Hugh of St. Victor (1096-1141)

Christians who Changed their World

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.

Hugh of Saint Victor was a teacher at the Abbey of St. Victor, an Augustinian priory in Paris. In his book the Didascalion, which explained basic Christianity, he said that there are three kinds of knowledge that help us improve ourselves and lead us to God: theoretical philosophy, comprised of theology, mathematics, and physics; practical philosophy, comprised of ethics, economics, and politics; and “mechanical” or “illiberal” philosophy, including such skills as technology, carpentry, agriculture, and medicine.

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.

The biblical view of work is totally different from this attitude. The Bible tells us that work is a positive good, that God created us to work and that it is an essential part of what it means to be human.

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.

When monasticism began, monks were expected to do physical labor, if for no other reason than to grow their food. When St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547) wrote his Rule for monastic life, he insisted that monks work both to fill the biblical mandate that God gave to Adam and to encourage humility in a world that still saw work as demeaning.

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 prime example of this attitude is the waterwheel. Although the Romans knew about waterwheels, they rarely made use of them: why invest in an expensive machine when you have slave labor? The monks had a different view of the value of work, however, so they set out to develop ways of using the waterwheel to mechanize production.

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:

  • Powering the bellows in forges;
  • Operating heavy trip hammers in smithies;
  • Sawing lumber;
  • Fulling cloth (i.e. beating it in a vat of chemicals to tighten the weave);
  • Making paper.

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

Waterwheels were an important and impressive development in medieval technology, but they were far from the only innovation in the period. To name just a few:

  • The heavy wheeled plow which enabled the dense, fertile clay soils of the European plains to be farmed for the first time;
  • The horse collar, allowing horses to be harnessed to plows instead of oxen, because horses can pull more weight, faster, and on less feed than oxen;
  • The horse shoe, to protect the horse’s hooves when working or when being ridden;
  • The scythe, which replaced the sickle, enabling harvests to be gathered more efficiently;
  • The chimney, which replaced than the smoke hole;
  • The blast furnace for smelting iron;
  • The suction pump to drain water from of mineshafts;
  • The grinding wheel, which was far more efficient than the old whet stones;
  • The wheel barrow, to move loads more quickly and easily;
  • The horizontal loom, to produce cloth more quickly and efficiently;
  • The cog, a ship that carried large quantities of goods with a small crew;
  • The carrack, a ship that was maneuverable enough, with a large enough capacity and a small enough crew, to enable European voyages of exploration;
  •  The compass and astrolabe, for navigation
  • The hour glass;
  • The mechanical clock;
  • Eyeglasses, to allow the monks to continue working as they got older;
  • Soap;
  • Stained glass windows;
  • Flying buttresses;
  • Plate armor.

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.

So Hugh of St. Victor’s perspective on the importance of “illiberal” philosophy makes perfect sense. It is representative of a view of the sacredness of work and of human dignity found only in the Judeo-Christian tradition. This same attitude was found in Gutenberg, whose motive for inventing printing with moveable metal type was to produce Bibles, “no longer written at great expense by hands easily palsied, but multiplied like the wind by an untiring machine.” And it continued beyond the early modern period with other Christian leaders who worked to improve production and to make labor more meaningful.


Dr. Glenn Sunshine is a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University and a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

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