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This question is based off of some of the concepts of this question, but is NOT a duplicate, as the linked question asks how long a Medieval set of tech could conceivably last.

Assuming we have all the same laws of the universe as in ours, as well as magic, What could I do to keep my world at a medieval level of technology (e.g. No gunpowder, steam engine, or printing press) for approximately 32,000 years?

Assume there is nothing significantly different about the people themselves, and the only difference is the tech level.

These are the things I have gleamed from our own history and insights as to what the answer should cover:

  • During the European Middle Ages, the church somehow got the idea that knowledge=bad. What religious rites could explicitly forbid things like steam engines and gunpowder without the inventors of the religion having any knowledge of these things?

  • Medieval Europe was usually fragmented, and many technological innovations began in China, where government was more stable. Europe would have most likely developed these anyway, but not at the speed at which it actually happened. How would political structure of the continent-spanning empire effect the development of technology? What level of political disunity could conceivable set technological development back for many thousands of years?

  • The Crusades contributed to the Renaissance by introducing westerners to more advanced Islamic sciences and Classical Greek ideals (e.g. democracy, art and learning). What would have gone differently had the crusades not happened? This directly effects my world because the entire known world is owned by a single empire.

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  • $\begingroup$ For the last couple of centuries of the medieval period gunpowder was used in Europe. $\endgroup$ – glenatron Feb 27 '15 at 15:05
  • $\begingroup$ @glenatron I think you are referring to the separate Renaissance. $\endgroup$ – JDSweetBeat Feb 27 '15 at 16:56
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    $\begingroup$ It's worth pointing out that Medieval Europe was way more advanced than people seem to think (definitely far ahead of the Romans for example), and the church wasn't opposed to science or technology (for example, the Galileo Affair is misleading). $\endgroup$ – Reinstate Monica Feb 27 '15 at 18:51
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    $\begingroup$ "During the European Middle Ages, the church somehow got the idea that knowledge=bad." What sort of bullshit is this? Do you seriously believe this? The church was the only curator of knowledge during this time period. Classical greek was already present in Europe! The Eastern Roman Empire (centered in Constantinople) was a Greek speaking and learned empire directly descendent from ancient Rome and the western crusaders came went to the Holy Lands to defend this! $\endgroup$ – hownowbrowncow Feb 27 '15 at 21:55
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    $\begingroup$ @BrendanLong: Interesting article. Have you seen The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown? The silly name notwithstanding, it's a very well-written series that goes into great depth on the subject of getting the historic facts right about heliocentrism. $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Feb 28 '15 at 12:02

18 Answers 18

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I have looked into the dark, and see 40 millenia of stagnation. From my deck of many cards, let's draw them one at a time and see what we get.

The First Card: Strife

The first plague to befell your people is here in the first card. It is a rider upon a horse. He is carrying a spear in his hand and has a bow draped across his back. Dressed in skins, he bears a dark countenance. Behind him we see a stylized burning city.
Migratory riders have been the bane of urban civilizations for millenia, and nothing after the invention of the stirrup until the rise of fast-firing gunpowder weapons could push them back. Rising and falling in numbers on the steppes in line with drought-plenty long-term rain cycles, these wild and savage men of the deserts and steppes will ruin cities, drag off women and children into miserable slavery, and undo the work of many generations in one night.

The Second Card: Plague

A skeletal figure is playing a musical instrument, while three skeletons dressed in rags form a circle and perform a danse macabre. More bodies are depicted on the ground, with dark lumps growing on their bodies.
Virulent outbreaks of plague can sometimes wipe out entire civilizations, such as many of the North American agrarian civs were utterly wiped out from history by the arrival of European disease. A set of plagues brought down the Roman empire, and a second, laid down the Eastern Roman Empire and the Sassanid, making them easy prey for fanatical desert tribes under a new prophet. With virulent vectors, disease outbreaks can sufficiently hamper urban agglomerations, enough to prevent the seeds of industrialization from germinating. Without cities, there is no demand. Without demand, there is no specialization of labor, no scientists, no industrialization.

