Written, quickly, for a class. It is what it is.
Lynn White Jr. wrote on numerous topics using a considerable range of historiographic techniques, often choosing the technique most suitable for the historical record available for the topic. As a small subset of White’s output, Medieval Technology and Social Change, The Iconography of Temperantia and the Virtuousness of Technology, and Medieval Engineering and the Sociology of Knowledge range twenty–three years between publications and cover distinct topics, with distinct historiography. In Medieval Technology and Social Change White is concerned with the introduction of the horse, stirrup, and the transition to mounted shock combat as an precedent to feudalism, the development of agricultural practices on social and political structures (omitted in the following analysis), and the impact of new devices for mechanical power. Heinrich Brunner’s “Der Reiterdienst und die Anfänge des Lehnwesens” is used as a foil by White to demonstrate that while Brunner was correct about most items (despite the criticism of his view), he missed one key point about the impact of the introduction of the saddle and stirrup, and the heavy horse (White also argues that Brunner dated the introduction of the stirrup somewhat incorrectly, in the fourth century). White argues that the use of horses for combat occurred well before the eighth century, but that horses were typically used for archers or mobility, not direct warfare. With the introduction of the rigid saddle and the foot stirrup (“presumably a Chinese invention”), White sees increasing engagement with direct mounted shock combat, with the lance held beneath the arm. As an extremely effective technique, growing empires had greater need for the maintenance of heavy and numerous horses, requiring greater land for grain. These requirements led, according to White, directly to the “specialized aristocracy of mounted warriors”. Because the eighth and ninth centuries were effectively barter economies where land was socially and economically valuable, the class of a fighting elite was to become the backbone of governing and the “key to feudal institutions”. Feudal tenures became hereditary and crystallized into a “self-conscious, cosmopolitan military caste”, replete with social expectations and wealthy families.
Although the mill has early history in the first and second centuries (AD), these mills where “horizontal” with a “vertical fixed-axel”. The mastery of nature and escape from back–breaking work was realized in the eleventh century when “the whole population of Europe was living so constantly in the presence of one major item of power technology [i.e., the water mill]”. Other forms of mill (wind, tidal) and other uses for the labour (tanning, laundering, sawing, operating blast furnaces) were invented and refined until they were sophisticated enough in the fifteenth and sixteenth century to polish stone and take on abstract forms. White also traces the development of military technologies such as gunpowder cannons (fourteenth century) and trebuchet (late twelfth century). In White’s mind the crank was a testament to the abstract thinking becoming increasingly common with medieval treatment of power, and “marks the most significant single step in the late medieval revolution in machine design”. The development of clocks of increasing sophistication (especially with the invention of the fusee in the mid–fifteenth century) complete White’s treatment of the steady march of medieval engineers and craftspeople towards the control of nature and the abstraction in thinking towards mechanism.
White begins Iconography of Temperentia and the Virtousness of Technology with Max Weber’s problem, “what general cultural factors, including perhaps the religious, account for the remarkably productive Western economic system which we usually call capitalism?” Here White traces the language of “labour” as a marker of medieval attitudes towards technology, starting with early ninth century alignment of technology and virtue, and the rise of Temperance within the European ethos. Mechanism, particularly the clock, became important and positively aligned with God’s orderliness and Christian morality. White recognizes that the transmission of Aristotelian texts from the Arabs had considerable impact (omitting mention of intratextual development, as well as the changes in Arab social and political institutions). By the mid–fourteenth century Temperance was a figure associated with either her traditional cup, or a timepiece. By the sixteenth century Temperance was portrayed with a timepiece and associated with Christ and Wisdom, and businessmen and commerce. Temperance was the virtue of time–keeping for commerce, of measure and reliability.
White’s Medieval Engineering and the Sociology and Knowledge problematizes the “classical view”, that manual labour was at best representative of social climbing and good pay, but at worst, base and immoral. The early monastic tradition held a “primitive” view in which “work is worship”. Monasteries seldom discussed technology but by the later medieval period it was thought that monks held technology and work in reasonably high regard, even if their relationship to work did not transfer to the secular world. By the twelfth century Hugh of Saint Victor attempted a fusion of philosophy and technology with considerable desire to disseminate across the laity. Despite Hugh’s attempts, technology in the twelfth century was not important formally (scholarly) or institutionally. However, as Aristotelian texts were re–introduced through the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries new domains of technology were reformalized in the West, such as astrology (due to Arabic developments in math), and medicine (previously the domain of monks). The medical practitioners of the time typically did not engage in the production of medical instruments, but by the late fourteenth century medical practice (as a form of astrology) extended outside of the monastery and into members of the laity.
