Europe was a fairly grim place at the beginning of the Middle Ages. The fifth century, considered to mark the start of the Middle Ages, saw the breakdown of the Roman Empire and the splintering of its once vast empire. Barbarian kings and warlords ruled the lands for many years.

Things started to perk up a bit around Europe after a few chaotic centuries. The High Middle Ages, which began around 1000 AD, was a time marked by population growth and advances made in the worlds of art, science, business and technology. Stone castles sprung up across the land and engineers were hired to build clever machines of war for wealthy lords and leaders. The nobility expanded their financial support of scholarly and artistic work while the growing commercial sector helped drive many technological jumps in their pursuit of a better bottom line.

It’s easy to forget the debt we owe to early society for the work they did in advancing human knowledge. We wouldn’t have computers if we hadn’t figured out how to measure the passage of time. We couldn’t have sent a man to the moon if we never invented glasses. Take a little time now and read over six really important inventions of the Middle Ages.

The Heavy Plough
The plough was a major breakthrough in the history of humankind and allowed people to greatly expand their fields and grow crops in soils too hard for hand digging. Early ploughs were, more or less, a pointy stick dragged behind a draft animal, cutting lightly through the soil. A farmer would walk along with the plough and lift the plough blade so that it didn’t get caught on rocks or roots. These ploughs were fine for lighter soils but had trouble in harder soils.

Enter the heavy plough, which uses wheels to support a heavier blade. The exact place and time of the first use of the heavy plough are not known, but it’s safe to peg its introduction to somewhere in Asia around 200 AD. The Romans were rocking the heavy plough not too long after that, and by roughly 600 AD, the rest of Europe was on board. Farmers were able to open up extensive new fields thanks to the heavy plough, boosting crop yields and population numbers (aka all of our distant relatives).

Water Mills
Water mills use a turning wheel spoked with water-catching paddles to generate power for operating machines like grinders and saws. These mills were developed by the Greeks before being used throughout the Roman empire. Though they were invented hundreds of years before the Middle Ages, their numbers exploded during this time. By around 1000 AD there were tens of thousands of mills harnessing river and tidal power throughout England, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The technology invented by the Greeks was further refined during the Middle Ages and was used to power tanneries, blast furnaces, forge mills and paper mills which evolved into the machinery used in today’s factories and facilities.

The Hourglass
The exact origins of the hourglass aren’t clear, but it’s generally accepted that it was widely adopted in Europe by the end of the High Middle Ages (~1500 AD). The hourglass was a popular choice for sailors who used it to mark the passage of time which allowed them to determine their longitude (location east to west). The hourglass was preferred over earlier water clocks because their sands were unaffected by the rocking motion of an ocean-bound ship. They were used on shore to measure time for church services, cooking, and work tasks.

Mechanical clocks supplanted the hourglass, though it wasn’t until the 18th century that a suitable marine replacement was found.

Distillation describes the separation of different liquids within a mixture, usually through the application of heat. It’s an important technique used in science and industry (oil refineries distill crude oil into a large number of components like gasoline, kerosine, paraffin wax and plastic-base) but has also given the world the gift (or curse, depending on how you look at it) of liquor. Whiskey, brandy, gin, rum and vodka are all produced by distilling mashed grains, potatoes, molasses, wine or fruits.

Distillation was first worked out by the Greeks and Egyptians but wasn’t used to produce distilled spirits until 1200 AD or so with the invention of liquors like Irish whiskey and German brandy. We had a pretty solid handle on distilling liquors by the end of the Middle Ages. Although modern distilleries are obviously more advanced than the ones used in the Middle Ages, the basic techniques haven’t changed much from “heat up the liquid and separate its components when they boil at different temperatures.”

As someone born with relatively bad eye sight, I am particularly thankful to 13th century Italians for coming up with the eyeglasses. They were first documented in the early 1300s with early models made to be held up by hand or pinched on the nose. It wasn’t until the 1700s that designs featuring arms that bent around the nose became widely used. Life for billions of people around the world (including the author) would be a dismal, blurry affair if not for the humble eyeglasses.

The Printing Press
Unlike the other items on this list, the origins of the modern printing press can easily be tracked to one man and one place: Johannes Gutenberg from Mainz, Germany. Around 1440 Mr. Gutenberg developed his now famous press which allowed, for the first time, industrial scale printing. It’s hard to emphasize how important the invention of the Gutenberg press was to the development of the modern world. The press meant ideas could be spread through books and pamphlets, newspapers and journals. Science, technology and history all saw great leaps as institutional knowledge began to accrue around the world. Without Gutenberg, there would be no internet. And without the internet you wouldn’t be reading this article right now. Also, no pictures of funny cats and bacon.

Main image credit: Bbadgett; heavy plough credit: Wien/Vienna pd-us; water mill credit: Andreas Trepte; hourglass credit: Brian Jackson/Shutterstock; liquor credit: Ziko; eyeglasses credit: Brenda Gottsabend/Flickr; printing press credit: