Dr. Judith A. Weller


So how great a technological leap forward with respect to equine traction systems was the Middle Ages over that of the Roman Empire? When you take all factors into consideration there was no effective advancement in the Middle Ages. The carters of Middle Ages, just as those in Roman Imperial Times, were limited to about a 1 tonne per team and in most cases probably considerably less. Despite the arrival of the horse collar there was no real increase in load limits. The horse collar's greatest asset was in farming and hitching the horse to a plough – something not done in Roman times. But there is no evidence that the horse collar effectively increased the load which could be pulled by a well-nourished teams of animals. Actually the spread of the horse collar was relatively slow indicating that many did not see it as vast improvement on what was already in use. Part of this was doubtless due to the fact that the ox was still the primary means of traction in agriculture in many areas. What did increase was the widespread general use of the horse in all levels of society. In the Middle Ages the horse soon came to dominate light-hauling (loads up to 1000 kg), although for any heavy hauling of loads over 1000 kg the ox still predominated1.

It is evident that by the time of the Empire the Romans had a fully functional and useful harness system for equids which permitted their use in sport, war, and commerce. The load limit was on average 1 to 1 ½ metric tons for a team as I have demonstrated. The harness provided for traction points on either the shoulder or the chest. The system did in not any way impede the ability of the animal to breathe. Despite the development of the horse collar and the use of the horse in agriculture, and light hauling, the load limit was not increased in the Middle Ages. Medieval times showed no improvement in wagon technology or in road construction. The improvements in harness systems were merely modification of those existing in Roman times and in many areas, during the period known as the Dark Ages, the yoke existed side by side with the horse collar. In many areas of Europe, especially England, the ox was still preferred over the horse in agricultural work. In short there was no vast "transportation revolution" caused by the introduction of the horse collar in the Middle Ages. The great improvements in road construction, wagon technology, and horse breeding would not occur until after the Middle Ages had ended. It was in the succeeding centuries that we see the development of dished wheels, the creation of breeds of heavy draught horse such as the Percheron, and especially the great improvement in roads. It was the improvement in roads which truly made possible a new "transportation revolution", allowing public conveyances and private coaches to move speedily and easily between towns and cities throughout Europe and England.

So what can be said about the likes of Gimpel and T. Lynn White. Gimpel was in possession of a "Big Idea". I think a good case can be made that Gimpel, in pursuit of his big idea, skimped on facts and details where they interfered with his theory. This self-deception caused him to make inappropriate comparisons and draw idiosyncratic conclusions. It has, also led some of his readership into being deceived as well.

Kevin Greene sums it up best:

Seen from the Roman side of the chronological fence, the study of Medieval technology had appeared to be a fertile field, producing interesting ideas of broad historical significance backed up by forms of detailed literary and artistic evidence sadly lacking from earlier periods. This impression probably resulted from the existence of a few charismatic writers of the 1950's-1970's – notably L. White Jr. and including J. Gimpel – who had, in the tradition of Lefebvre des Noëttes made bold claims for the historical and social implications of technology. Lynn White Jr. raised the stakes in 1962 by tracing much of Europe's political and social development from improved utilisation of horses for riding and traction by means of stirrup, iron shoes and heavy collars. When associated with the wheeled ploughs, they were considered to have allowed profound agricultural developments following their initial military advantages. Gimpel went even further and used his assessment of the growth, maturation, and decline of mediaeval France's technology to predict the deterioration and eventual failure of the United States and in consequence the economy of the western world.2
So what can we conclude at least in respect to harnessing the horse? It should now be obvious that the horse collar was not a "giant" technological step forward for the Middle Ages. Its chief impact was in agriculture which allowed the horse to be used for agricultural work, something for which he was not used in Antiquity. However, it did not allow the horse to pull heavier loads as has been claimed by other writers. Nor did it prevent the horses from "strangling" as he moved forward – indeed the evidence of "strangulation" is a myth put forward by Lefebvre des Noëttes, who incorrectly interpreted the evidence at hand. This error was promoted by the likes of T. Lynn White and Jean Gimpel who failed to demonstrate the intellectual rigor required of historians and scholars by re-examining their original sources. In short they found a flawed thesis convenient for their owned flawed work.

For a truer understanding of the Medieval Period we must better understand Roman Technology and that will only come from the work of archaeologists, and other classical scholars.

  1. Langdon, p. 119
  2. Greene, "Technology and innovation", p. 22