Friday, December 13, 2013

Invention And Application In Late-Medieval And Renaissance Europe: Timepieces, Firearms And Printing

I'm deliberately confining my remarks to Europe and European colonies. I'm not a Europhile, I just don't know much about the development of timepieces, firearms and printing outside of Europe, and I honestly try as best I can not to pontificate overmuch on subjects on which I am ignorant. Apparently there is still some debate about where and when these things were invented. I don't know how serious this debate is. I don't know whether the academic consensus about these origins is different in Damascus or Beijing than it is in Oxford or Paris. I do know that the Western academic consensus about the date and place of the invention of the firearm has undergone major revisions in the past two centuries. For example, there are certain pistols of Chinese origin which Western experts once said were 11th-century and are now dated to the 16th-century, the 11th-century dating having rested on certain linguistic and archaeological errors no competent Chinese scholar would have made.

It's certainly possible that firearms and mechanical timepieces were introduced into Europe from East Asia, Africa or the Middle East. There's no dispute that gunpowder and rockets were used in China long before the 11th century. There's no dispute that China and the Islamic world were very advanced technologically during Western Europe's Middle Ages. I certainly don't think it's impossible that Muslims and Chinese had guns long before Europeans did. I wouldn't even go so far as to say that it is improbable. I will go exactly so far as to say that the earliest evidence of firearms known to me, at this time, comes from Europe. The same way that I don't think it's impossible, and would not go so far to say that it is improbable, that Chinese fleets regularly visited the west coast of the Americas before Columbus was born. I just don't think it's been confirmed, as yet.

Those 16th-century Chinese pistols are not the only example of false assumptions about the early history of firearms springing from very elementary errors. For example, some people -- academics? Hmmm, I don't think so. And as I've said before on this blog, it may well be that I am the only autodidact on Earth who currently is as competent and reliable on historical and linguistic matters as an above-average full professor -- some people think that they have come across evidence that Ghengis Khan's armies had huge cannons, the most powerful ones on Earth. Actually Ghengis Khan (1162? – August 1227) died about a century before there was anything which we reasonably can agree is evidence of a cannon. Some people think Ghengis Khan had cannons because they do not realize that the ancestors of our English word "artillery" in Latin, French and other languages long predates the invention of firearms, and once referred to catapults, trebuchets, mangonels and every other sort of weapon which hurled something toward the enemy. Yes, there are reports that Ghengis Khan's armies had the largest and finest "artillery" in the world. It's quite reasonable to think that his catapults and mangonels might, indeed, have been the most powerful on Earth at the time. It would have been just one of several ways in which those armies represented the cutting edge of the military technology of their time. But there is no serious evidence that they had cannons.

About that evidence of a cannon about a century after Ghengis' death? Here it is, a picture in a manuscript made by an Englishman, Walter de Milemete, around 1326:


As with guns, it is difficult to say when mechanical clocks, clocks other than sundials and water-clocks, were first made. As with guns, linguistics adds to the confusion, as for some time there was no specific term to differentiate the new type of clock from a sundial or water-clock. Printing was underway as early as the 1430's, by Gutenberg and some other Germans, who kept their new invention pretty much secret until the 1460's, which is when when something which can fairly be called "an explosion of printing" spreads across Europe. The remarkable success of the German printers in keeping printing a secret of course begs the question: how long before them might printing have existed, and been kept so successfully secret that we still don't know about developments pre-Gutenberg?

If David Hockney is right,the European Old Master painters, as early as the mid-15th century, as early as the secretive Gutenberg's lifetime, had invented cameras or devices very similar to cameras, and kept the knowledge of those gadgets secret for a good 400 years, until the public learned that photographs could be made by means of the camera obscura. Perhaps Hockney is right. He certainly knows much more about both painting and photography than I ever will. I would just like to observe that his theory does nothing to explain the realism of sculpture, which greatly increased during the Renaissance right along with the realism of painting, nor does it explain the realism of some painting of ancient Rome. I still tend toward the pre-Hockney theory, that artists of certain eras tend to produce less realistic representations simply because they are less interested in realistic representation, not because they lacked the means to produce it.

