21
$\begingroup$

Quoting from TV Tropes:

Medieval Stasis is a situation in which, as far as the technological, cultural, and sociopolitical level are concerned, thousands of years pass as if they were minutes.

The world I'm currently building has a history of about 4000 years, the last 1000 of which see the world stuck in XVI century tech. In a setting where magic is limited by the user, and not so common that it becomes an universal problem solver, and deities do not interfere with their mortal subjects, how can technology stagnate for so long? Or to turn the question around, what would push towards technological progress?

The setting sees neighboring countries with opposing views on several things, which brings them to war with each other many many times over the course of the millennium.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Would you be ok with having very few humans so that progress becomes painfully slow? I think you will not find a stable situation for 1000 years, especially since your tech level is already super advanced, unless mankind has other things on their mind than improving crop rotation (which already is about survival). Deal a blow that lasts for 1000 years - we might be talking about something like a demonic invasion and pure fight for survival, but who builds those advanced weapons? Also I think you should define technology as this could mean almost anything. $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Jun 22 '17 at 10:49
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ XVI century European tech? $\endgroup$ – Mołot Jun 22 '17 at 10:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Mołot Yes, if rogot to clarify that. $\endgroup$ – Alex Zuan Jun 22 '17 at 10:53
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ You could also use religion as a reason. We saw in our history with obscurantism that religion can prevent scientists from doing their job. $\endgroup$ – Chocobouc Jun 22 '17 at 15:32
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Just thought I'd quickly chime in, I would recommend giving the Mistborn trilogy written by Brandon Sanderson a read. Without spoilers or anything, the world has been stuck at the same approximate technology level for close to 1000 years. In it, there is an explanation for such, perhaps if you're interested I could write up a full answer and hide whatever would be a spoiler. $\endgroup$ – Jermaya Jun 22 '17 at 16:58

14 Answers 14

25
$\begingroup$

Keeping population low.

When population increases, people explore, there are researches to feed the new people, the social structure changes to accomodate that usually the low classes reproduce in greater numbers than the powerful ones... Progress in few words.

Hit your society with periodic plagues they can't fight, droughts, floods... this way they can't create universities, they can't write books and the occasional geniouses die without showing the world their amazing inventions.

The Black Death contributed a lot to the advancement of society in the 15th century, but if it had hit again in that century, it would have produced stagnation.

Also famine in one part of your world produces waves of raiders that invade their neighbouring countries, killing thousands, destroying important buildings and burning libraries, like the Barbarian Invasions of the 4-5th centuries that ended the Western Roman Empire and the Mongol Invasion halting the progress of the Muslim Empire.

Combined with a powerful central government and a big territory, you have a situation similar to China, which had very advanced technology in the 14th century but it had lost the inventions' race three centuries later.

$\endgroup$
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Climate changes are a pretty effective way of generating waves of invading barbarians: have an alternating series of Medieval Warm Periods to build up the populations of nomadic warriors and Little Ice Ages to encourage them to invade. $\endgroup$ – Mark Jun 22 '17 at 23:18
  • $\begingroup$ True, without crops they need to invade to not die. $\endgroup$ – Alberto Yagos Jun 23 '17 at 7:07
14
$\begingroup$

A few ideas:

  1. Technology forgotten or deemed unnecessary: cities in India had sewer systems millennia ago, but the technology was forgotten. Ancient Romans had steam power but it was used for entertainment and never put to more productive use. the Chinese invented the printing press in the Middle Ages, but their writing system limited its practicability. You can come up with lots of reasons why a technology might be discovered multiple times but never lasts or spreads very far.
  2. Labor is cheap: Alberto's answer is accurate in that small populations have less ability to achieve scientific progress, but the opposite can also be true. One proposed theory why the Industrial Revolution happened in Europe rather than China is that there was no real incentive for the Chinese government to invest in labor saving resources because labor was so plentiful! Combining with reason #1, China actually did develop many technologies like gunpowder and the magnetic compass, but they were underutilized. Why develop better weaponry when you can mass conscript? Why finance large trading fleets when you can produce everything you want at home?
  3. Lack of resources: one reason why the Industrial Revolution began in Britain rather than anywhere else in Europe was because of the plentiful coal deposits in the country's north. The first coal powered engines were incredibly inefficient, but it didn't matter, because they were only used within and very close to the coal mines. It was only after experimenting and tinkering with these engines for decades that they could extend rail networks across the country. Germany and the United States became industrial powerhouses after Britain because they also had the resources to do so. Though you could argue that a country like France had better education and infrastructure, limited access to the proper resources meant they were always lagging behind the British and Germans when it came to industry.