White’s historiography was more groundbreaking for its scope and considerable control of diverse historical materials (textual, archaeological) than its method, which built on already popular techniques and quickly came under fire. For example, Needham celebrates White’s firm reliance earlier historiographic techniques of clean, logical explanations, even though critics cogently criticized it. White’s historiography can be summarized and criticised as a trinity of conceptual crutches: single explanations and origin stories, reliance on internal logics and conclusions, and the crafting of a historiography of invention.
White seeks origin stories of complex social phenomena and frequently finds the answer in technological development. While White is often successful in tracing these origins, he frequently misses the mark, as Herlihy criticises,
[White’s historiography is] rich in information and bibliography, [but] is disappointing only in the sense that it does not do what the book’s title promises. It has almost nothing to say about the social significance of these inventions.”
Needham notes White’s reluctance to admit examples of multiple origin, and in turn celebrates the antiquated historiography. Farmer’s contemporary review of White’s Medieval Technology and Social Change suggests, without critique, that White writes a history of invention that “makes it possible to consider invention, discovery, and innovation, as well as diffusion sequences, rates of diffusion, and thus problems of theory”. Of course, this type of historiography of became prevalent in the field of history of technology, and was criticized as deeply problematic. While satisfying to a ‘common sense’ view of history, this kind of historiography glosses over social and economic problems and tends towards technological determinism.
White’s general approach is to look for internal logics and conclusions deductively drawn from the premises. In White’s mind, if a perceived event or artefact cannot be explained by a logical derivation from earlier historical premises, then another story must be told. There is commonsense to this approach, and this leads White to look at the role of information dissemination through Arabic Aristotelian textual transmission culture, the shift in attitudes of work from inside the monastery to the laity outside, and the development of universities and formal frameworks. However, because of the dynamic characterization of knowledge (which effectively becomes ‘social communication’), White’s account leaps in and out of events of transmission, rather than articulating how technologies are reciprocally stabilized by social, economic, and political structures. Even taken on their own terms, these social communications contain well–known intertextuality that White misses due to methodological commitments of historical rationalism. This historiographical approach is highlighted by Hall’s characterization of White, “small things” are methodological building blocks towards a larger historical theory. Hall further notes that White declares a necessity deriving from ideas; as a methodological commitment rational necessity is a binary to multiple origins and historical reciprocity. White’s historiography gives individual actors considerable agency in their decisions, and to White’s peril, attempts to extract this agency as the logic of the unfolding of history. Even though White’s historiography dismisses histories of ‘great men’, his revolutionary methods are considered, by today’s standards, minor and frequently lapse White into a historiography of ‘winners’ rationalized through their eyes.
In Whitney’s words, the purpose of Paradise Restored is to “examine the intellectual process by which medieval philosophers and theologians revised classical concepts of technology and its place in classifications of the arts and sciences in order to redefine technological invention as a full–fledged category of knowledge.” As a “category of knowledge” Whitney accepts medieval formalisms that are supposed to show “medieval attitudes towards nature, labour and crafts and toward the relationship of technology to science, theology, and the classical philosophical tradition”. Hall contextualizes Whitney’s project within “[t]he trinity of labour, natura, and techne”, with considerable ambiguity due to the trinity’s domination of “patterns of thought in this area, and like our word technology, the Greek techne can have many meanings”. Showing the natural limits of Whitney’s historiographic techniques, Keller argues against Whitney’s conclusion that the “transition from feudalism to capitalism” is a result of the “shift in emphasis in the classification of artisan skills”. Whitney is fundamentally unable to explain phenomena beyond the primary data of classificatory shifts of knowledge.
