|Hugh of St. Victor (1096-1141)|
Christians Who Changed Their World (7)
This is part of an on-going series of articles about largely unknown Christians who had an enormous impact on society by faithfully living out their biblical worldview in various areas of life.
Attitudes toward work
Why would a monk be interested in technology? Why would he see this as a means to lead us to God? To answer that, we need to look at attitudes about work in the ancient and medieval worlds.
Physical labor tended to be devalued in the ancient world. In classical Greece and in the early days of the Roman Republic, farming was considered the proper pursuit of citizens, though all other labor was considered demeaning. By the late Republic, however, plantation agriculture had replaced small farms, and as a result, the work of farming became the province of slaves.
By the time of the Empire, productive labor was seen as being fit only for slaves and the lower classes. Even though it was the foundation of their wealth, the upper classes believed that production was beneath them and that they should instead cultivate more “refined” areas of life, such as the arts and philosophy.
Biblical view of work
The problem is that when Adam sinned, part of the impact was to turn work to drudgery. The earth is cursed because of Adam, and so his efforts to cultivate it were destined to produce frustration, turning what should have been a joy into a source of pain, sweat, and sorrow (Gen. 3:17-19).
Early Christians thus had a very different view of work from their pagan neighbors. They believed that like so much else in the world, work is good but marred by sin.
Work and monasticism
But the Gospel teaches that Christ came to redeem us from sin and all of its effects. While that includes forgiveness of sin, it also means the redemption of work, turning it from toil back to the kind of meaningful labor God intended it to be.
As a result, in the middle ages, the monasteries became centers of technological innovation centered on making work more significant. They believed that if work could be done by an animal rather than a person, it should be, and if by a machine rather than an animal, this would be even better.
The earliest waterwheels that we know of in Europe come from Ireland, where there were both vertical and horizontal mills powered by tides as early as the 600s and 700s. The technology soon spread, however, so that the Domesday Book survey (compiled in 1086) lists 6,000 watermills in 3,000 locations across England.
The first waterwheels seem to have been used for grinding grain. This required converting the vertical rotation of the wheel into horizontal rotation for the millstones, which the monks accomplished through a system of wooden gears and wheels.
The waterwheel was then adapted for a wide range of other applications:
Significantly, even secular communities were willing to invest in building mills. Part of the reason was undoubtedly the fact that economic activity was picking up and so the cost could be recouped by increased volume. But the economy in Rome was even more active and specialized than it was in the middle ages, and the Romans did not deploy waterwheels. So the economic argument is inadequate.
What made the difference was the Christian idea of work, which had moved from the monasteries and was penetrating and shaping the culture.
The Medieval Industrial Revolution
The heavy wheeled plow which enabled the dense, fertile clay soils of the European plains to be farmed for the first time;
Many of these inventions stimulated economic activity and made work more efficient and meaningful. They were inspired by the idea that Jesus’ work meant redemption in all of life, including reversing the curse in the Garden.
Indian philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi makes a very important point about these technological innovations: lots of other countries had technologies, some of them far in advance of what the West had at the time. The West was unique, however, in that it used its technologies to make the work of the common person easier, to aid in production rather than to cater to the elites.
Hugh of St. Victor
UP NEXT: Johannes Gutenberg (c.1398-1468) famous for developing the printing press. - Part 6 in the series about Christians Who Changed Their World.
What is the purpose of work? Ask some of your co-laborers this question. Why do they work? What do they “get out of” their work? How do they envision their work as contributing to the wellbeing of others? Talk to them about how Christianity change the world’s view of work – and your own as well. Follow the conversation wherever it goes.