Ultimately, there are a lot of potential reasons why technological innovation happens or doesn't happen, and historians don't agree on which factors are most important, so try mixing and matching!

Also, one quick note: Medieval Stasis is itself kind of a misnomer. Though there was a major societal collapse after the fall of the Roman Empire, there was innovation during the Middle Ages, but it was in less flashy things like better stirrups and plows. ;-)

$\endgroup$
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Another argument about China versus Europe: the Chinese aristocracy was relatively strong and fairly unified, whereas the European aristocracy was weak and highly fragmented. So the Chinese aristocracy, recognizing the merchant class as a potential threat, took measures to limit their independence; in Europe, the merchant class was able to play off aristocrats against each other and establish a great deal of independence, allowing for them to amass wealth and invest in technological development, leading to republics and industrialization. In short, assume a strong and conservative state. $\endgroup$ – bgvaughan Jun 22 '17 at 21:57
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I'd throw in behind #3. Your world could have a natural lack of relevant resources or they could just be much harder to find -- maybe some major geological event made it so all the oil fields are under the sea and all the coal is under frozen wastes. Maybe all the easy-to-find near-surface iron ore was strip-mined by more technological societies of the past. Lots of technology generally requires developing X to get resource Y to develop Z -- people might understand X and Z, but if Y isn't easy to find, they're stuck. $\endgroup$ – Epicedion Jun 23 '17 at 18:26
8
$\begingroup$

A cultural bias against cities. Cities bring people together and encourage intellectual gestalt. That is, they concentrate the creative power of the population. They are also generally filled with people who are doing things other than farming. There's no room in a city to farm, so people have to do something else in order to make enough money/resources to buy/barter for food. That leads directly to technological innovation.

So long as your population is diffuse and focused mainly on growing food they won't progress technologically.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ In such a case, wouldn't the cultural bias eventually be overcome by time? $\endgroup$ – rytan451 Jun 23 '17 at 13:16
  • $\begingroup$ @rytan451 It depends on the culture, and the impetus for the bias. There are plenty of longstanding (potentially distasteful) cultural biases which have been around for thousands of years. Consider the enforced subservience of women in many cultures. That's been around since prehistory and is still common in many countries. If you reinforce the bias with loosely correlated disasters (every time a city begins a plague wipes them out) then it's certainly plausible. $\endgroup$ – Necoras Jun 23 '17 at 14:47
6
$\begingroup$

Necessity is the mother of invention, so if you fill in the necessity then it is easy for it to stagnate.

High grade items can come from a third party(ex; dungeon, gods or secret organisation), then just have it so that those items can satisfy the high ranks of society and then they will just try to use thier time and money to get items from them instead of researching and inventing stuff themselves. Especially if they don't believe they could create such items(because they're magic items created by something we dont understand).

$\endgroup$
5
$\begingroup$

Religion

The common religion doesn't believe in technological research or scientific advancement. Maybe they say it's "the devil's work or blasphmey", maybe their religion provides "all the answers they need", or maybe just because they say so.

There are some real-world examples easily found, such as case of Galileo and the flat earth, among others.


I had another idea about war driving military applicable inventions (like airplanes, submarines, nuclear power/bombs, space exploration - I think some fairly advanced mathematics was developed to help cannons hit their targets) but your question specifically states that neighbouring countries are at war with each other many many times. So they'd have to ignore the desire to find better military technology, which sounds unlikely, as if they're just happy with the number of casualties their armies suffer and they don't want to end the war(s) sooner by winning... but religion could account for that too.

$\endgroup$
4
$\begingroup$

Make the literacy rate VERY low. (Maybe their languages don't lend themselves well to being written down. Maybe literacy is carefully controlled by some trans-national guild or religion. Maybe there is a cultural taboo against writing things down. Maybe written documents are easily "scried" by magic.) The point is, all art & technology would then have to be transmitted directly from masters to apprentices. Your civilizations would be effectively pre-historic, except for a few literate lore-masters.

In addition, you should make your people suspicious of change. For example, varying from the standard practice might be sternly frowned upon by guilds, whose interests might be trans-national. ("Look, I invented stainless steel!" "You fool, you'll put us armorers out of business! You must never make this again.")

