18 Inventions of the Middle Ages That Changed The World

The Middle Ages, far from being miserable and bloody, was a period of great invention and innovation.

18 Inventions of the Middle Ages That Changed The World
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After the fall of Rome in the West during the 5th Century AD, the power vacuum it created forced its former conquests into centuries of bitter warfare, famine, disease, and strife. 

Yet despite the constant fear of death, there was enough calm during the Middle Ages for great leaps forward in science and invention.

These 18 inventions of the Middle Ages are prime examples. Some of them were so important that they would pave the way, ultimately, to the modern world we live in.

The following list is far from exhaustive and in no particular order.

1. The Printing press was revolutionary

inventions of the middle ages
Source: Daniel Chodowiecki/Wikimedia Commons

The printing press is probably the most important invention of the Middle Ages. It wrenched control of information distribution from The State and The Church and laid the path for Protestant Reformation, The Renaissance, and The Enlightenment.

Although Johannes Guttenberg's famous press was developed in the 15th Century it can trace its history back to 3rd Century China. Without the modern world would be a very different place indeed.

2. The Coffee House was ahead of its time

inventions of the middle ages coffee
Source: Ekim Caglar/Wikimedia Commons

To anyone who has ever visited the Middle East will attest coffee is a huge part of their culture. It was first introduced to the Ottoman Empire sometime in the 15th Century and would take the Ottoman world by storm.

Soon after coffee houses would spring up everywhere with coffee being introduced to Europe in the early modern period.

3. The heavy plow led to the Agricultural Revolution

The introduction of the heavy plow in the 6th Century revolutionized farming across the world. Previously mouldboard plow designs limited their efficacy by needing to be a tradeoff between weight and their ability to be pulled along on their runner.

Heavy plows introduced wheels to replace the runners of its predecessors which enabled them to increase significantly in size and introduce metal components, whilst still being able to be pulled by draft animals.

Food production would increase dramatically thereafter ultimately facilitating much of modern history not to mention dramatically changing landscapes.

4. Verge escapement/mechanical clocks replaced hourglasses

inventions of the middle ages clocks
Source: Rauantiques/Wikimedia Commons

The development of the verge escapement would lead to the creation of the first mechanical clocks in around 1300 AD. By the 15th Century, they became widespread around Europe.

Their invention would quickly challenge the popularity of hourglasses and ultimately changed everyone's perception of time itself.

5. Paper 'money' is older than you think

inventions of the middle ages money
Source: PHGCOM/Wikimedia Commons

The first recorded use of government-issued paper money was in 11th Century China. This currency replaced those produced by private enterprises of the time.

All instances of their use were to provide a form of a promissory note payable on demand to the bearer by the issuer. They were intended to replace the need to carry around quantities of precious metals which could easily be lost or stolen.

Marco Polo would write about his observations of this innovation on his return to Europe but it wouldn't become common in Europe until the late 1600s.

6. The hourglass was a great way of keeping time

inventions of the middle ages hourglass
Source: Michael Himbeault/Flickr

The hourglass first appeared in Europe in the 8th Century AD but seem to have become common around the early 14th Century. They would quickly replace older means of timekeeping like sundials and were especially useful on long voyages by sea.


By the 15th Century, they were common sights on ships, in churches, and in industries. They were the first dependable, reusable and fairly accurate means of measuring time and would only be superseded with the invention of the mechanical clock.

7. Gunpowder changed the world

inventions of the middle ages gunpowder
Source: Mondebleu/Wikimedia Commons

Franciscan friar Roger Bacon was the first European to describe, in the 13th Century, in detail the process for making gunpowder.

Of course today it is common knowledge that gunpowder was in widespread use in China from the 9th Century and Roger likely got his formula from Chinese sources.

Many believe it was introduced to Europe via the Mongols but this is hotly debated. However, it occurred warfare and the world at large would be changed forever.

8. The Blast furnace first appeared in Switzerland and Germany

inventions of the middle ages blast furnace
Source: Tungsten/Wikimedia Comons

Blast furnaces may have their origins as early as the 1st Century AD in China but first appear in Europe in the 1200's. These early blast furnaces were very inefficient by modern standards.

The oldest European examples were built in Durstel and Lapphyttan in Switzerland and Sauerland in Germany. There is also some tentative evidence of earlier ones in Järnboås, Sweden that date to around 1100 AD.

9. Liquor was a Medieval thing

inventions of the middle ages liquor
Source: Marco Verch/Flickr

Distillation for producing liquors appears to have its origins in the "Mongolian Still" that first appears in the 7th Century AD. This still used freeze distillation whereby the liquid was frozen and water crystals were removed.

Whether this was used to produce alcohol is not clear.

The still, as we know it today, may have first appeared in the 8th or 9th Century Iraq where an Arab alchemist, Al-Kindi, used it to produce alcohol. This is, however, hotly debated.