The Third Card: Famine

The card depicts a very emaciated cow, its udder dry, its ribs strongly outlined by its skin. The land surrounding it is dead, with sparse vegetation and cracked earth. A punishing sun shines mercilessly above.
Long term climatic shifts have brought down many major civilizations, including several major Egyptian dynasties, Mesopotamian empires, the entire Mayan civilization, put an end to Viking expansion and their precocious North American colonization drive. Harvests fail not simply one year, but dwindle and fall decade after decade, until urban life becomes unsustainable without punishing taxes. Aside from climatic shift, ecological degradation from unsustainable agricultural practices (primitive irrigation, excessive pasture use) can render a region useless for centuries while the land slowly (if ever) recovers. What is now the vast emptiness of the Lybian desert used to be called the breadbasket of the Roman Empire. The whole of Sahara used to be a pleasant savannah 10,000 years ago. No longer.

The Fourth Card: The High Priestess

A woman seated, wearing bright blue robes and an elaborate head-dress, with a holy symbol hanging from her neck. She has a scroll in one hand and behind her is a tree of life, with a snake slithering on a branch.
The power of belief is never to be underestimated, both as a tool for social control and as a deep motivator of human action. Under the severe environmental stress induced by the permanent laying down (playing) of the first three cards, a society would seek solace in afterlife, and rely upon religious authority figures to impose what we would consider an impossibly oppressive and deeply conservative set of beliefs and practices. With people living on the edge of subsistence, deviation from the norm is death. The writ of tradition is sacred, and any deviation a threat to the entire community. Inquiring into the workings of nature is seen as foolish in light of cyclical perspective induced by millenia of stagnation, almost tempting divine retribution.

The Fifth Card: The Merchant

The fifth card depicts a merchant. His distinctive clothes set him apart, as does the conspicuous bag of gold strapped to his belt. He carries a bag on his back and a dog is nipping at his heels, as he looks furtively back along the road towards a town. A ship is shown sinking in the distance, upon a stormy sea.
Trade, long-distance maritime trade and well as caravan-based intercontinental routes have been a vital link, ensuring that technology lost in one place (such as water mills in western Europe after the Roman empire) eventually made its way back, and that discoveries at one end of Eurasia eventually percollated across the continent. Formidable geographical barriers, anti-capitalist and anti-mercantile bias, regulations and expropriations, hostile tribes and pirate infested seas can prevent this long-term knowledge transfer path and prevent the slow accumulation of knowledge that would otherwise occur.

The Sixth Card: The Wheel

The wheel of fortune shows a carriage wheel. Three beasts are depicted upon the wheel, the top one wears a crown and wields a rod of command, on the left is a beggar facing down in ragged apparel, while the right is a golden-haired beast ascending.
Many millenia of stagnation, and the vague memory and vast ruins of countless past ages of glory will probably be the strongest factor in making the middle ages permanent. This cyclical view of the world, whereby all that is great will come down is in sharp contrast with the linear ascending mindset of a peoples who have seen the wonders of an industrial revolution. By contrast, the inhabitants of this stagnating world will have memories of empire upon empire upon empire, foundering like so many waves upon the rocky shores of time. The weight of history and the ruined splendor of the past's might, with the pessimistic, golden-age-past ancestor worship this is sure to engender, will be the strongest inhibitor of a scientific and industrial revolution to come.

I dare not draw another card.

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    $\begingroup$ Entertaining presentation Serban. $\endgroup$ – James Mar 2 '15 at 14:16
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First. On the scale of "modern" humans 32,000 years is a really really long time. All of human recorded history only goes back at best 5000 years and lets face it that is pretty hazy history. 32,000 years counts for something like 1/6 of all of human history (ballpark...depends on what dates you use).

I would have trouble believing that anything could keep humanity from advancing for 32,000 years. Mainly meaning your world would be stretching my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. I really think it is worth asking yourself if that kind of timeline is really necessary, what does it buy you?

That said here are some things that you can use to slow down or even temporarily reverse societal and technological development.

  • Conflict. This is the most obvious detriment to advancement, but only in certain set ups. When you are talking about nation versus nation conflict in modern times, conflict can actually help things advance. I am referring to pre-industrial conflict where fighting is much more localized and generally on a smaller scale. If you live in a region where many tribes live and vie for power, the incessant fighting can mean people have no time for thinking beyond survival.

  • Limit resources. Advancement requires a certain amount of free time. Limit the availability or ease of getting basic items, wood, food, clothing etc etc etc and you have less time for people to create new things. We humans have to make sure our basic needs are taken care of first and if that takes up all our time...

  • Social taboo. This really won't work for your scenario in my opinion. If there is a desire for tech...it will happen especially in the timeline you mention. Think of the power the Catholic church had in Europe in Galileo's day. That didn't stop him from experimenting.

  • A small, isolated group of people. If you have a relatively small group, maybe there is a regular cull of some sort...maybe the flora and fauna are much more dangerous...or the religion requires human sacrifice, this idea is easier to stomach. But again 32,000 years is a really long time from a human development perspective.

  • Apocalypse. Big boom, massive flood, super virus, alien invaders...take your pick. This has the potential to send us back to the stone age...if we don't get wiped out completely.

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    $\begingroup$ With regards to conflict, I would be more stressed to believe that your world has had 32,000 years of conflict without running out of people that fight that conflict. $\endgroup$ – Nzall Feb 28 '15 at 20:22
  • $\begingroup$ @NateKerkhofs Another good point... $\endgroup$ – James Mar 2 '15 at 14:10
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Global lack of fuel

There is some basis for a viewpoint that if our culture was destroyed, our own earth would be stuck on medieval technology afterwards due to lack of coal or other fossil fuels.

You can't have an industrial revolution if muscle power or animal power is cheaper than industrial engines due to lack of cheap fuel. You can't really make alternative energy sources if you don't have the products and byproducts of an industrial revolution. You also can't really get most of industrial chemistry and medicine if you lack fossil hydrocarbons as a cheap mass source.

Also, socially - you don't get capital investments if all the productivity is determined by people; instead of capital owners, creators, inventors and investors driving economic progress, all economy is determined by those who control the cheap laborers, i.e. feudal warlords instead of craftsmen and traders as historically. You don't really get a big science investment if most the products of science are impractical and uneconomical due to running only on whale oil and such. This means that in addition to medieval tech level, also the medieval social structure is much more stable, and conservatism is efficiently able to block progress.

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  • $\begingroup$ Most of the industrial revolution was in place before Young invented petroleum distillation in 1847. And you could still get something like the Diesel compression-ignition engine with only vegetable oil, not petroleum. $\endgroup$ – Damian Yerrick Feb 27 '15 at 17:15
  • $\begingroup$ @tepples Coal was the major fossil fuel that I'm referencing, not oil. If all you've got is wood, it's more efficient to use human or animal muscle power directly, instead of using a lot of that labor to make firewood or charcoal for complex engines; and thus engines are rather useless. $\endgroup$ – Peteris Feb 27 '15 at 17:38
  • $\begingroup$ Coal is specifically what kick-started the IR. Trying to continue to use wood got to be too problematic for the scale of need, and so other things were looked at, and developed. Granted, OP is probably going to have to restrict crops so there isn't a lot of vegetable oil around either. $\endgroup$ – user3082 Feb 27 '15 at 18:03
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It is absolutely natural for people to make technological improvements in any and every way that they can. 32,000 years is an absolutely absurd amount of time - the entirety of human cultural existence has only been 5,000-10,000 years, and in that time we've gone from not having language to having the internet.

But if you're determined to use timescales far beyond anything we have experience with and have roughly 1,280 generations of people incapable of making improvements to technology and yet capable of making enough improvements to achieve a medieval lifestyle, here are some things that might work:

1 - a lack of fossil fuels - this one's pretty much absolutely necessary.

2 - near-constant earthquakes/volcanic activity - not only would this cause extreme stresses on the economy, but it would help to explain the first (any dead material would be more likely to be buried under volcanic ash)

3 - severe and unpredictable climate changes (i.e. ice ages that last 10 years followed by 20 years of drought and then a few years of flooding before another ice age and then a jump in temperatures up 40 degrees).

