Today, a medieval inventor goes to war -- almost.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
It's pretty clear that war
has been a poor incentive to developing new
technology. But human ingenuity does often
use war as an excuse. One marvelous example
comes out of the dog days of the High Middle Ages.
During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Europe
directed remarkable energy into mills, cathedrals,
book-making -- technologies that were both
liberating and civilizing. Then Europe began
diverting its energy. The early crusades had
reopened pilgrim travel to Jerusalem. They'd
created an East-West commerce of goods and ideas.
At the outset, both the Arabic and the European
worlds had the strength of religious tolerance and
But the crusades led both sides to trade all that
for the most self-destructive prejudice and hatred.
As the Hundred Years War began in 1337, fragmentary
crusades were still being mounted, though the
Moslems were finally driving Europeans out of the
After that, a dyspeptic Europe turned its bile on
itself. A generation of bad weather, failed crops,
famine and susceptibility to disease had decimated
the population. The plague
finally arrived ten years into the Hundred Years
War, and before it was done, half the European
population had died.
Two years before the Hundred Years War, a physician
and engineer named Guido da Vigevano attached
himself to Philippe VI of France, whom he expected
to go on an obligatory crusade. To strengthen his
position with Philippe, Guido wrote a sort of
crusade handbook for him. Nine folios of the book
advise the king on how to look after his health on
the journey. The other fourteen folios advise him
on military technology.
Historian Rupert Hall points out muddy
inconsistencies between Guido's text and sketches.
But the machines are clear enough in their broad
intent. They are a last breath of the soaring
medieval imagination. Guido knew wood was hard to
find in the Holy Land, so his siege equipment was
to be broken into prefabricated parts that horses
could carry. He said a lot about joints and
assembly. We find folding attack boats and pontoon
bridges -- innovative new forms of body armor. We
find two self-propelled battle wagons: one was
crank-driven; the other carried its own windmill
King Philippe never got to the Holy Land. No one
ever tried to build Guido's wonderful machinery.
Two years later it was King Philippe who started
the Hundred Years War by seizing an English-held
duchy in southwestern France.
So I look at Guido's marvelous Picasso-like
sketches, without perspective or
three-dimensionality -- ideas tumbling one over the
other. It was a kind of fantasy armory for beating
back a fantasy enemy. It was a child's' view of
war, remote from the practical world outside. It
was so very far from a world bent on setting loose
the ancient and straightforward technologies of
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds