Jacques Le Goff said this in his book "Medieval Civilization 400-1500" on pages 200-201. I would like to know if modern historians agree with these statements of Jacques le Goff and why:

Probably there was no sector of medieval life where the horror of 'novelties', another mental characteristic of the period, acted with more force against progress than in the technical domain.

For a long time no-one in the western middle ages composed a technical treatise, these being unworthy of the written word or dependent on a secret which must not be repeated.

There was practically no qualitative development in the use of machinery during the middle ages. Almost all the machines then in use had been described by scholars in the Hellenistic period, especially the Alexandrians, who had also often sketched out the scientific principle on which they operated.

  • 1
    Do windmills count?
    – Jan
    Dec 26, 2021 at 23:56
  • 1
    Or mechanical clocks?
    – Jan
    Dec 26, 2021 at 23:57
  • 2
    How would you determine truth or falsehood? what test would you use? What kind of evidence would you seek to prove/disprove? If confirmed, would this thesis help you to understand or interpret other history?
    – MCW
    Dec 27, 2021 at 3:57
  • 1
    The second one certainly seems true; however, keeping trade secrets by not committing them to writing is not (quite) the same as recess or stagnation.
    – Lucian
    Dec 27, 2021 at 7:06
  • Bell making and masonry (to wit, construction of the large cathedrals) are additional exceptions. The increased metallurgical knowledge gained through the perfection of bell making was later useful directly in the manufacture of lightweight field cannons. Jan 1, 2022 at 14:31

2 Answers 2


In general, modern historians emphasize continuity in history. They know that the tripartite division (Ancient, Middle, Modern) is artificial and biased since it was coined: it is somehow implied that the "Classical World" was better than Medieval, but we know this is not true. Modern historias are very wary of this "backward medieval view". The true answer is continuous improvement, yet a different velocity: Only modern innovation is exponential. Medieval innovation was not (neither was ancient innovation, although it might seem more remarkable than the medieval period).

Also, in Europe in the Middle Ages they emphasize the "political fragmentation", which is not "technological backwardness" or "technological stagnation", but affects both. In a fragmented space, such as Medieval Europe, tech innovation was smaller and the spread was slower. But there were innovations indeed.

On the three citations:

  • There was not "horror of novelties" as a major factor, the major factors were simple lack of communications to get novelties, and also lack of resources to innovate. For example, the growth in the 14th & 15th centuries came after the Black Death increased the resources per capita.
  • In the middle ages there are plenty of technical treatises. From Boethius in the 6th century to "Liber Abaci" of Fibonacci in 1202. Plenty of architecture, botany, literature, math, navigation, astronomy, war and diplomacy, etc.
  • Many examples to show the contrary: shipbuilding, architecture, music instruments, clocks, even the basic farmer tools and war weapons evolve and pretty much so during the middle ages.

Also, on the Ancient technologies Le Goff cites, some of them are Neolithic, so not a "classical" invention! The true answer is that there was innovation but not an exponential one as we are used to since the Modern Age started.

  • "Improvement" eh? Nice telos. Nov 30, 2022 at 20:05

As James's answer said, there were innovations during the Middle Age as during other periods, even if the Middle Ages, considering their length, are not the period at which Europe showed its fatest innovation.

The political fragmentation as well as natural diseases and foreign invasions did not help to theoretical innovation: people only accepted innovations that could be fastly used to survive: For example, a better collar for labour horses, or the yoke for military cavalrymen. The lack of knowledge for writing and not-yet invented printing press also triggered less written, theoretical treaties compared to the Modern Age.

But it should be considered, in a broader vision, that:

  • Innovation was still there in Europe, especially in trading cities
  • The Middle Ages work on "practical" innovations that increased the life-level and (anachronic) HDI, thus allowing people of the Modern Ages to be focused on other subjects
  • There was different periods inside the Middle Age, more or less active
  • Other geographical regions at this period saw innovation as well, especially the Muslim world

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.