4 - Coordinated efforts from a significantly superior culture to annihilate any civilization that reaches too high.

5 - a world where the oxygen levels are significantly higher, so that things burn hotter and faster, and iron rusts nearly instantly (this, however, would mean that the world would have no really useful iron/bronze/steel etc. There would still be gold and silver, but they're useful as currencies - not as tools).

But that 32,000 years is quite a sticking point - even with all of these issues I can't imagine the world staying stable for more than 100-200 years. Much like ours isn't.

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    $\begingroup$ I like the climate change solution. Allow one thousand, maybe two thousand years between each ice age to allow a typical feudal society with medieval technology to develop. Then hit them with an ice age when they're on the cusp of an industrial/scientific revolution. Crops fail, the population plummets and is reduced to isolated pockets. Much that was learned in the past is forgotten or destroyed. This isn't a new idea - you could argue George R. R. Martin's fantasy world seems to be preserved in a perpetual medieval setting without technological development due to the periodic long winters. $\endgroup$ – RobertF Feb 27 '15 at 18:28
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    $\begingroup$ If you wait 1K years between, after the first couple of ice ages, you're going to get technology starters and books to preserve the knowledge, and an oral tradition to match. Which will ramp you up quicker each time. Plus, catastrophe like that will drive innovation, because you know bad times are coming, and you need something better to fight it with. $\endgroup$ – user3082 Feb 27 '15 at 19:30
  • $\begingroup$ Exactly - it needs to be frequent and pervasive. I don't think people quite understand the scale of time. $\endgroup$ – David Rice Feb 27 '15 at 19:39
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Make life/trade so difficult that there isn't the opportunity to industrialize?

Advanced machines need a big social base to build off. Enough food for everyone in the whole chain - from miners to metalworks to machinists to operators to retailers - and all the support infrastructure they need. If something keeps population centres small, or the entire population down, or makes it impractical to ship large quantities of goods, then even if the knowledge is there to make more advanced tech, the resources and the demand isn't there for it.

Especially if you are happy to tolerate some of the technology being in existence, but restricted to a few, carefully crafted pieces etc then it works. Technology isn't just the science to know how, it's the infrastrcuture to deliver it, and the need/demand to deliver it. Factories, steam mills etc are of no use without big populations to sell goods to. Steam trains are only useful if you have lots of people and goods to move, and access to the vast amounts of steel and coal needed. etc. This all applies even more if people are struggling to keep the existing infrastrcuture going - irrigation, mills, trade by canal/river and horse etc - what opportunity is there to create something new, when just keeping life as good as it was last year is daily battle.

Of course, people's ideas will have changed over that time. 32,000 years is about 4 times longer than recorded human history. That's time for an awful lot of philosophy, theology and even mathematics.

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  • $\begingroup$ Never thought of the demand. I thought I heard something about the ancient Egyptians knowing of steam power but not using it because the system in place worked well. $\endgroup$ – JDSweetBeat Feb 27 '15 at 15:42
  • $\begingroup$ @DustinJackson: Not Ancient Egypt - Augustan Egypt in first century AD: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero_of_Alexandria. $\endgroup$ – Pieter Geerkens Mar 1 '15 at 16:59
  • $\begingroup$ My mistake. Little research on the part of me when it comes to my Ancient Egypt comment. $\endgroup$ – JDSweetBeat Mar 3 '15 at 13:58
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In addition to some good answers above, the Dark Ages, weren't that dark. A lot of things got invented and done in Medieval times. Off the top of my head, crop-rotation and horse collars - which added a lot of power available to people, as well as more people. Water-power trip-hammers and the like.

Fragmentation is a cause of advancement, not a hindrance. For example China had both gunpowder and the printing press, but did next to nothing with them. Being in competition, Europeans developed those inventions into some pretty impressive technological and social changes.

You want a single church, not various denominations. Any schisms will lead to competition, and competition will lead to progress.

