Markets and Progress

Two technologies that changed the world the most, the gun powder and the printing press, both originated in China. How did Europe manage to outpace China until now? The Chinese are distinguished by inventiveness. By around 2000BC they already designed a crossbow, and by 500BC semi-automatic variants were put into mass production. Gun powder was discovered around 900AD. It was quickly put to use in rocketry and bamboo flame throwers, which were eventually converted into cast-iron cannons.

All the standard tools required for metallurgy, including blast furnaces, double-action billows, and mechanical trip hammers, were also developed in China. Those technological advances came to Persians and then to Arabs many years before the Europeans got their hands on them. In fact, Europeans first learned about cannons by facing the barrels in Spain as they were getting mauled over by the Moors.

So why did the tables turn? How was Reconquista made possible? And how did Europe outpace both the Middle East and Asia by 1600AD. One way to explain it is to blame the Mongol invasion for the irreparable damage brought on those civilizations. This will not work, however, as the best main explanation. One of the key ingredients of Mongol success was their proclivity for advanced military technology. They facilitated much of its development and spread. For example, in 1241 Hungarians saw firearms and grenades for the first time being used against them by the Mongols in the battle of Mohi.

A better explanation lies within the surge of the monastic movements from Gaul into Britain, the Rhine basin, and the Danube basin in the Middle Ages. Those communities inseminated scholasticism flowering into the European university system and eventually into Renaissance. But before any of that happened, they brought something else. Early European monks, alongside with spreading Christianity, made metallurgy open-source. This gave rise to a class of blacksmiths as a private self-sufficient entrepreneurs starting with Ireland and Scandinavia.

Rievaulx Abbey, Site of the Best Furnace of the Time

Up until about 1100AD, metallurgy was almost exclusively controlled by the ruling elite. Mining required a large labor force, and the mines were heavily guarded. The knowledge required for smelting, casting, and forging was kept from the public as trade secrets. It was not difficult to control the knowledge, because only the ruling elite was able to read. Writing something down was a great way to ensure that only a small fraction of the population would be able to recover the information, especially in China.

The monks learned how to read and write in order to copy and translate the Bible. They used their knowledge and ability to read to improve agriculture by making metal plow tips and horseshoes in make-shift smithies. They cast nails to help the peasantry construct dwellings and fashioned fishing hooks. They set up mechanical saws and billows at the monasteries powered by water wheels to provide steady fuel and oxygen for industry. The initial monastic impulse lead to eventual construction of blast furnaces in every major city in Europe.

Within a few generations, the European volume of steel output dwarfed the rest of the world combined. The technology was not yet much superior to that of China, Persia, and Arabia. But the common spread of technology and its accessibility to the city-dwellers created a huge market for tools, plate armor, firearms, and eventually siege cannons.

Paper and printing took a similar turn. China, Persia, and Arabia had both centuries before they were introduced to Europe. The difference was this: in Europe a market of scholastic readers grew large, later becoming known to us as the Humanists and the Reformers. Growth in those areas was not a race for quality, it was initially a race of quantity. Availability of knowledge and a large group of people willing to learn and willing to change created the market conditions necessary for progress. Let’s keep it going!