Narratives of technological revolution in the Middle Ages are a distinctively
20th-century phenomenon. First articulated by a handful of influential
French, British and American historians between the 1930s and 1950s, they
can be genealogically linked to narratives of progress across a number of arts
and social science disciplines which have invoked the language of revolutionary
rupture to characterize a number of notable transformations in
human cultures and societies between the Neolithic and modern periods.
Two kinds of technological revolution have been claimed for the European
Middle Ages by 20th-century scholars: an ‘agricultural revolution’ of the
6th to 9th centuries, and an ‘industrial revolution’ of the 11th to 14th centuries.
Scholarly claims for both an industrial revolution and an agricultural revolution
in the Middle Ages can be traced back to the 1930s, although they
did not become full-blown narratives until the 1950s. Such claims have a
relatively complex lineage, but are perhaps best understood as part of a western
intellectual tradition going back to the Enlightenment which has sought
to account for the radical social and political changes that have occurred
throughout the world since industrialization with reference to the marriage
of practical and theoretical knowledge characteristic of the modern period.