That said, I don't know that anyone has mentioned Europe's river system. Being able to get things to and from other places really helped out trade and the exchange of ideas and people. Instead you might put up barriers, but not mountains. Mountains tend to lead to free and unconquerable people, and you don't want much in the way of independence. Faster growing forests, with better roots might be what you need (too much wood, is a fuel source however). Clearing land was a huge problem, and keeping it cleared was an on-going battle. When manpower dropped after famine or plague, areas went out of cultivation. And, thus obviously, you'd also want climatic variations for some famine. But, you don't want to reduce your population too severely: part of the reason for guilds and locking development up tight was in order to ensure that everyone had a job - if there's a labor shortage, then labor-saving devices become worth doing.

On the preventing markets scheme, you should kill the Jews. Well, the concept of allowing a minority to do what the majority could not do. You don't want anyone making loans / interest profit / capital investment. However, you're also going to have to prevent the Muslim models of lending as well. You want no financial innovations. Perhaps you could have the Church do all of the financing, and keep all the profits... but you're going to have problems with schisms and other issues. I'm not sure how that might work out, but it's something to think about.

Good answers I liked:

  • Amish
  • No readily available hydrocarbon fuel supplies (Britain had coal, and had run out of accessible wood)
  • Prevent markets from developing and providing an incentive for trade
  • 32K years is a long time, and stretches disbelief. Why?
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    $\begingroup$ Ha, "crop-rotation and horse collars" I feel like those exact two upgrades came from Age of Empires during the Feudal Age. I wonder how many of us learned historical facts from those games. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Feb 27 '15 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, I've never played those games. I've just been reading books. I've got two that're specifically on the inventiveness of the Medieval period. The one I'm most interested in is the implementation of clover, but that was a bit later than OP's time-period. $\endgroup$ – user3082 Feb 27 '15 at 18:51
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The impact of magic on such a society is being overlooked. Tight control of the church happened in medieval times, even with a priesthood that had no more access to miracles than anyone else. In a world with magic, such priests could literally smite the heretics with fire from heaven.

For a comparison, consider the show Stargate SG-1 which introduced the Ori, a god-like race that held the population at a medieval level through the intervention of their priesthood, the Priors, who could use magic-like powers.

Since you suggest that such powers do exist, you could put those powers in the hands of a priesthood dedicated to keeping the people pacifistic and under control. Since technology would represent a threat to that control, it is in their best interests to keep the people in check through the use of magic.

As such, they would seek out any magic-capable individuals as youth and force them into the priesthood. Anyone who dissented is killed.

Such an ingrained society would quickly drive even the best of tinkerers far underground. Who would dare to tinker with steam when your entire family gets wiped out as heretics by the priesthood the moment anyone finds out?

The period of time you want this for is devastatingly long. That's 1000 generations without even the slightest advance in technology. We went from flint knives and bearskins to spacecraft and moon landings in less than one fourth of that time.

Over so long a period of time, such a priesthood would become corrupt and be replaced from within rapidly, unless there was, ironically, someone high up in the church with the technology to suppress magic use in order to prevent coups from within. Even then, such a system would eventually fail. Concentrated power draws concentrated envy and ambition. Look at the procession of emperors in Rome, or even popes. Sometimes there were half a dozen in a single year through assassinations, power plays, or other infighting.

A church/government with the power of life and death over every soul on the planet is going to be equally rampant with in-fighting.

So, it's an idea, but not really enough for the time-scale you're talking about.

Maybe if all the food-stuffs also produced a bliss-inducing hallucinogenic...

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  • $\begingroup$ Excellent example with the Ori...+1 $\endgroup$ – JDSweetBeat Feb 27 '15 at 20:35
  • $\begingroup$ "... unless there was, ironically, someone high up in the church with the technology to suppress magic." Or, conversely, if the elite magicians were actually charlatans who improved their technology in secret until it became indistinguishable from "real" magic. $\endgroup$ – MarkHu Feb 28 '15 at 7:11
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What religious rites could explicitly forbid things like steam engines and gunpowder without the inventors of the religion having any knowledge of these things.

The Amish/Mennonite model could work here.

