Historical Expertise

Lynn White—Medievalist and Futurist?

Lynn White focused on the role of technology in the middle ages searching for the roots of the technological innovation that contributed to the West’s rise and technological supremacy. His Medieval Technology and Social Change is a collection of lectures delivered in 1957 and remains an important book, which coincidentally was published the same year as Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. His “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155 (March 10, 1967) still attracts attention and comment. White was a founding member and president of the Society for the History of Technology and president of the History of Science Society. Candace Barrington wrote a nice entry on White in the new Handbook of Medieval Studies (De Gruyter, 2010). While an expert on medieval technology

Lynn White’s comments to McCall’s on what the future holds.

Despite being known for his work on riding stirrups and feudalism, and his work on windmills and sources of industrial power in the middle ages, White was apparently something of a futurist. In 1968 the American women’s magazine McCall’s asked White to predict what marriage, sex, and the family would be like in 2001. White seems to see a future in which women would have more non-domestic freedoms, at least women over 40. At the same time, however, he predicts a future in which women have fewer sexual freedoms, at least compared to the century he knew best, the 12th.

White’s predictions for 2001:

I expect earlier marriages. Among the poor, marriage has very often been delayed until the male is prepared to support a family. Now our affluence is such that almost everybody can get married at a younger age. This trend will continue. Then, too, there is the psychological pressure rather unique to our times. It’s the growing conviction that restraint of sexual activity is positively dangerous, and therefore the sooner you can marry the children off, the better—this is mental health in a big way. What is tragic is the difficulty the people who wish to remain bachelors or spinsters experience in this society.
Second, I expect more family planning. Less in the sense of reducing the number of children than in enabling parents to ‘bunch’ their children. I believe that, in conjunction with early marriage, this bunching is very important and rather new. There will be an increasing number of women who have married early, who have bunched the children, and who, arriving at about their forties, find themselves relieved of detailed family responsibilities except for a vestigial husband. These essentially good developments will produce a rather profound malaise among people over forty, especially among women, in view of their increase in life expectancy.
The explosion of knowledge in our time and the new sophistication required for many professions have conspired with other factors to keep women, especially those over forty, immobilized in the home. Yet in a society where prestige goes to activists, it is terribly hard for intelligent women, after the brood is reared, to spend their talents simply on unsalaried good works and the care and feeding of husbands, who usually have their own occupational interests, quite apart from the lives of the wives. And this situation is not good for the husband, either. The dangerous age is no longer youth, I think. It is the year from forty onward.
Will there be more ‘sexual freedom’ in the future? I don’t think so. There has been in certain periods in the past remarkable sexual freedom in Western culture—simply amazing. And sexual freedom not only for men but for women as well, especially married women of the upper classes. These people got their sense of identity from the social class to which they belonged. Frequently they married not for love, but because marriage was an institution; they were pooling estates, they wanted heirs. In the late twelfth century, one finds ladies discussing whether it was moral for a wife to be in love with her husband. The general judgement was that no, it was not. One should not get love mixed up with as important a matter as marriage. Love is transient. It’s the bubbles in the wine. Marriage is serious. Now, in our vast—not quite ‘single class,’ but relatively homogenized—society, monogamy is a new way of discovering identity. Promiscuity is a way of losing it, as it was not in the past.

It is fascinating to wonder how McCall’s learned of White, who was apparently among “the world’s leading thinkers,” and why the editors thought a medievalist would have anything to say about the future.

One reply on “Lynn White—Medievalist and Futurist?”

White’s comments on the future 2001 seem rather prescient to me. I guess he draws on repeating patterns through history to get his grasp on how politico-social mores will manifest themselves both technologically and socially in any half-century period. His “Medieval Europe foresaw planes, cars, submarines.” (Smithsonian Oct. 1978) shows a similar understanding of cause and effect in what is and what will be.