Historiographically, Whitney takes one step forward from White, but equally one step back. Whitney is more effective than White in tracing sociological outcomes of technology (one of White’s stated goals), but relies on textual traditions much more heavily than White. White’s history of classification morphology coheres for entirely textual problems, such as philosophy and ideas, but as an attempt to explain the intersection of technology with attitudes of work it fails and is more problematic than White’s historiography. “Scholastic” traditions can be successfully evaluated on their own terms because the content of the analysis is, almost by definition, textual, academic, and exclusionary, however, attitudes towards technology are far from purely textual, academic, or exclusionary. Whitney attempts to trace banausic arts from the position of, and the exclusion of, liberal arts. Classification structures are liberal and form in opposition to baunasic input. To attempt to explain technology from this privileged position is seriously problematic, illustrated by Keller’s description of Hugh as a primary datum:
We can imagine Hugh strolling through the artisan streets of Paris, learning the names of the many tools that were used and materials that were produced there. But did he pursue matters further: did he learn from the craftsmen? Did technical men even know about these discussions of the learned, let alone rejoice that they had been granted a category of their won in the classification tables of knowledge?
Of course, the historical record only leaves certain forms of evidence from certain types of people, but to pretend that technology is explainable by liberal (that is, elitists and princely) discourse, is to effectively write women and workers out of the history of technology altogether.
Blaine argues that Whitney constructed a history describing “the intellectual valuation of knowledge and its functional role in the material and moral betterment of man,” highlighting a deep a challenge for Whitney’s historiography. Whitney’s historiographic method can be described, roughly, as structural functionalism—therefore, silent on the conflictual and critical nature of history. Whitney attempts to avoid stark functionalism by tracing the Augustinian tradition through to Hugh of St. Victor. With Hugh, the previously ecclesiastical traditions became evangelical in an effort to disseminate salvation to all Fallen Men. The “salvational sanction of technology” may have impacted the laity considerably.
Hall defends Whitney’s broad thesis that “epistemology outranked soteriology”. If Whitney and Hall restrict their analysis to the Augustinian tradition through to Hugh, this may remain true (although still requires problematization), yet true for reasons having more to do with a relatively static intellectual tradition, than epistemology’s relationship to soteriology. Arabic theurgy was not without its soteriological and epistemological elements as it developed through neoplatonic interaction. As a maturing discourse, up until and through the Arabic “Golden Era” Arabic thinkers explicitly and implicitly tied God and salvation to formal theories of epistemology. Al-Farabi is famous for creating an epistemology based on Aristotle’s De Anima with deep neoplatonic “perversions” where an Agent Intellect is both soteriological and epistemological. The union of the soteriological and epistemological often came in the form of unifying received philosophical traditions, as al-Farabi attempted in The Harmonization of the Two Opinions of the Two Sages: Plato the Divine and Aristotle.
Cuomo writes a history of technology in a very broad sense; the five chapters cover a definition of techne in classical Athens, new Hellenistic forms of catapult and its physical, cultural, and ethical dimensions of dissemination, Roman funary artefacts from (lower social class) carpenters, the requirement for, and self–representation of, land surveyors in Roman Empire boundary disputes, and the conflictual nature of architects during Christian monument building in late antiquity. Each chapter marks a shift in time period, topic, and historiographic technique. These “case studies” or “micro-histories” are unified through methodological concerns; Cuomo attempts to show how the “blocage question” and the “mainstream view” are both problematic methodologies. The blocage question asks, despite the considerable technological advancements present in the ancient world, why did the ancients not make better use of their technology beyond “gadgets” and “engines of war”, and why did the technological advances not lead to economic productivity, perhaps in the form of a proto-capitalism? The mainstream view relies on the unfounded conclusion that ancient technology was marginal to society and with craftspeople and engineers holding an accordingly low status in society. According to Cuomo, the mainstream view results from incorrectly assuming that textual evidence (typically produced by wealthy elites and “academics”) is a good source for description of attitudes and social representations of technology.