They aren't necessarily anti-technology, but they do very carefully weigh the impact of any new tech on their lifestyles and community. For more conservative sects time saving inventions may be frowned on because they might make one lazy, and sloth is a sin. Being the inventor of such a device could make one proud, also a sin. Members who are known "sinners" may be excommunicated and/or shunned.

One major advantage of going in this direction is that if the printing press or steam engine were invented, in your world, the general populace may see them, perhaps even give them a try, and then reject them on moral grounds.

Conservative Amish communities have in many ways remained locked in the technology level of the late 1600's to early 1700's when their communities were founded. If these communities had started much earlier it may be reasonable to assume that they would have remained at a lower tech level.

Medieval Europe was usually fragmented, and many technological innovations began in China, where government was more stable. Europe would have most likely developed these anyway, but not at the speed at which it actually happened. How would political structure of the continent-spanning empire effect the development of technology? What level of political disunity could conceivable set technological development back for many thousands of years?

While Amish communities are passive by nature there have been many schisms, the body of believers is divided and in many cases subdivided by religious doctrine. This religious division may lend it self well to having a single yet still divided empire.

The crusades contributed to the Renaissance by killing many knights and causing them to move to the holy land(causing their land to revert to their descendants or the King) and introducing westerners to more advanced Islamic sciences and Classical Greek ideals (e.g. democracy, art and learning). What would have gone differently had the crusades not happened? This directly effects my world because the entire known world is owned by a single empire.

The Amish believe in what's often referred to as "non-resistance", they don't serve in the military, join police forces, or sue in court. So the crusades very likely wouldn't have happened.

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  • $\begingroup$ "What level of political disunity could conceivable set technological development back for many thousands of years?" Most historians would argue the reverse. Once the population had recovered from the Black Plague, political disunity in Western Europe actually spurred on scientific discovery and technological innovation, fueled by military/economic competition between States and a lack of strong, unified secular or religious authority to muzzle free thinking. $\endgroup$ – RobertF Feb 27 '15 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ The Amish only survive inside of America's sphere of protection. Outside that, they would be wiped out by warlike tech-loving groups. It is unlikely that any similarly pacifist group would survive, let alone achieve worldwide consensus, without the symbiotic relationship to a larger technologically strong ally/host society. $\endgroup$ – MarkHu Feb 28 '15 at 20:07
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For Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox, knowledge was bad. That is not the intend. If I remember correctly (feel free to correct me) , they considered that knowledge based on the divine was superior to what men could achieve with empiricism (and other means to gain knowledge), because men are not perfect, unlike God (God in Christianity). This all changed during the Renaissance were the reason of men came to be considered superior to religious reasoning.

What greatly contributed to the slow apparent technological development is a characteristic, not exclusive but mostly found during the early middle ages. The destruction of the Eastern Roman Empire disrupted world trade with the orient. It still existed but was fragmented. Innovations spread slowly in these times.

Another thing responsible for the slowdown was that the description also caused some resources to become unavailable to Europeans. The papyrus form Egypt was the only source of plant fibre used to produce paper. Europe lost access to that resource and they had to rely on using parchments that are made of animal skins. It's much more costly and books were very valuable but rare because of this. This slowed down the progress by quite a bit. By that time, Chinese knew how to make paper by using other fibres but this innovation took a long time before spreading to Europe.

Some historians believe that the Carolingian empire could have started the Renaissances if it had survived longer because the prosperity and the reforms were really having a positive effect on the lives of the people. But the empire was divided, war followed and the north-men raided it.

Medieval Europe was usually fragmented

This can be a gift or a curse. During the Renaissance, it pushed the European states in a competition for innovation, exploration and commerce with other parts of the world. The competition forces the states to adapt or cease to exist when facing other competitors. China has been fragmented but for most of his history, it was considers as a unified entity. This allowed them to build great things but this lack of competition often meant that the state did not have much incentive to innovate.

The crusades contributed to the Renaissance

Yes, greatly. It allowed the Europeans to establish commercial relations with the Arabs, linking Europe with the rest of the world. Trade flourished, new products became available on the market, new ideas and invention came form the orient. the XII and XIII th century were two centuries of growth in all Europe. Other progresses were made during the Mongol invasions. They brought destruction in their path but also inventions form China such as gunpowder.

