I’m currently reading Wind & Water in the Middle Ages: Fluid Technologies from Antiquity to the Renaissance edited by Steven A. Walton. An essay by Adam Lucas includes this statement, “Following the withdrawal of Roman governance in the early fifth century, there is neither archaeological nor manuscript evidence for the existence of watermills up until the late seventh century.” 1
So the Romans brought watermills to Britain where they found at least a fair degree of use, but once the Romans left Britain didn’t have them, according to the evidence, for over 250 years. This despite the fact that they were very numerous on the continent during the same period. This is not the first time I’ve come across this and every time I have the same response – but every other time I said, “Huh?” and wrinkled my brow I didn’t have a blog.
While there have been assaults upon it from time to time, the belief that the Romans leaving devastated Britain (from an economic/social complexity perspective) still carries a lot of weight. I lean that way myself – they quit using the wheel to spin pottery, society really fragmented in ways you don’t see in Gaul, Hispania or Italy, written sources are even sparser than for 7th century Gaul, etc. Heck, the end of the Empire everywhere else didn’t exactly result in an economic revitalization though it doesn’t seem to have been as bad as in Britain.
Even so, this complete absence of powered mills bothers me. I don’t want to say I don’t believe the evidence – but I keep wondering why they’d give up the mills. I can see the pottery wheel – the export market was gone and handspun does fine as simple tableware. But people needed to grind grain. Was society so fragmented that enough grain wouldn’t show up to make a mill economically viable? I don’t believe they couldn’t have built them if they’d wanted to. There were plenty of mills in Ireland at the same time and they had working models to design from. Beyond that, there was a decent amount of travel between Britain and the continent.
Anyway, this is the question currently on my mind. I have five Anglo-Saxon books here to read, and Walton to finish (Lucas didn’t offer a “why” to this observation) and hope to find out more as I go through them. But I’d welcome any comments or reading suggestions.
1 Adam Lucas, “The Role of Monasteries in the Development of Medieval Milling,” in Steven A. Walton, ed, Wind & Water in the Middle Ages: Fluid Technologies from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2006), 94. ISBN: 9-780866-983679.