff

      Karen – Hey Adam and Melanie just wanted to say thank you so much!We had such a great time with you two on Saturday and the piecurts look awesome! (We agree it likely has more to do with your skills than our faces!)Also thanks again for working with Hank we are thrilled to have him included.Now we have yet another aspect of our big day to look forward to we know how good we’ll look in our piecurts!You guys rock!

  • love this post, and the middle ages are so cool!

  • mersenne: your view is unusual these days, but I am very very pleased you have it – the Middle ages are not the horrible thing that so many make it out to be – there was good stuff too. We should focus on the good and not the bad!

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  • a_trotskyite

    Excellent, Thank you.

  • Allstar

    I’m not Jewish but it was Israel that actualy had the first quarantene laws about 1700 B.C. Specificly, targeting leprosy.

    PS: I do not respond to any following coments to this post. Don’t bother, just do the research. And please, wikipedia is very weak.

  • I was under the impression that the horse collar was the more important agricultural invention. Possibly circa 1200? I’d have integrated it with the plow entry.

  • Allstar: that was not quarantine – it was segregation. Quarantine is when you put apparently healthy people in to an area for 40 days to ensure that they are not sick. And stating something and refusing to look at the following comments is, I think, also very weak.

    Jane Grey: The horse collar did make a big difference in Europe, but it was introduced in 1000 in Europe but was in wide-spread use by the third century in China. I would definitely say it could be a notable omission because it was introduced rather than invented during this time.

  • Very enjoyable post. It’s so inspiring to see how hard these people worked to make life easier (OK, difficult too, sometimes) for their contemporaries and for the future generations.

  • Amrit: I agree completely.

  • owlathome

    A very enjoyable list! I have been fascinated by the Middle Ages ever since reading “The Waning of the Middle Ages” in college (by Johan Huizinga). I would like to comment on the irony of distillation being a Muslim invention and that alcohol is now forbidden by that religion. Do you know how that came to be? I think all your lists are great and thanks for your toil.

  • owlathome: Thanks :) I think the way that it came about was that the original use was medicinal and scientific – once we started to enjoy its benefits it was outlawed – after all – we can’t have fun! That would be sinful!

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  • Sean

    The single most important invention in history has been left out. Probably because it is considered a military invention but gunpowder has had a bigger impact on human history, both militarily and non-militarily, then any other. Its discovery and use eventualy led to the industrial revolution. For a better understanding of gunpowder's effect on history I strongly reccomend (if you can find it) William S Dutton's book "One Thousand Years of Explosives". It is a real eye opener.

    • Dirceu

      Wonderful story, reckoned we could cmibone a few unrelated data, nevertheless really worth taking a look, whoa did one learn about Mid East has got more problerms as well

  • Sean: I left gunpowder off for the reason you mention. Interestingly you say it lead to the industrial revolution – the Industrial Revolution is a famous unanswered question: “What caused the industrial revolution” – no one seems to have an answer for it.

    • anonymous

      I'd say the invention of the steam engine

      ironically invented to pump ground water out of mines to allows mines to be deep enough to allow high yields of coal.

  • Sean

    Read the book and you will see. Then again, don’t read it, Might be a good subject for a book of my own. Basicaly any industry requires a power source. For most of our time on earth power was provided by human or animal muscle. After a simple fire, gunpowder was the first source of chemical energy in history. Here’s a quick breakdown of events.

    As more and more armies began using guns and cannon, traditional fire setting methods of extracting iron ore couldn’t keep up so someone started using gunpowder to blast the rock.

    To haul all this new found ore, someone came up with horse, ox or mule drawn carts on a wooden rail system.

    The wooden rails and wheels broke from the weight so they started using iron, further increasing demand for the ore.

    As gunpowder alowed the mine shafts to get deeper and deeper they began flooding so James Watt and others began making steam pumps to drain the mines.

    Eventually someone got the bright idea to use a steam engine to haul all this ore as well. The railroads were born.

    Steam engines began powering every kind of factory you can imagine. Meanwhile, the search for more powerfull explosives (to keep up with ever more increasing iron demand) led to the modern chemical industry. Just look at the Du Pont’s to see what could be made from explosives research.

    Sorry if I’m rambling but this is a subject I am rather passionate about. Guess it comes from spending my childhood as the neighborhood pyromaniac.

  • Mike

    I’ve seen programs and books about things invented in the Middle Ages, but those things were (supposedly) invented prior to this time in the Middle East, and then I’ve seen evidence that these items, or similar ones, came out of China in an even earlier time.