Conclusion: Make people believe that the higher understandings can only be achieve by studying the holy book. All other explanations to explain the nature of things are biased and inferior. Also make sure that their only support for text is as costly as possible to slow down the spread of new innovations. Be sure to have no real competitor. Consider other states (if any) as inferior/barbaric/corrupted and cut all ties with them. Your civilization is superior and you have nothing to gain form them. They might try to rob you or to corrupt you with their strange ways.

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I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that all technology and advancement is invented and derived to help with a competitive need. If there are no competitive needs, then there would be no advancement. I think any society that does not experience shortfall would never need to advance. So, if you wanted a society to stay at a permanent medieval technology, then you would need to introduce something that completely and utterly removed the need to compete.

For example, lets say there is a tree that grows extremely quickly without any effort that yield tremendous amounts of easily picked and stored nutritious fruit throughout all seasons. Additionally, lets say the bark of this tree sheds fibers that are easily turned into fabric and clothing. And the wood of the tree is a great building material with medieval tools. Then there would be no need for the medieval people to worry about food, clothing, or scarcity of home building materials. If the fruit of the tree also had a contraceptive affect, then you also wouldn't have to worry about competition from overpopulation, either.

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    $\begingroup$ Possibly underpopulation in the last sentence. $\endgroup$ – JDSweetBeat Feb 27 '15 at 19:17
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I'm assuming you're writing a novel about an alternate world where magic exists, and you're looking for a plot device to explain why these people havn't changed much in terms of technology for 32,000 years.

Things like distopian government or perpetual war and famine definately have a way of retarding and even regressing the progress of science and technology. That actually occurred in the centuries following the collapse of Roman Empire, at least in Europe. Also, necessity is the mother of invention, so if magic is prevalent in this hypothetical world, there would be no reason to invent things like light bulbs or advanced medicine. Another plot device would be that geographic isolation and language barriers prevent the free flow of information and trade.

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I'm afraid having magic ruins everything. Anything that might stand in the way of progress, magic will be used to get around it - speeding up research, making otherwise impossible but required components, etc. Imagine a world where the Frankensteins and the Jules Verne characters could actually achieve their ambitions.

Although it could be used negatively in your favour... Imagine a society of mages who value their power and recognise the threat to it that technology would pose - they could use their magic somehow to prevent progress. (e.g. early detection and prevention, ensuring that gunpowder simply doesn't work, etc.)

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You will not be able to stop advance of civilization on our Earth. 32KY is a long time.

But you can make advancement hard, and revert it few times, and add bad geography.

  • Start with a planet 80% covered with water. And most dry land is around poles.
  • Then ice age covers dry land. To survive, civilization has to retreat to few volcanic islands. They can grow plants, but cannot mine metals (there aren't any). Few metal tools were used up. Back to stone age, top tech is obsidian knife.
  • Without quality tools, settlers cannot build ships - it will take then few centuries to learn navigation and master back stone tools and build ships from local materials.
  • But even then, former dry land is covered by glaciers, and few protected areas are available to land on former continent to mine for more metal. Such expeditions would be extremely risky. Ice age can last long time (100KY) - interglacials are shorter (few tens of KY max).
  • Add strong religious tabu requiring plenty of human sacrifices, like Hawaii had.

So life in tropical paradise islands will be easy, and getting out to get better tools will be hard. With only local enemies having exactly the weapons you have, there is no need to innovate. Your civilization could be stuck for a long time. 100KY if you are out of luck, until continents will become more hospitable to human habitation.

Yes, you will have Inuits surviving on top of glaciers - but barely, and with little chance to advance your civilization.

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As has been pointed out already, 32,000 years is an inconceivably long time to lack progress. Positing harsh conditions (war, famine, plague, etc.) is not enough; necessity is the mother of invention, and war in particular has historically been one of the great drivers of innovation throughout human history. WWII alone gave us great advances in aviation, automobiles, medicine, cryptography, plastics, and nutrition, not to mention the invention of radar, the computer, and nuclear power.