Whenever and wherever guns were first invented, very soon after 1326 the means to manufacture them was no longer secret, and cannons were no longer an unusual sight on battlefields. But they were by no means an instant success. More than once I have encountered the strange phenomenon of a passionate gun-control advocate, a sworn enemy of present-day gun manufacturers, who harbors nevertheless a strong affection for, and in one case even actually collects, early firearms, because they were so unlikely ever to inflict injury upon anyone (with the possible exception of the people firing them, if they happened to explode like fragmentation bombs.) Large guns operated by teams of soldiers established themselves before firearms carried by individual soldiers. For a long time it was a very controversial question whether a foot-soldier carrying a gun was more effective than one carrying a bow and arrow, and as late as the reign of Henry VIII armies with archers, notably English armies with longbows, often trounced enemies with matchlocks and wheellocks.

Several decades of printing in secret in Germany before it became a Europe-wide trade, 225 years or more of guns before they finally eclipsed bows and arrows on the battlefield (big guns had replaced catapults and trebuchets somewhat earlier), and over 200 years of mechanical clocks, powered by free-hanging weights for most of that time, before someone came up with the idea of powering a clock with a windable spring, and before someone -- the same someone? Will we ever know? -- came up with the idea of making a clock small and stable enough and immune enough to bumps and shakes to being carried around. The idea of a watch that is, and made one. Unless watches were made long before the first ones we know of, from around 1530, and the invention was kept secret. We mustn't lose sight of how different the prevailing mentalities of other ages have been when it comes to invention. We're used to thinking of an invention as something which is publicly claimed as one's own as soon as possible, with the hope of reaping fame and fortune from it. Speaking of fame: many 16th- and 17th-century authors made anagrams of their own names on the covers of their own very popular books, so that only an initiated circle could know, for example, that German Schleifheim von Sulsfort, Samuel Griefnson von Hirschfeld, Philarchus Grosses von Trommenheim, and Michael Rechulin von Sehmsdorf were all actually just Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, so that it wasn't until the 19th ceentury, with the aid of the diligent detective work of many scholars, that the German reading public at large learned the identity of the author of perhaps the greatest work of fiction yet written in their language, Simplicissimus.

Learning about other cultures and other times, really understanding them, always involves learning to let go of some of the attitudes and assumptions stereotypical to our own culture and time. Chumps like the idiots who spew forth the "History Channel" do the exact opposite of this when they say things like "Roman roads were the Internet of their time" or "Anthony and Cleopatra were the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of their time." It seems some people are quite uncomfortable even attempting to imagine lives and circumstances different from their own. No, those roads weren't an Internet, they were roads. Learning anything significant about people like Anthony and Cleopatra might actually require ceasing to think about people like Brangolina, if only for a painful and bewildering moment.

Was that last sentence unnecessary and obnoxious and Sheldon-like? Meh. I yam what I yam. And Sheldon's not all bad, he's just got a wrong-planet thing going on.

So, if you're inclined to study invention of other eras, and grappling to picture how it was with earlier inventors, as well as such things can be imagined, you need to jettison some assumptions which are specific to here and now, when significant inventions so often (not always!) are followed very quickly by application and recognition, when recognition is indeed sometimes a powerful motivation to invent. And keep in mind not just all of the differences between a certain age and now, but also between one past age and another. Imagine a Europe in 1300, with no clocks, no guns and no printing -- or perhaps with all three, but all three kept strictly secret by their inventors, for reasons which would be difficult indeed for us to really imagine to the point where we can sympathize with those reasons, and if we're not to that point we're not yet close to understanding -- and then imagine 1550, when clocks and guns and printing are not only everywhere, but are so firmly established that already it has begun to become difficult to imagine the time before them. We constantly transform our own world, and the things transformed include the way in which we study our ancestors and their transformations. We're constantly a work in progress, and by "we" I mean much more than just humans.

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