It would later spread to Europe, namely Italy, and was first described in by the School of Salerno in the 12th Century. Most historians believe that true alcohol-producing stills appear to have first appeared in Europe in the 13th Century.

10. The wheelbarrow was invented in the Middle Ages

inventions of the middle ages
Source: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

The wheelbarrow, believe it or not, was only invented in the Middle Ages. Although there may have been similar devices in China and ancient Greece the first definitive reference to them appears in 12 Century Europe.

They would quickly prove their worth but didn't appear to be an immediate success. By the 15th Century, however, they became commonplace for everything from mining to construction.

11. The flying buttress is an iconic Middle Age development

inventions of the middle ages flying buttress
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Flying buttresses are an iconic architectural feature of the Middle Ages. They first appeared in Gothic churches from the 12th Century onwards and are still awe-inspiring in modern times.

These architectural features suddenly allowed for buildings to be built much taller than previously thought possible allowing for higher ceilings, thinner walls and much bigger windows.

This is because these forms of buttress provided a much increased supporting power when compared to more traditional forms.

Without this Medieval invention architectural forms that followed it would look very different indeed.

12. The spinning wheel was invented in India

inventions of the middle ages spinning wheel
Source: Ninaras/Wikimedia Commons

Spinning wheels appear to have their origin in India sometime between the 5th and 10th Century AD. They would eventually reach Europe later in the Middle Ages thanks to the silk road.

They would quickly replace the more traditional method of hand spinning and were a pre-requisite to the later innovations made during the Industrial Revolution like the Spinning Jenny and spinning frame.

The spinning wheel can, therefore, be argued to have helped lay the foundations for the modern world - as unlikely as that might seem at first.

13. The Tidal Mill first appeared in Ireland

inventions of the middle ages
Source: Flore Allemandou/Wikimedia Commons

Water and windmills have been known to have been employed since antiquity but tidal mills seem to be an exclusively Medieval innovation.

Recent studies have found that the earliest examples of these mills date from the 6th Century AD in Ireland, but they may have been utilized in Roman London - but this is speculation.

Some still exist today from the period including the vertical-wheeled mill located at Kiloteran near Waterford, EIRE. They are even mentioned in the famous Doomsday book of 1086.

14. Pintle-and-gudgeon Stern-Mounted Rudders shrank the world

inventions of the middle ages
Source: Bernd Klabunde/Wikimedia Commons

Pintle-and-gudgeon stern-mounted rudders were a major innovation of during the Middle Ages. Prior to their existence boats and large ships were maneuvered using simple oars or simple quarter rudders.

They would prove to be very successful and were used right up to the end of the Middle Ages. They first began to appear in images around the 12th Century.

Despite this, they came into their own when fully rigged ships became commonplace in the 14th Century and were a pre-requisite for the forthcoming Age of Discovery. Suddenly Europeans had a useful tool for navigating the oceans of the world.

15. Eyeglasses made everything clear

inventions of the middle ages
Source: Conrad von Soest/Wikimedia Commons

Roger Bacon made the first definitive reference to eyeglasses in the 13th Century. They appear to have first been developed in Italy by one Alessandro di Spina of Florence.

This is supported by a sermon given by a Dominican Friar called Giordana da Pisa in the late 13th Century.

He wrote: "It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses, which make for good vision... ".

This invention would significantly improve the quality of life for the visually impaired to this day - as the writer will attest.

16. Treadmill cranes made building easier

inventions of the middle ages
Source: Ji-Elle/Wikimedia Commons

Treadmill cranes were simple wooden, man-powered, hoisting and lowering devices developed and widely used throughout the Middle Ages.

They can often be seen depicted in images and paintings of the period during the assembly of monolithic buildings like castles and cathedrals.

The first definitive reference to one, referred to as the Magna Roat, was in some French literature darting to around 1225 AD. They would become commonplace at harbors, mines and, obviously, on building sites of the time.

17. Cannon changed warfare forever

inventions of the middle ages cannon
Source: Antgirl/Flickr

The earliest cannons may date as far back as 12th Century China with the earliest known depiction being a sculpture from the Dazu Rock Carvings in Sichuan dated around 1128 AD.

The eldest existing original pieces originate from 13th Century China and include the famous Wuwei Bronze Cannon(1227 AD), the Heilongjiang hand cannon (1288 AD), and the Xanadu Gun (1298 AD).

The technology would eventually spread to Europe with one of the first recorded use of them at the Battle of Crecy by the English against French crossbowmen.

They would dramatically change the course of war forever.

18. The Astrolabe was an early computer

inventions of the middle ages
Source: Elrond/Wikimedia Commons

Astrolabes were effectively elaborate inclinometers and, in effect, can be considered early computers. They would become invaluable for astronomers and navigators to work out the inclined position to a given celestial body day or night.

Earlier examples do appear to have existed in Alexandria in the 5th Century AD but they reached their peak in sophistication during the Middle Ages. They would in part inspuire the later development of mechanical clocks.



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