No, to be stuck for that long, someone has to be actively working to suppress progress, such as an all-powerful wizard king who fears the rise of new technologies that could challenge his dominance, particularly weapons, or powerful dragons who fear the rise of technological weapons that would give common people a much easier way to slay them, or psychically gifted "gods" keeping technology in stasis so that the common people cannot develop ways to rise up and challenge them, or... well, you get the point.

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First, a few pointers do science fiction literature:

  • The General and spin-offs, Stirling and Drake. The protagonists of these novels are trying to introduce progress after the breakdown of interstellar civilization with the help of ancient AIs. The respective worlds are kept in stasis by circumstances from soil degradation to social factors.
  • Heirs of Empire by Weber. The protagonists are shipwrecked on a world where an anti-tech church and an AI keep technology down.
  • Safehold series by Weber. Similar to Heirs, but much longer/more complicated and with a more detailed religious war angle. The long series isn't finished yet IIRC.
  • GURPS Fantasy (3rd edition) and GURPS Banestorm (4th edition). A setting for a pen-paper-and-dice roleplaying game where a conspiracy of mages keeps gunpowder down.

With those ideas in mind, I think magic is the key:

  • Make sure that magic does not function on scientific principles. Research in magic does not translate into conventional science.
  • Make sure that magic is superior to primitive technology. Who will invent a bombard to batter down castle walls if a magic spell is so much more effective? But without a primitive bombard, no modern artillery. Who invents germ theory if healing spells usually work?
  • Make magic plentiful enough that nobody is tempted to look for a technical solution just because there is no mage available.
  • Give the mages a stake in keeping technology down. Perhaps mages get privileges due to their power, that would be put into question if every mundane could get the same effect with technology.
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Since this is fantasy based, i will instantly jump on the magic-tech paradox given in most steam punk worlds (Almost every single except Full Metal-Fantasy).

Magic getting close to technology will for some reason make the technology miss function or simply not working. When trying to develop gunpowder and it misfire or simply not work, the inventor will not work.

So even if the inventor have found something that would work in a mana empty area, it would not work in a "normal" part of the world where the mana is existent and maybe abundant.

If tech does not work. It will not advance.

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I actually think the OP answered their own question: magic.

Magic is so phenomenally convenient that the normative struggle leading to technological advancement ceases to exist. Actually, take Harry Potter as av example: these wizards are living in the 21st century but still reside in castles built nearly a millennia ago? They're confused and fascinated by cars, and some of them admire muggle ingenuity because it never occurred to then to develop computers, telephone, etc. It's entirely unnecessary when magic solves problems for you to search for alternate solutions.

The other end of it is this: magic means either relative equality (everyone gets by on it - Harry Potter) or severe INequality (everyone provided for by powerful wizard lords - wizard of Oz.) In the latter case, the distribution of power means that peons may revolt against their wizard master, but overthrowing him would just invite another powerful wizard to step into his stead. War between the wizards would keep enough upheaval in place to prevent the sustained economic growth that would push technological innovation. True, war lead to some crazy technology, but it was the lull between wars that allowed those advances to be adapted to societies needs.

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Maybe do something similar to the explanation given in the world of Dragonlance. In that world, the Kender race was constantly tinkering with things and either causing all sorts of problems immediately or ending up with overly-complicated Rube Goldberg-esque creations that also had a tendency of killing the users and anyone else within the 'kill zone'. This persuaded the other races to just stick with what they had.

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't think that is a viable method. People would see potential for the military and experimentation would continue. $\endgroup$ – JDSweetBeat Feb 27 '15 at 16:59
  • $\begingroup$ Would the military be all that excited to try something when they saw that the last time it was tried killed the entire crew of whatever weapon it was? That was, more or less, the reasons given in some of the annotations available with some of the Dragonlance novels. $\endgroup$ – Brad Feb 27 '15 at 21:45
  • $\begingroup$ Side note, in Dragonlance the gnomes were the tinkerers. The kender were the kleptomaniacs with wanderlust. $\endgroup$ – Rozwel Mar 19 '15 at 19:13

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