The main point is, illiteracy plus institutionalized resistance to change requires everyone to constantly re-invent the wheel.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding.SE dmm! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Jun 22 '17 at 19:45
3
$\begingroup$

The existence of magic might make it difficult to explore science. This has been explored here before and I'm already linking the post that quotes other posts so I won’t meta quote that!

Likewise, we’ve also discussed how magic can mess up technology. You can’t build simple machines if the material properties can change suddenly or new sources of energy are introduced etc.

We’ve discussed Must magic be tied to medieval tech? before. This can be your answer: magic’s existence prevents technological advance and scientific inquiry.

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

Keep your medieval-esque world using an archaic number system that doesn't involve zero. In other words, stick with Roman numerals and never adopt Arabic. Mathematics are so much more difficult that you aren't building great economies or calculating ballistics. (Maybe there is one guy that figures it out but no one can make sense of his journal.)

Maybe there are some advances but they just don't seem to go anywhere. Optics were remarkably advanced in Medieval Europe. However, instead of inventing telescopes and reading glasses in your world the technology was used for a scrying magic that didn't work. (Rather how the Astrolabe was used for astrology more than for astronomy.)

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

The sharpest change in living standards and technology in human history came about because of the invention of automation - inventing machines to do the work for you markedly increases efficiency. With increased efficiency, more time and resources are available for further innovation, so you need to find a reason why the invention, or the implementation of automation is very unlikely or difficult to achieve.

Limit knowledge sharing

New ideas pretty much always come from previous work done by others. In order for technology development to essentially stagnate, you need to ensure that it is difficult to come across existing knowledge, and difficult to share new knowledge when it is discovered. This would require a restriction to the access of education. If education is rare, it will to some extent self-perpetuate - in order to learn you need a teacher, or educational material (books). If few people have knowledge, fewer people can be teachers. For books to be rare, it must be difficult to manufacture them so don't allow the society to invent the printing press.

Keep population density and population growth low

It isn't the overall population that matters, but the population density, when it comes to knowledge sharing, so find a reason why population density remains low. It could be due to a lack of food resources (see below), or due to diseases restricting population densities that get too large.

Another way to keep population density relatively low is to have population centres far apart. This could happen if resources are scarce, or if the terrain is such that very few places are able to easily increase in size.

Keep farming inefficient

One way to keep population growth limited is to have food production be very inefficient. As long as food production is slow and labour intensive, a large proportion of the population will be required to farm, with very little spare time or money. There could be many reasons why farming is difficult:
It could be natural - a lack of fresh water, or poor soil (possibly due to some ancient catastrophe, possibly because crop rotation hasn't been invented), or excessively rugged terrain, or a high prevalence of disease in food crops, or a high level of pests that eat the crops (e.g. locusts).
It could be societal - e.g. in a feudal system where all the land is owned by wealthy (non-farming) landowners and the farming is done by serfs, there is very little incentive for the serf to come up with ways to improve farming efficiency. They won't benefit, only the landowners will. It could be due to war - e.g. if an army invades the land, takes all the food and burns all the fields every few years, you're unlikely to be able to produce the surplus of food usually required for population growth.

Scarcity of resources, especially fuel and metals, especially iron

In a world where the only available fuel for combustion is wood from trees, the course of any industrial revolution would be hugely slowed, due to it being much less efficient a fuel compared to fossil fuels. Some of the recent jumps in technology have only been possible due to the ready access to fossil fuels like coal and oil. Additionally, if relying on trees for fuel, you need the space and time to be able to grow the trees.

Similarly, if metals like iron are difficult to get hold of, it's difficult to manufacture the tools required to invent new technologies. Such tools would become very expensive and restricted to only the most wealthy sections of society. Also, if wars were constantly being fought, the powerful may want to use most of the metal in the formation of weapons and armour, rather than tools for the manufacture of goods.

Restrict the movement of people, by making travelling difficult and take a long time

Sharing of new ideas is much more rapid if it possible to easily encounter people from different societies and geographical areas. Making travel difficult and/or take a long time is one way to restrict the movement of people.

Travel could be difficult for political reasons (e.g. warring neighbours), safety reasons (e.g. unpoliced travel routes), or a lack of resources (e.g. not very many roads/not very many transport operators).

Travel could take a long time because of several reasons. Places could be very far apart, transport could be very slow, there may be very few roads, or very poor roads.

