Medieval smokestacks: fossil fuels in pre-industrial times

Glass manufacturing in dordrecht 1700s

The history of energy use in human civilisation is generally summarised as follows: from Antiquity until the start of the Industrial Revolution, people made use of the manual labour of both animals and humans, as well as biomass, sun, water and wind.

Next, all these renewable energy sources were replaced by fossil fuels: first coal, and later oil and gas. Uranium completed the picture in the second half of the twentieth century.

While this historical summary is basically correct, there were some – rather important – exceptions. Almost all of the leading economies in Western Europe during the last millenium relied on a large-scale use of fossil fuels such as peat and coal.

Illustration: peat fuelled glass manufacturing in the Netherlands, 1700s.

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