Technology and Culture in Greek and Roman Antiquity is the most methodologically–driven of the three authors presented here. Cuomo is interested in critiquing old historiographical methodologies by example of new techniques. Cuomo, like White well before, uses material artefacts to considerable extent, specifically in Chapter 4 where Cuomo discusses Roman funary artefacts. Cuomo uses material artefacts to give voice to otherwise silent historical characters (typically women and working people), whereas White uses material artefacts to make claims about the development of technology. In this way, where White attempted but failed to make sociological claims, Cuomo is successful. White engages in the blocage question by invoking Max Weber’s problem (stated above), and ultimately fails to move beyond it. Whitney’s methodology is solidly within the scope of the mainstream view, and fails not just because, as Cuomo claims, the mainstream view leads authors to wrongly believe that craftspeople and engineers where considered periphery and treated poorly, but also because the mainstream view is a poor methodology. The mainstream view is unable to accurately describe technology, in particular, because of methodological commitments ignore the binary between technology and the written record. While it is certainly true that, as Heidegger comments, technology is not technological, the relevant aspect of technology use, dissemination, advancement or refinement are unlikely to be found in textual descriptions. Technology and textual records are metaphysically distinct as meaning and meaning making.
al-Farabi. “The Harmonization of the Two Opinions of the Two Sages: Plato the Divine and Aristotle”. In The Political Writings: Selected Aphorisms and Other Texts, edited and translated by Charles E. Butterworth. Ithica and London: Cornell University Press, 2004.
Blaine, Bradford B. “Review: [Paradise Restored: The Mechanical Arts from Antiquity through the Thirteenth Century]”. Speculum 67, no. 2 (April 1992): 505-507. http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/2864460.
Cuomo, S. Technology and culture in Greek and Roman antiquity. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Edgerton, D. “Innovation, Technology, or History: What is the Historiography of Technology About?”. Technology and Culture 51, no. 3 (2010): 680–697.
Farmer, Malcolm F. “Review: [Medieval Technology and Social Change]”. American Anthropologist 65, no. 4. New Series (August 1963): 982-983. http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/668996.
Hall, Bert. “Lynn White’s Medieval Technology and Social Change after Thirty Years’”. In Technological Change, edited by Robert Fox, 85–101. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1996.
———. “Review: [Paradise Restored: The Mechanical Arts from Antiquity through the Thirteenth Century]”. Isis 83, no. 2 (June 1992): 312-313. http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/234529.
Keller, Alex. “Review: [Paradise Restored: The Mechanical Arts from Antiquity through the Thirteenth Century]”. Technology and Culture 34, no. 1 (1993): 136-138. http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/3106461.
Needham, Joseph. “Review: [Medieval Technology and Social Change]”. Isis 54, no. 3 (September 1963): 418-420. http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/228822.
White Jr., Lynne. “Medieval Engineering and the Sociology of Knowledge”. The Pacific Historical Review 44, no. 1 (1975): 1–21.
———. Medieval Technology and Social Change. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.
———. “The iconography of Temperantia and the Virtuousness of Technology”. In Medieval Religion and Technology: Collected Essays, 181-204. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978.
Whitney, Elspeth. “Paradise Restored. The Mechanical Arts from Antiquity through the Thirteenth Century”. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 80, no. 1. New Series (1990): 1-169. http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/1006521.
 See White Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change, 6.
 Ibid., 9.
 Ibid., 16.
 Ibid., 13.
 Ibid., 31.
 Ibid., 32.
 Ibid., 80.
 Ibid., 84.
 Ibid., 89.
 Ibid., 115.
 White Jr., “The iconography of Temperantia and the Virtuousness of Technology”, 198.
 Ibid., 207.
 Ibid., 214.
 White Jr., “Medieval Engineering and the Sociology of Knowledge”, 4.
 Needham, “Review”, 419.
 Ibid., 45.
 Farmer, “Review”, 982.
 Edgerton, “Innovation, Technology, or History”.
 Hall, “Lynn White’s Medieval Technology and Social Change after Thirty Years’”, 87.
 Whitney, “Paradise Restored. The Mechanical Arts from Antiquity through the Thirteenth Century”, 2.
 Blaine, “Review”, 505.
 Hall, “Review”, 313.
 Whitney, “Paradise Restored. The Mechanical Arts from Antiquity through the Thirteenth Century”, 149.
 Keller, “Review”, 138.
 Ibid., 137.
 Blaine, “Review”, 505.
 Ibid., 506.
 Hall, “Review”, 313.
 O’Meara’s Platonopolis offers a cogent description of the interaction.
 al-Farabi, “The Harmonization of the Two Opinions of the Two Sages: Plato the Divine and Aristotle”.
 Cuomo, Technology and culture in Greek and Roman antiquity, 3.