Don't have religions

One interesting point that may be worth exploring is having a world without any religion. One of the largest sections of society that had the wealth, time and inclination in medieval (and pre-medieval) societies to travel and spread knowledge were religious institutions. Monasteries were large centres for learning in medieval Europe, especially as centres for reading and writing. It would be interesting to explore the idea of how a lack of religion would have affected the spread of knowledge. It is of course possibly counterweighted by the fact that organised religion can be a large factor in limiting the spread of "heretical" ideas and spreading mistrust among (differently faithed) neighbours.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

Low life expectation

New inventions and technological progress require knowledge of past inventions and technologies to some degree. For example you would not invent a gunpowder weapon without first acquiring the technology of gunpowder and munition based projectile weapons in general.

If your civilization due to some reason, like diseases or biological limits, has a very low life expectation (I am thinking about less than in Europe Medieval times). Someone that wants to make progress in a specific technological field probably needs some basic general education and then starts as apprentice in this field. You need that knowledge about your field to be able to see flaws in design and processes and additionally the idea how to improve it for progress to occur. Simply lacking lifespan decreases the chance that such progress is made. If you a have knowledge about mathematics look at it as a poison distributed random variable.
The probability in reality would probably even increased with work time. This prolongs the time your culture is stuck in Medieval until all necessary inventions and discoveries are made.

Furthermore human reproduction also has to occur in your limited lifespan and as there is some reason that limits lifespan or decreases life expectation you might also need more tries until you "produce" an adult that is also able to reproduce due to this reason.

As magic in contrast to technology is not or not as easily transferred to a new generation except maybe for artifacts. And as also their lifespan is limited their time to master magic is too.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding.SE olstar! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Jun 22 '17 at 19:45
1
$\begingroup$

If magic works for some but not for all then practitioners become elitist, protecting their art and would not want it to be superseded by technology just as the religious zealots wouldn't want their God(s) to be replaced by science. Add to this a cabal of wealthy and powerful in a class-based society in which commoners may aspire to become merchant class at best; accepted but not included by the noble class. The merchant class would not want just anybody to be able to join their ranks so they stifle innovation such as a case in which the one(s) who provide swords and shields and siege engines to the army would NOT want to see rifles and cannons come onto the scene unless they can gain and maintain control of such things. Political influence, treachery, etc come into play at this point.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding.SE! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Jun 22 '17 at 17:02
1
$\begingroup$

A secret society that thwarts all advancement in tech to keep the opposing factions balanced. Not too far off from reality when you think of it.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ One sentence is a bit too brief for folks here on WB. Can you flesh out your idea some more? Look over the other answers on this Q. What you have makes a good headline: A secret society, but there's no paragraph following. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 23 '17 at 3:59
1
$\begingroup$

ELDER GODS

In short, every time someone start reading too much they attract the attention of creatures so superior to humankind that they are gods in all but name. Obtaining knowledge becomes impossible and anyone trying to do it is exiled before he attracts the wrath of the things that sleep below.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

As long as man doesn't have to work all his waking hours to avoid starvation, he'll invent. And the first thing he'll invent is a superior rock for killing his neighbor. By the 1500s, enough people had enough leisure time for invention. Consider Game of Thrones, where society has been in a late medieval state for a few thousand years. Preposterous.

  • Leonardo Da Vinci: 1452-1519
  • Michaelangelo: 1475-1574
  • Galileo: 1564-1642
  • Compound Interest (the engine that drove prosperity) was invented by the 1330s
  • Modern banking (Medici bank, established by Giovanni Medici) in 1397.

So we can see by the luminaries above, that mens' minds were flying by the 1500s.

Edit - this answer does not justify technological stasis. Quite the opposite. It isn't happening without hand-waving, at which point any ad hoc reason will do.

Edit 2 - In case it isn't clear, the thing that pushes technology is the inventiveness of mens' minds and their desire to seek knowledge. To make matters worse for a 'stasis' argument, technological progress exploded exponentially, and it all started with the minds of the 16th century men. Within 350 years, that culture would unleash nuclear power, travel to the moon, and invent computers.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ So how does that justify a Stasis? I don't see anything here that's an Answer. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 23 '17 at 3:57
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz answer edited $\endgroup$ – Tony Ennis Jun 23 '17 at 4:54
  • $\begingroup$ The question clearly states: Or to turn the question around, what would push towards technological progress? And that is surely answered. $\endgroup$ – Tony Ennis Jun 23 '17 at 11:16

protected by Community Jun 22 '17 at 19:19

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.