30 January 2023

A Technologist's Bibliography

Happy New Year to one and all!  Still trucking away here, so let me tuck right in.

I’ve always been fascinated with seeing how low-tech craftsmen did things.  It therefore doesn’t suck that I live in an area with more reenactment museums than anywhere else in my hemisphere.  Whether it’s Mystic Seaport or Old Sturbridge Village, Old Deerfield vs Lake Champlain, Canterbury Shaker Village vs Hancock Shaker Village, farm and seafaring museums galore, or even demonstrations at county fairs, I’m the fellow spending a half-hour leaning over the rail at the blacksmith’s or the cooper’s shop, observing How Things Were Done.

Not all of you have that luxury, alas, and need to hit the books to learn more.  Having been specifically asked about works about medieval technology by one of my Kind Readers, I wanted to go a little more indepth than in a comment response.

Your first stop should be the relevant Wikipedia topics.  Not only are they comprehensive, direct to the point and easy to read, they link to many specific articles, as well as relevant articles concerning technology in areas besides western Europe.  For most gamers who want to replicate what was possible in medieval times, those will do well.  Start with this article, and then you can segue on to similar articles on the medieval Islamic world, the Byzantine Empire, India, China and the like.  (Absolutely do NOT ignore the pertinent Chinese articles: China was far more technologically advanced than Europe, at a far earlier date.  You’ll be astonished at what they had in wide circulation hundreds of years before the Renaissance.)

If you’ve got a relatively limited budget and want to do more, I strongly recommend the various GURPS Low Tech works: like many a GURPS worldbook, their broad material is very useful even to those who don’t play GURPS.  Beyond the main Low Tech book, there are three PDF-only 36-page Low Tech Companions: Philosophers and Kings, Weapons and Warriors, and Daily Life and Economics.  They can all be obtained online from SJ Games’ Warehouse 23 site.

The main Wikipedia “Medieval technology” article also has an extremely extensive bibliography.  One work listed in that bibliography is something I’m lucky to have: Volumes II and III of the mammoth 1957 Oxford University Press History of Technology series, edited by Charles Singer; those volumes cover medieval times and the Renaissance, respectively.  It is excellent and comprehensive, and you can just barely get the volumes (they’re long out of print, alas) used on Amazon.

The next works are technically more modern, but of great use to the medieval technologically oriented gamer.  John Seymour was a British environmentalist and self-sufficiency pioneer who wrote an amazing book called The Forgotten Arts and Crafts; his last ditch attempt, a few decades back, to record traditional craftsmanship before its last practitioners died out.  It’s simply written, lavishly and excellently illustrated, with a few pages on each one: gate-hurdle making to hoop-making, charcoaling to basketweaving, limeburning to netmaking.  (Five pages on roof thatching, for instance, including illustrations of every tool used in the process, and a half-page crosshatch illo of the various layers involved.)  It’s another book that’s out of print, alas, but well worth the cost.

I love old books, and one of my prizes is Dr. Chase’s Combination Receipt Book: it’s a 1915 book that seeks to present the best remedies, diagnoses, treatments and medicines available to the country farmer.  It also has large sections on various household preparations, cooking and the like, all suitably low tech. I was astonished to find out it’s still in print, but in fact it is, and at reasonable prices online.

I’ve mentioned Deane's Doctrine of Naval Architecture before in this blog; while it’s a 17th century work, longtime readers of my blog know of my firm belief that “medieval” RPG settings are nothing of the sort: they’re by and large Renaissance-tech with 18th century Age of Sail maritime tech bolted on.  It’s a seminal work of shipbuilding history, and one of the earliest indepth ones extant.

Finally, I wouldn’t ignore YouTube.  There’ve been so many how-they-did it shows and videos out there, and it adds a dimension a book can’t give you: seeing how things were actually done.  (Typing in “medieval cart” in the search bar, for instance, gives a clip from Modern History TV as the first item, a fascinating ten minute clip on medieval handcarts, demonstrating the one the presenter had built.)

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