I haven't studied the medieval period in much depth, but some basic research tells me that the general populace after the fall of Rome lost a lot of the technological and artistic advances of the Roman Empire.

What I can't find is exactly why the populace stayed in this state for as long as it did. As far as I can tell, for the majority of the medieval period the technology, economy, artistic, etc. remained where they were in terms of development.

Why? What kept the people of Europe from advancing?

I apologize if there is an obvious answer. I feel like it should be obvious, but I can't seem to find it.

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    The fall of Rome in the West was primarily an economic collapse, not a technological one. Also, the idea that technology was stagnant in medieval times is entirely a myth.
    – user15620
    Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 2:39
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    @StevenBurnap If it wasn't on hold, you could have added that one as another answer to the Intuitive misconceptions question! :) Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 2:47
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    Western Europe was on the fringes of things. It was also smothered by religiosity.
    – John Dee
    Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 3:15
  • Read about China India, or Islam for medieval innovation.
    – John Dee
    Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 3:16
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    The question has no simple answer, but I'd say two things: 1) Religion aka superstition, and 2) under-developed capital markets and over-localized markets in general. I think it also took time to get over the massive disruption of the plague, where depopulation was the norm.The Renaissance was characterised by more sophisticated money markets e.g. the Venetian banks as well as an increase in knowledge in Europe, especially scientific - even though this often meant simply the translation of old texts from Arabic. The printing press must have helped too. This is an amateur's observations though!
    – Pete855217
    Commented Oct 6, 2017 at 4:39

4 Answers 4


The premise of this question is simply incorrect, at least in terms of art and technology. The middle ages were no less a time of technological progress than the period it followed and also showed massive artistic changes.

What did change with the fall of the Rome in the West was that the economic system collapsed, and without a single unified power behind it, it never recovered. Instead of a single, unified Empire where goods could move hundreds of miles freely you had a bunch of small states, each taxing or blocking trade. The lack of economic centralization meant it was hard for true political centralization, which meant no large power could follow Rome. This meant that the general scope of people's lives seemed smaller, and there was less centralized free wealth for great displays. The poorer economy meant smaller populations in the West in general. (And the waves of plague certainly didn't help.)

If you read on the period (or you can listen to the excellent Fall of Rome podcast) you will find that it is far more interesting and varied than the old stereotype of people sitting on their thumbs and doing nothing between 500 AD and 1500 AD.

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    I'd say that there was a serious lack of innovation in Western Europe from 500-1000.
    – John Dee
    Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 3:11
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    Not just lack of innovation, but a loss or neglect of a lot of Roman-era knowledge. E.g. the Romans had mechanical harvesters en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_agriculture#Mechanisation which AFAIK didn't come into use again until the 1700s. Likewise, surviving examples of Roman art (from Pompeii, for instance) are qualitively much better (again, AFAIK) than anything done until the Renaissance.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 4:32
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    @jamesqf: depends what you think of late medieval, pre-renaissance artists like Simone Martini, I suppose ;-) Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 10:49
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    @ThomasMyron, you need to equip, feed, and pay an army. In order to support a large army, you need a large amount of economic surplus -- something that's hard to do without Roman-style economic organization.
    – Mark
    Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 20:49
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    Wow! Just write off Charlemagne and Barbarossa in half a sentence. What a simplistic interpretation that ignores all the most interesting developments of the period. Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 20:53

Actually there's really no obvious answer. That's the beauty of history; it is subject to multiple interpretations.

First off, semantically, we have to define what it means to be "developing" or "progressing." It should be noted that certain scholars (especially Petrach, who is mentioned by name in this Wikipedia article) referred to the medieval period (roughly the 5th Century to the 15th Century) as "surrounded by darkness and dense gloom." Petrach felt that the era was marked by darkness: the so-called "Dark Ages." However, that's certainly not a matter of fact. Rather, it's a matter of historical interpretation; a question of historiography.

To offer a competing interpretation, Petrach wrote these comments in the early 14th Century, near the end but still solidly within the period that most historians now consider the Middle Ages. Surely a man living in the time period he is criticizing as being the "Dark Ages" is not unlike what Owen Wilson experienced in Midnight in Paris: the yearning or longing for a time thought to be more exhilarating, more artful, more plein de vie simply because one was not part of it.

Second, even taking Petrach's comment at face value, his characterization is at best extreme and at worst somewhat ignorant. The period was marked by significant technological, artistic, religious and economic advancements. For example, accurate mechanical time pieces (time pieces using an escapement mechanism--a technology that is still employed today in high end mechanical watches) were devised during this time period. The printing press was famously invented by Gutenberg in the mid-15th Century. Metal working was highly sophisticated during this period producing a variety of custom-made fully articulated armoured suits for both practical (military) purposes as well as for parades/ceremony. Not to mention the variety of weaponry including crossbows, swords, siege devices (trebuchet, catapaults) and cannons. See here and here.

But to answer your question: "what kept the people of Europe from advancing," a variety of factors influenced Petrach's characterization which has wound up as somewhat of a colloquialism. First, Europe was riddled (or "plagued," if you'll excuse the pun) with disease. The Black Death was estimated to kill somewhere between 30% to over 50% of the population of the European continent. Second, the theory that we as a people identify first with a nation or a country is a somewhat recent development in human history. In the Middle Ages people identified and pledged their allegiance to a "lord" or "master," a concept which formed the basis of feudalism. This sort of "governmental" power structure was not really conducive to getting a lot of things done at a macroeconomic or political level. "Lords" were highly concerned with consolidating land and power resulting in constant infighting, raids, sieges and cutting other people's heads off. See here.

Just that's a quick answer; by NO MEANS intended to be comprehensive. There's much more research to be done.