    The source of the Middle East material was a program on PBS several years ago, and the China information was from a source that I have since forgotten.

  • Sean the pyro

    Many inventions came from the middle east originally. The Arabs probably invented the gun but when the Turks used canon to take down the walls of Constantinople the canon came from europe. It seems all the fine craftsman of the middle east didn’t want to make something as crude and simple as a canon.

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  • Cyn

    well, maybe J won’t but if i could find a mailing list for ‘how to make intelligent comments to post online’ or ‘how not to be such a cyber dork’…i might. :)

  • stormy617

    I wonder what indiots are??? LOL

  • Neli

    Alcohol was invented by an Iranian-Muslim. Thank you very much :-D

  • I_Eat_PUPPIES

    this is sooooo damn stupid. i wish i knew who made the colored ink for printers. i mean seriously! help me figure it out. im a lost person and i am spinning in circles. besides, who said i never like deep sea fishing! duhh!!! any ways i am about to go catch my train and i am feeling a little thirsty so i am going to drink my diet lime twist coke extreme. And dont forget to fold your sheets after you wash them and to always take the time to peel a bananna before you eat it. no need to rush kiddies.

  • Walter Winchester W.

    I think we should have flying cars and teleporting.

  • asdfgsdf

    Good list but you could have at least mentioned that the lenses used for the eye glasses weren’t created by that Roger Bacon fellow.

  • bubbles

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  • bubbles

    hey im only 13 and im into all this tecnology stuff i really like the tidal mills!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • laura

    What’s the name of the machine , thought to be the first known computer, invented in china about 2,000 yrs ago. Run by water, clock mechanisms, and, was able to do very accurat measurments of stars constallatios, and more? anyone Know?? An enginner invented it. Thank, if u do know

  • hi

    this is a great way 2 help me w/ my report on inventions in the middle ages!

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  • kevinsigz

    yogurt makes me choke

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    i had yogurt once and it made my face swell up.

  • MPW

    dee =]: i beg to differ this site is awesome and it is ran by a very intelligent person

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  • T-boy

    This site helped me studyinf for exams :D

  • Interesting comments… Very nice list.

    Is what Laura thinking of,

    What’s the name of the machine , thought to be the first known computer, invented in china about 2,000 yrs ago. Run by water, clock mechanisms, and, was able to do very accurat measurments of stars constallatios, and more? anyone Know?? An enginner invented it. Thank, if u do know

    maybe something called the Antikythera Mechanism from ~150BC? That was Greek not Chinese and operated with a crank handle, but scientists think it calculated the motion of astronomical objects. Probably the world’s first analog computer :-)

  • Pamela

    Buti na lang nakagawa ng eyeglasses kung hindi,ano na kaya ako ngayon?! waaah.. hehe.

    this message doesn't mean bad.. even if you translate it.
    good list. ;)

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  • Aleksh

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  • jim

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  • Kat aka kittya

    Fascinating site. really helpful by the way does anyone have simple definition for the quadrant that was used durin the navigational time in the 15th century?

  • graphicfart

    this is ganna be helpful when i have to write my paper on the middle ages.

  • Non_ya_business

    This will help me on my medieval history report in Grand Junction Colorado with Mr. Santy!!! THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!!!!!

    • 2cool

      no one cares!

  • sammi

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  • tangolicious

    Wow!!! this really helped me with Mr. Borghi’s project! Its exactly what i needed. THANKS!!! =]

  • poop.

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  • vickster

    omg the middle ages r lame i would never like to live there ew

    • 2cool

      the middle ages r cool u dont have to lve thier 2 learn about it
      no one has 2 live their!

  • JDog

    i think this is really great

  • nohano

    I like the grammar and spelling mistakes in some of these comments. XD
    “This article came in real useful”
    “you guy rock im really into this kind of stuff”
    “nice i like this sight its really helping me!!!”

    And it’s pretty simple to create an email-bot that would spam annoying/unhelpful/flamer people with annoying emails on how to make their comments nicer/better. You just have to get one of those hard-to-find email servers!
    (joke)

  • T.rex

    i really like this website its just what i needed for my report on 14th century inventions.

  • Crimanon… not a troll

    I can’t remember what your take was on lists that have “Migrated” to other sites so…

    http://wtf.thebizzare.com/featured-articles/top-10-inventions-of-the-middle-ages/

    Just so that you know.

  • Thanks crimanon: I have notified them.

