Plows were the Robots of the 13th Century


Jury duty this morning, which meant lots of quiet reading time and in the end no *actual* jury duty (yeah for settlements!).

I am reading Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West, by Georges Duby. I came across the following description of how the development of improved harnesses and plows in the Medieval period displaced a large fraction of rural labor (p. 116):

On the other hand, manual laborers without draught animals underwent no technical progress and sustained no rise in yields: on the contrary there was a relative fall in their living conditions.....That the increased value of farming equipment strengthened the hold of the wealthy over the peasantry cannot be denied....Everywhere the lord maintained his authority over his men by helping them to acquire livestock or by threatening them with its confiscation. When in some provinces in the thirteenth century servitude was born anew and flourished, it was the need to acquire agricultural equipment, efficient though costly, which led poorer peasants to bind themselves into dependence. The same needs held them in servitude, for although they had the right to decamp....they could do so only...by giving up their plough animals. In fact because of this, agricultural growth appears to have been a very powerful agent of social differentiation.

A couple of things struck me about the passage. First, the analysis of the disruption caused by the introduction of a new technology embodied in capital goods (plows, harnesses, and horses) sounds similar to some worries regarding the introduction of robots. With capital owned by only a few, those without capital become dependent on the wealthy and have their living standards driven down. Second, innovation favors those with the skills to work with the new technology. Skilled ploughmen - who only got that way by having a team of horses and a plough to begin with - were the high human capital workers of their day.

Mainly, though, it is just an interesting example of how the same issues with innovation, technology, and displacement have been occurring forever. The question of what happens when robots are plentiful is not a question unique to robots, it is a question about how we adapt to disruptive technology. The evidence suggests that whoever owns the technology or the capital associated with it will use it as leverage over those who do not, just like always.

By the way, I think the lady next to me in the jury room would have looked less shocked if I had told her I was reading a porn magazine.

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