Today, the wild West holds up a mirror to medieval life. 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.
The American West developed its own characteristic technologies for daily life. We all know the flavor: log cabins, windmills, card games, heavy horse-drawn wagons, whiskey, large saddles and -- I might ominously add -- death by hanging.
Historian Lynn White has pointed out a startling feature of all these technologies. Log cabins were a medieval form of housing. The earlier Romans and later Europeans used much different building technologies. The Romans and later Europeans drank beer and wine. But, in the 12th century, medieval Europeans invented distillation, and whiskey became the drink of choice. Romans and 18th-century gamesmen used dice, but you would find only cards in medieval or Western saloons. The Western saddle was a direct adaptation of the old medieval war saddle. With its high cantle and its pommel, it gave a working rider a very sure seat upon a horse.
Those comparisons can be found right down the line. The Romans executed people by crucifixion, and the later Europeans used beheading or shooting. But hanging and other forms of strangulation were standard medieval forms of capital punishment. For that matter, the Western posse was precisely the medieval sheriff's posse comitatus -- a group of citizens called to public service.
The strange parallel grows more puzzling when we learn that the middle-class settlers of New England tried to recreate what they'd left behind instead of looking for the most efficient technologies. They tried to go straightaway to the beam and plank house-construction they'd left in England, even when log houses made better sense.
But the settlers of the West were generally the European lower classes. They were peasants, workmen and people who'd lived away from the sophisticated centers of Europe. Their lives had generally been closer to the technologies of the Middle Ages. More than that, these people found their way more quickly to the sort of roughhewn methods that worked so well in both the medieval world and the undeveloped West. Of course, they were also people who held little nostalgia for current European styles.
White's suggestion bothered many other historians. He didn't explain the similarity, and people don't like what cannot be explained. Yet, in a way, it seems fairly evident. The technologies of the 11th to the 14th centuries were direct, practical, and inventive, and so too were those of the the Western immigrants. Both medieval society and Western society were open to change and variety.
The old West provides such an accurate mirror of medieval life just because it was populated by free and inventive people adapting to harsh circumstances. The medieval mind, as it turns out, was what it took to open up America.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
White, L., Jr., Medieval Religion and Technology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978, "The Legacy of the Middle Ages in the American Wild West ," pp. 105-120
This is an expanded and reworked version of Episode 10.
A medieval war saddle with stirrups.
Note how firmly it holds the rider in place.
Drawing by Maria Zsigmond Baca. By permission of Peter Gordon
A western working saddle with stirrups.
Note the kinship with the medieval saddle.
Drawing by Maria Szigmond Baca. By permission of Peter Gordon