Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The 'Sid Meier's Civilization' school of History

Those with long memories will recall Richard Carrier's post back in January 2010 with the provocative title 'Flynn's Pile of Boners'. Unfortunately a lot of it seemed to rest on the assumption that if an invention originates in a particular culture then they get to claim sole ownership of it on the scoreboard of history (I don't know where this idea came from - perhaps the computer game 'Sid Meier's Civilization'). So, following this logic, the appearance of mechanical clocks powered by water in the ancient world thereby negates Medieval advances in clock making - 3 points to Rome, zero points to the dumb Medievals who end up with the Dan Quayle award.

To see how silly this idea is, one only has to look at the example of gunpowder. Now gunpowder is indisputably a Chinese invention and was used to develop a range of military technologies that eventually spread to the Arab and Medieval European world. However the gunpowder revolution - the event which revolutionised warfare and transformed the world - took place in Europe in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth century. Before then hand cannons were of largely psychological use and as a general rule gunpowder weapons were not very effective. Descriptions of battles indicate they were more of an annoyance than a deadly menace.

The real revolution where gunpowder became a war transforming weapon took place in France in the fifteenth century. The key advance was a new technique of manufacturing gunpowder, a process known as Corning first attested in 1429. This turned the powder into granular form and greatly strengthened it's power and performance. It could be more accurately measured and stored without the powder separating. When a flame touched the powder it would explode about 30% more efficiently as the fire moved from grain to grain. Furthermore the new style of powder could propel a bullet or a cannon ball with much greater force and guns became the lethal weapon they have been ever since.

Because of increased recoil, the old way of holding a handgun with two hands in front of the chest was no longer practical. The Europeans solved this problem by developing the Arqubus (crooked stock) where the stock was bent down at an angle and could be nestled in the shoulder of the firer. This absorbed the shock and meant the soldier could sight down the barrel. This configuration was so effective it has not really changed in 500 years. The second innovation was the matchlock which allowed the weapon to be gripped firmly when fired.

Corned gunpowder also allowed the development of more effective cannon. Long thin cannons were needed which could still fire a projectile. This was greatly facilitated by the high quality of European metallurgy in the fifteenth century. It was the experience the Europeans had in making church bells particularly which allowed them to develop this technology.

Once the weapons made possible by corned gunpowder became established they had a dramatic effect on European warfare. It took a while because - although an arquebus could fire through armor - so could a longbow or a crossbow. Both weapons competed for several decades but the arquebus would win out due to it's ease of use and psychological effect. Cannons with stronger yet longer barrels were now enough to destroy city walls and castles. This was brought home in 1453 when a huge cannon was cast for the Ottoman army by a Hungarian gunsmith and was able to breach the walls of Constantinople. During the French invasion of Italy in 1496 castle walls were destroyed in a matter of hours. Cannons were now small enough to go on a ship but powerful enough to cause serious damage. Galleons were developed which could deliver broadsides and this created a revolutionary type of naval warfare.

The point of this is to demonstrate that when assessing the history of an invention we shouldn't merely look at it's earliest documented appearance but also key stages in it's development and it's take-up by different civilizations.

Anyhow the reason I bring the post up is that I just checked back after some months and it appears the comments are still going over a year after it was first put up - mainly due to a bitter dispute between Richard and one Steve Kellmeyer. It's worth a read for a bit of amusement. I'm still due to post on the idea that the figure given for Domesday Mills is a wild over-estimate prompted by Christian Apologists seeking to aggrandize for Medieval Christianity - something that came as a bit of a surprise to the expert in Medieval Milling I emailed.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Merkavah said...

I personally go by the Starcraft School of History: The answer to every problem a major spacefaring empire has is CONSTRUCT ADDITIONAL PYLONS.

Tim O'Neill said...

Some of Richard "Artie Ziff" Carriewr's "boners" in that discussion are beginning to pile pretty high as well. Apart from his hilarious comments on Medieval warfare, which indicate he know nothing on the subject, we get this gem:

And there is nothing like the logical or empirical writings of Galen, Ptolemy, or Archimedes in any Christian book written at any time before the twilight of the Scientific Revolution (in the 15th century).

Really Dr Carrier? That's odd, considering Medieval natural philosophers had been using Galen, Ptolemy, and Archimedes for about 300 years by that stage.

Kaptajn Congoboy said...

Hey! Don't knock on Civ! It started me down a long, slippery slope that finally placed me at the bottom of the hole I am currently in!

Noons said...

I've noticed with the free download versions of civilization, societies develop in almost the opposite way that they did in history. Technology advances more rapidly with more cities and higher populations, which are hard if you're being attacked. Consequently, the most isolated societies advance the most rapidly.

tolkein said...

I've read the thread and don't understand Carrier's point. I've just re-read my copy of Reginald Leonard's Rural England OUP (1966) which I bought in 1973) and he discusses the Domesday mills, all of which are assumed to be water-mills (for the obvious reason that hand mills would not be assessable for tax). the relevant pages are pp278-287. He starts off by writing "But the water-mill, which figures so prominently in the traditional lore of the English village, is a subject that demands some consideration here.The articles of enquiry preserved in the Ely preamble included a question about the number of mills; and mills are in fact so frequently mentioned in Domesday book that one can almost say it was normal, throughout the greater part of the country, for a village to contain one or more if water-power was available. The figure of 5,624 given by Miss Hodgen as the total number of Domesday mills is almost certainly too low: the figures which Professor Darby has published for fifteen counties, though hard to interpret and confessedly imprecise, seem to indicate that the number in this area was appreciably larger than Miss Hodgen's total of 2,628 mills at 1,600 places"

What is Richard Carrier on about?

deef said...

This post makes me want to play Civilization again.