Economic and Social History Blog


Mills, Cranes and the Great Divergence


Watermills, windmills, building cranes and harbour cranes were the high-tech inventions of the Middle Ages: expensive, but labour-saving machines that could raise labour productivity significantly. In an article in Economic History Review Bas van Bavel, Eltjo Buringh and Jessica Dijkman compare the prevalence of mills and cranes in medieval western Europe and the Middle East. Based on a variety of source, from the works of Arab geographers to pictures in medieval manuscripts, they find that whereas the use of these machines increased in Europe, it declined in the Middle East; in fact, some were not used there at all. The authors investigate several possible explanations and reject most of them, including religion, geography, the availability of technological know-how, wage levels and the cost of capital. Differences in lordship systems and the security of property rights best explain the patterns found. Article here