  • WCB

    Language is used to express ideas, nohano. Your mocking of their “improper” use of grammar–which, I might add, doesn’t add to the topic of inventions of the middle ages–seems childish and trivial to me, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who holds this view. And to think: those you’re mocking are praising the article. I wonder who the real troll is…That being said, it’s not like your post is bad, especially compared to the post by, oh, say, “poop.”.

    I wish the sources of this article were better given, but other than that, I enjoyed the article itself. There are historians who believe that native tribes in North America had a sort of printing press by the time Europeans landed.

  • Brianna

    this should have more easy to make inventions……..i have a project you know!!!!!!!!!!

  • lulu

    i have to do a project on the middle ages, and i am writing a newspaper article on a type of invention. which one would be the most interesting to write about?

  • umesh prasad singh

    middle ages reflects the culture of historicity in english literature to a greatest level of manifestation and research.the middle ages advocates the note of cultural history of england in a literary evolution of investigation and perceptions.the theocentric nature of this age has been wonderfully dealt with mastery and encapsulation of ideas. lastly the middle ages reorients the philosophical understanding of the subject with dexterity.

  • umesh prasad singh

    middle ages in english literature relates to the catholic history with a note of principle of rejuvenation.

  • umesh prasad singh

    regenerational value adds tremendously to the middle ages. it also evaluates the notion of literary interpretation of ideas.

  • umesh prasad singh

    middle ages in the entire history reflects knowledge efficiency.

  • umesh prasad singh

    middle ages has a deep revolutionary aspect of humanistic concern.

  • umesh prasad singh

    middle ages goes into the realms of critical appreciation.

  • umesh prasad singh

    middle ages reinterprets the notion of reformation in a right manner.

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  • ricky

    Do you have any sources or direction related to #4 (blast furnace) besides Jean Gimpel ?

  • kagia

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  • nonya

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  • Deine Mutter

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  • M Mac

    All reinventions or improvements.

    Cant say this list is valid.

    Sorry, it was however interesting.

  • awesome96

    i’m learning about the middle ages and i think this is interesting

  • what

    thanks ;]

  • no one cares

    hey- thanks

  • annalisae

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  • annalisae

    sortta! (the one above)

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  • Me

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  • elaina

    omg this is stuiped im in school and this site doesent help me at all!!!lunch detention for me i guess

  • Martino

    Interesting list, but I find the periodization a bit odd. The middle ages suddenly lasted until the 15th century? According to who or what? And what about the Italian renaissance then (which began earlier than the Dutch and German)?

    I think it would be fair to say that the renaissance started no later than mid-14th century. So, as a consequence I would say that the printing press was an invention of the renaissance…

  • Achu

    thanx…………:)

  • jimmy ray

    hi kika

  • lindsay

    hour glasses were used at least during Julius Caesars time if not longer. dont do a list if you dont know what your talking about

  • Rosie

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  • as

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  • lady leaf132

    thanks! I really needed this for a project at school!

  • eads

    Number 5 should be number 1 LOL

  • a guy

    just what i needed for my 5th grade history presentation
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  • deathrow

    that was sik but i think theb sword is better:)

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  • Lena

    I am doing this for a school project and the info I am finding is very interesting

  • NeoxAlucard

    I love this list, can’t believe I just happen to stumble on it.

    But I’m sure you know “The Dark Ages” was not the entire middle age. The term “Dark Ages” is in reference to a time with it the Middle Ages, around 476–800 (depending on who you ask).

    In fact, because so little was know about this time to it was coined “The Dark Ages”. The Middle Ages had many advances and contributions in the fields of science, literature, and medicine. None the less there was a notable period of cultural decline, frequent warfare, and a virtual disappearance of urban life in Europe during The Dark Ages. Technology development did happen but it was rare.

    Some are trying to steer away from the term “Dark Ages” because it implies judgment.

  • syeda wajiha masood

    nice inventions bt they are nt given the name of the scientist

  • firzen434

    Not a bad list but I really think you should consider things like light bulb and the internet!!!

    Here are some helpful suggestions:
    http://worldtenz.net/top-ten-greatest-inventions-

  • turd muffin

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  • ra4y

    Wow thats good to know about these inventions. im a seventh grader and we just finished the middle ages well now to learn more not only do i have the internet but assasins creed revalations! :)

  • arte

    this so dull!
    medival has thrown western civilisations back
    for at least 500 years.
    with all the bookburnings and the church
    controlling every part of cultural progress.
    u can’t be serious calling this an “age of inventions”,
    only because someone adepted things

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    boring! worst dress ever!

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