Saturday, October 20, 2012

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Medieval innovations in transport and war - some examples.

Dispelling another calumny about the 'Dark Ages'

by Ferdinand III







The Dark ages, or the epoch from 500 A.D. to 1500 A.D. was not 'dark'. It was one of the most vibrant and interesting periods in history. What is 'dark' is our misinformation and almost ridiculously snobbish attitude about this era. Enlightenment 'thinkers' and philosophers denigrated the age between Rome and the middle Renaissance as one of retraction and illiteracy. It was a calumny designed to elevate the Oriental and failed despotism of Rome; and to minimize through ridicule and lies, the formative and vital role of the church in the creation of the modern world.


There are many reasons why the Dark Ages are poorly named. Extant writing, archaeology and the evolution of capital, urban centers, warfare, clothing, construction and the arts; make it very clear that the poorly named 'middle ages', inspired by Christian reason and faith fabricated the basis for the modern world. An example of this is the fantastical array of creative invention in war and heavy transport. These innovations reshaped the political-economy of world history.


The Muslim armies which invaded, depopulated, enslaved and deranged Christian, Jewish and Berber society from the Levant to Spain; were composed mostly of mobile and lightly armed cavalry. These forces were no match however, for the heavy cavalry of the 'Dark Age' Franks under Charles Martel, who in 732 AD 120 miles south of Paris and again in 737 AD in southern France, routed far larger Arab forces. The Franks had bigger horses, bigger and better fed men, richer diets, and the Western inventions of the stirrup, high-backed saddle, along with steel and iron lances and pikes. The Arabs were smaller in both man and horse; poorly fed compared to the Franks; and did not possess any of the steel or iron wrought weaponry that the Western Christians had used for generations. The stirrup and high backed saddle were unknown to the Muslims who had little need for such innovations since their military was predicated on mobility; hit and run tactics and avoiding pitch battles. The destruction of Islamic military potency was only a matter of time, not a question of 'if', given the European ascendancy in agriculture, military technology and tactics.


Gunpowder supports this general statement. Sometime around the year 1000 the Chinese developed the practical usage of gunpowder. This invention reached Europe by about 1100 and was immediately seized upon as a necessary and logical long-range weapon in war. In China gunpowder and pistol-cannon warfare was not common until long after the Europeans were using both. The earliest usable Chinese cannon dates from the early 14th century but these were for political theater and not war. The Europeans were using cannons in battle by at least 1324, as recorded in a battle at Metz France. At the same time, the European armaments industry created a variety of fire-arms or smaller hand-held pistols of varying degrees of effectiveness.


By the 15th century the combination of cannon and smaller arms fire had irrevocably changed warfare, and the use of both offensive and defensive conceptions of battle. For example, mounted Knights would no longer be able to range freely on the battle-field in the face of pistol and rifle carrying infantry, supported by heavy cannon. Light Arab horse formations, or brightly clad Turkish infantry brigades would be no match for such technology. The Turks bought, captured or induced Westerners to teach them the use of cannon technology; and then conspire to help build cannon foundries. Thanks to this Western caprice, the Turks by the mid 16th century were world leaders in the devastating deployment of Western gunnery technology. A fact that the battle for the island of Malta in 1560 for instance, was to amply demonstrate.


On sea as well the medieval Europeans revolutionized the course of history. For the first time ever, a rudder became standard practice in shipping. During the 11th century Europeans invented an attachment to the keel which allowed mobility and the ability to sail or row a ship with galley-slaves, into the wind or away from the much used coastal routes. During the 11th and 12th centuries, the Europeans invented the modern industrial process of shipbuilding, using frameworks and skeletons as the first step in the building process. The ancient Romans and Greeks had used hull frames at the end of the shipbuilding process – the Europeans rightly reversed this and overlapped boards onto the skeleton, making the building process far quicker and more reliable. The medieval Europeans also replaced the Roman use of joints with caulking which was cheaper and faster as well. These process innovations substantially reduced the time and the cost to build a large, fast ship.


The Europeans were also the first to use firepower in sea battles. It was a sensible and life-saving concept – blow the enemies ships out of the water from afar and refuse the usual ship-to-ship hand to hand battles which had characterized sea-based war since time immemorial. No other culture in the world was able to refasten the heavy gunnery of land operations onto sea warfare.


Only in Europe were sailing ships created. This innovation preceded the use of sails by the Chinese by some 150 years. The first step was the design of 'round ships'. These were able to go into deeper waters and were more maneuverable than the flat-bottomed boats used since the days of ancient Greece. These round ships allowed for the building of a tall vessel with castles fore and aft, outfitted with complex sails. The earliest ocean going round-ships were the Irish cogs of the 13th century. These smaller rounded hulled vessels were capable of long voyages and could support large numbers of guns along its decks. Winter voyages were also quite possible – something that the ancient and Muslim navies avoided at all costs.


Europeans were able to go forth and conquer the world thanks to these round-ships which used a compass as a key component of navigation. Contrary to myth it is clear that the compass was invented independently in both China and Europe during the 11th century. The Chinese compass was however very crude. It was simply a magnetized needle floating in liquid which could determine north-south. This compass was only useful in mystical and magical rites. It could not be used in navigation.


The Europeans by contrast had the compass attached to a compass-card along a sight. This complete compass allowed the European sailor exact directional knowledge along all points of latitude and longitude, not just along a simple north-south axis. This necessitated of course map-making. The most accurate maps of the world's littoral were made by Europeans, far surpassing any of the crudities illustrated by the ancients, or by Arabs, Muslims and the Chinese. Accurate map-making was essential if European sailors were to be both effective and productive in their longer-ranging sea voyages. It is not a mistake, nor just dumb luck, that Vespucci, Columbus, and Da Gama, discovered and began to map out the world, and not the Chinese, the Aztecs, or the Muslims.


On land the Europeans during the 'medieval period' were far ahead of any other culture in innovation as well. Roman roads, so lauded by admirers of Roman despotism, were military arteries, which were too small and too steep in many places for cart, or large wagon traffic. Lying across these roads were many rivers and streams across which bridges did not exist, but only fordable passes. This again makes large cart traffic impossible. As well Roman horses were unshod, making long distance travel very difficult.


The medieval Europeans built new roads – oftentimes not along the paths preferred by Roman armies, but along direct and accessible routes of commerce. The horseshoe was invented in Europe, as were the techniques for building modern roads. Horse collars and harnesses allowed large volumes of product to be pulled along these new roads, for longer distances, vastly improving trade and wealth. Large carts with axles and brakes were invented only in medieval Europe facilitating the movement of goods-carrying carts down hills, and around corners – something the Romans could not do. The reason why Roman roads were straight is that their carts had no axles and could not turn; and their horses were uncollared which prevented good from being pulled long distances, or over hilly and rough terrain.


And this is only a very partial list of European war and transport creation over 5 centuries.

It is clear that Europeans during the 7th to 12th centuries, changed the political-economy and the development of world history with resounding inventions found no where else in the world. The Muslim world was absolutely bereft of practical innovations which flourished in Europe during this period. Europe by 1000 was richer, better fed, more economically advanced than any other center in the world. Huge cathedrals or Gothic structures were being built across the Continent, showing the power and wealth of this European renaissance.


Nothing like the explosion in commerce, building, warfare and transport can be found in Islam or China during this period of time.


These are just black and white facts that the Western-haters; and the dhimmis who extol the mythical vibrancy of Islam are completely ignorant about. The Dark Ages only exist in our dark and misinformed imaginations.