All answers so far are correct. There were advances in the Middle Ages but they revolved around the priorities at the time such as improvements in weapons, shipbuilding, metallurgy, and architecture (designs and methods for gothic cathedrals and palaces were developed during the Middle Ages and many construction projects on these types of buildings were started in the late Middle Ages). However, the Middle Ages did see a stagnation of scientific and philosophical ideas compared to the Roman and Greek era and the general population had less opportunity to evolve. The primary reasons for this stagnation were:

  1. Religion. The Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religions were much more domineering in people's lives than previous religions during Roman and Greek eras and controlled every aspect of people's lives including scientific research, education, and philosophy, and were fearful of and hence restricted any idea that put into question its dominance or theology.

  2. Feudalism. Small territories ruled by Lords which were always in conflict with each other were not condusive to trade, travel, peace, centralized authority, individual rights or prosperity, all of which tend to expand knowledge and technological and cultural advancement.

  3. Population growth and plague. Cities in the Middle Ages had large growing populations but didn't have the sanitation that was customary in large Roman cities. As such, plagues and disease were common in the Middle Ages as well as recurring famine when weather conditions made for poor harvests unable to support the large city populations. During times of plague, disease, and famine, people tend to concentrate on survival rather than scientific advancement and distrust travel or travellers who they fear may bring the next plague.

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    Welcome to History:SE. You make some interesting points, but sources to support your assertions would greatly improve this answer. Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 13:26
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    Please support the assertion that Islam restricted new ideas.
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 13:58
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    Forget Islam, I'd like to know why Judaism is listed. The Jews weren't major political players at the state level in Europe, they were in the minority (there were powerful individuals, yes, but the population of the surrounding region would have been mostly Christian). Support for the assertion that Christianity restricted development would be nice, especially in light of the Byzantine Empire/Orthodox Church Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 16:21
  • Note that the intense effort spent in perfecting the casting of brass bells, returned dividends in spades a few centuries later: light-weight, quality cannons are relatively simple to cast once one can reliably cast bells that ring true without cracking. Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 20:56
  • This greatly underestimates the amount of philosophy that happened in the medieval period. (Though it is true that before the high middle ages this was mostly in the Muslim world.) Also, I suspect it overestimates the scientific advances of the Roman world. (As opposed to the Greek/Egyptian) The Romans, while amazing engineers, weren't particularly good scientists.
    – user15620
    Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 21:35

Do you know that the chimney was introduced to Europe in the 18th century? There had been use of the same principle in large commercial ovens and Roman baths but for some reason the idea to do the same thing for home heat didn't occur to them. Regular British homes didn't get them till 19th century.

Great leaps forward are not the norm. We are indoctrinated with the idea of steady progress, technologically and socially, but that's actually exceptional and was the product of massive investment (New Deal infrastructure projects, post-WWII rebuilding, moon project). Progress has actually stalled much as educational and infrastructure investment has declined. Things are glitzier but mostly refinement from what was invented during the 1940s-1970s. It is often said that War is a great stimulator of technology and economy, but the truth is that money is the stimulator; just more common to justify taxes and massive spending during times of war though we can do it anytime.
  Remember how cars 20 years old were "classics" and looked very different than the cars people were driving at the time? Not now, very little innovation going on. Even though we have the technology to automate and electrify our manufacturing, transportation, homes we relegate all implementation of those fundamental areas to private interests. Just like Europe after the fall of Rome, we have no central force to implement change. Government is supposed to but has only enforced mild regulation, not ordered change (equivalent to forcing the building of aqueducts and sewers).
  Homebuilding in the US got a small compromise update (regulation) in 1979 even though we have technology to make them many times more efficient at a price that would be negligible in a few years with energy savings. But that doesn't serve the energy/oil companies or the banks making real estate loans on cheaply built homes - to both builders and buyers.

Progress can be slow unless we work hard at it.

  • So...I visited Scotland last Summer. Visited castles all over the place. Many of them had these giant ovens, basically fireplaces you could walk into. We did. Looked up. Saw the big hole where all the smoke went. In castles built in the twelfth century. So I'm not sure where you can get that chimneys were introduced in the 18th century
    – user15620
    Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 21:43
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    According to wiki, the chimney appeared in Europe in the 12th century.
    – user15620
    Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 21:51
  • I said there had been use of them on large projects. But a big hole does not a chimney make. Getting draw and moderating fire with flues, all that is chimney technology that they did not have. And not available to common people. If you understand how a chimney works, Steven Burnap, don't associate it with a hole. It's like saying they had vehicles with 4 wheels so they had cars. "Where all the smoke went" is an incorrect assumption. Build a fire there and watch what happens. As room heats it'll draw cooler air back in throu that hole along with the smoke.
    – Hebekiah
    Commented Oct 20, 2017 at 20:17
  • Wow, and that explains part of the answer to the OP's question! People thought they knew what they didn't. Here's a link for learning more ultimatehistoryproject.com/chimneys.html "in 1768 Lord Kames of Edinburgh wrote to Franklin calling him “a universal smoke doctor” and asked him how to cure the smoky chimney in his new house." The Rumford chimney, soon to become the standard, was invented in 1795-6. In 1854 Henry David Thoreau asserted that the “comforts of civilized society” included a Rumford fire-place.
    – Hebekiah
    Commented Oct 20, 2017 at 20:31
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    To quote the wiki link I gave: "Romans used tubes inside the walls to draw smoke out of bakeries but chimneys only appeared in large dwellings in northern Europe in the 12th century. The earliest extant example of an English chimney is at the keep of Conisbrough Castle in Yorkshire, which dates from 1185 AD." Please check the link. It includes pictures of chimneys from before the 18th century
    – user15620
    Commented Oct 20, 2017 at 23:03

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