In Praise of Folly
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Categories: Ancient, Medieval, Modern

In Praise of Folly

A painting of a fool in red and green mi-parti wheeling a man wearing an extravagant plumed hat in a wheelbarrow
A wheelbarrow painted on the ceiling of the Fembohaus, Nürnberg. Photo by Sean Manning, March 2017.

A few half-timbered houses survived the bombing of Nürnberg, and several of them have become museums. The Fembohaus is dedicated to life in Nürnberg from the 15th to the 18th century, and one of its charming decorations is this painting of a fool driving another fool in a barrow.

We tend to think of wheelbarrows as a trivial things which appeared in ancient China and later medieval Europe. They are actually more important than that, since they let one worker carry more than they can carry in a basket on their back or head, and only require a single narrow path. (Apparently the Venetians loved them for the narrow alleys of their island city). Adopting wheelbarrows was one of the ways in which a preindustrial society could start to have more stuff relative to its population: they let traders move more goods over mountain trails, and bricklayers lay more bricks. In medieval Europe they appear gradually in the 12th and 13th century with a variety of names, so its not clear whether they were borrowed from China or invented independently (the lands in between relied on camels and carts).

But there is actually an ancient connection. We don’t know as much as we would like about the practicalities of building in the ancient world, because ancient writers took them for granted, and artists rarely carved building scenes into stone or painted them on pots. The custodians of the temple treasury at Eleusis west of Athens had to take inventory when they took office and compare it to that which had been entrusted to the previous custodian, and by the end of the 5th century BCE they had these inventories carved on rock. Because the temple needed to be repaired (and redecorated or expanded), these inventories include some tools for building. And among those tools are wheels and chassises for four-wheelers (tetrakykloi), two-wheelers (bikykloi), and one-wheelers (monokykloi). So its possible that in the fifth century BCE, labourers in Attica were using one-wheeled carts to carry goods. Between the last Assyrian reliefs of monument-builders, and Roman depictions of soldiers at work building forts and bridges, we don’t really have a lot of other evidence for how buildings were constructed, and most of that evidence focusses on clever devices like cranes and pile-drivers not the everyday work of moving materials around a construction site. Before the 19th century, labour-saving devices often came in and out of favour, as often workers were so cheap that even the small expense of a draft animal or wheelbarrow was not worth the trouble. (And then as now, large building projects were a great way to give employment to people who were having trouble supporting themselves and their families).

Carving those inventories into stone was folly, but maybe folly is not such a bad thing. If the temple custodians at Eleusis had not been overcome with glorious madness, we would not have even one source for the Greek wheelbarrow. And while its wise not to put too much trust in a single source, it is much better than having none at all.

Further Reading:

  • You can find the Greek text at IG I³ 386 and 387
  • There is a translation in M. J. T. Lewis, “The Origins of the Wheelbarrow,” Technology and Culture, Vol. 35, No. 3 (1994), pp. 453-475
  • Richard W. Bulliet, The Camel and the Wheel {on why wheeled transport became scarce in the Near East after the coming of Islam}

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