What Happened to Watermills in Britain?

24 Mar

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.


Posted by on March 24, 2011 in Economy, Technology


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20 responses to “What Happened to Watermills in Britain?

  1. hefenfelth

    March 25, 2011 at 1:54 am

    The best I can offer is that Gildas refers to wine-presses. On the other hand, I don't really remember any references to grain, though presumably there are references to bread. You have to grind grain somehow,unless they were importing it.

  2. hefenfelth

    March 25, 2011 at 2:17 am

    Perhaps my ability to comment is back. Yeah!

  3. Pressure Drop

    March 25, 2011 at 3:37 am

    I think there is enough evidence to suggest population decline may have been a significant factor. Also, the legions introduced the technology (I believe) to satisfy their needs; presumably demand diminished. I'm also one for believing the lack of continuity (institutionally, culturally, politically)in Britain, even over the period of a generation, say 400-430/40 allowed these technologies to be forgotten. Speaking of disappearances; do you know what has happened to Guy Halsall's blog? Rather excitingly, he is working on a book on Britain in this period.

  4. Curt Emanuel

    March 25, 2011 at 10:46 am

    Michelle – sweet! The absence of mills seems a bit odd considering they hung around everywhere else and there were over 6,000 counted for Domesday.

  5. Curt Emanuel

    March 25, 2011 at 11:03 am

    Pressure Drop, Thanks for the comment. The thought that their main purpose was to feed the Romans is one that's pretty high on my list of possibles – technologies that are important to meet basic needs don't usually get dropped. Another is population decline though a lot of the evidence for that seems to be tied to the Justinian plague. It still seems odd. As for Guy's blog, I didn't realize it was gone until just now. That's very unfortunate. It's one of my favorites. I could think of some reasons but they'd be pure conjecture. Hopefully it comes back.

  6. Alexandra

    March 25, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    Now you are obligated to address this in a future blog post, when you've got more theories. Because I've got all manner of retro-post-apocalyptic scenarios running through my head. Kind of like if Robert Graves and Jared Diamond re-wrote Tank Girl.

  7. Pressure Drop

    March 25, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    When mills are found, they tend to be around legionary/auxillary fortresses/forts or canabae, and also Roman settlements or villas. With the disapearance of these, it is likely that the technology that accompanied them also went west. It is certainly an intriguing topic, and post-Roman Britain does get the spine tingling.Really enjoying the blog, have been following for a few months now. Keep it up! Hopefully we will see the return of Guy's blog sooner rather than later.

  8. Jonathan Jarrett

    March 25, 2011 at 7:14 pm

    In the absence of Guy, my feeling, based on his Barbarian Migrations, is that he would probably say that, as Pressure Drop implies from the other end of the proposition, it was Rome's large-scale economic infrastructure that had built things like mills, and more importantly the networks that bring supplies to them and distribute them and the estate structures that governed their location. Working from that on my own, in the absence of that structure, the military demand, the organisation of those resources by large-scale landowners and so on, maybe the whole thing dislocates sufficiently that there simply isn't the shared resource base on such an organised scale as is necessary to keep these things running. I mean, it doesn't take much to set up a mill, but it's not a one-person job, it's a one-village job, both to build it and to justify it by demand. If most produce is suddenly being grown for local use only, if the market has collapsed, if no-one is now levying the proportion of proceeds necessary to pay for the mill's upkeep (or if they are, they can't sell it or use it as labourer's pay), maybe we revert to hand-mills in each house, or whatever.The trouble is of course that that is too catastrophic, whatever truth there may be in it. Somewhere like Wroxeter, however unrepresentative, or Tintagel or Dinas Powys, is eating enough wheat that a water-mill could be justified. (I'm not sure where you'd expect a mill to be in any of those cases but there must be watercourses that could be used.) So, why isn't it there (if it isn't)? I don't know either. But I don't think we need to assume that the lords of those places were necessarily thinking in terms of maximising their grain levies, either. If there's no wider market for produce… what's the point in accumulating more than you can eat or stuff in a souterrain?I think that's my answer, really; no produce market means no need for mills, so absence of mills probably implies no local produce market!(Forgive lack of OpenID authentication, Blogger appears to have given up on that again today.)

  9. Curt Emanuel

    March 25, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    Alexandra – are you trying to expand my reading list? :) Tank Girl is something I'm just not familiar with. I got about 50 pages into Guns, Germs and Steel before deciding it was sociology, not history and giving it up.

  10. Curt Emanuel

    March 25, 2011 at 9:20 pm

    Jonathan,Thank you for the detailed response. I tend to agree with you. An extremely simple economic and social structure would explain the lack of windmills if there wasn't enough grain showing up to be ground to make the mill a viable entity. My problem's been accepting that it became that simple, something you evidently have your own doubts about.I can reasonably come up with why wheel-spun pottery disappeared. Handspun pottery holds food and drink just fine so without a market the wheel might go. But unless we want to consign them to a diet of pottage, folks would still need to grind grain. And surely there had to be at least some exchange going on, not to mention the elite who wanted to be fed without having to grow it themselves.I'm hoping someone finds a 6th century mill one day – would ease my mind on this.One more advantage of WordPress is putting replies into threads. Lot simpler to keep things straight.

  11. hefenfelth

    March 26, 2011 at 2:23 am

    Guy's blog is still there. Its called Historian on the Edge isn't much evidence that the plague of Justinian got to Britain early. I'd love to find evidence, but there isn't much. I do think it got there but it makes next to no impact on records or literature. Parts of the world where plague racks up high mortality rates also had frequent famines, suggesting to me that there may have been an over population problem.

  12. Curt Emanuel

    March 26, 2011 at 4:12 am

    Yeah, for England it should probably have been called "The Constans II plague" or something. Definitely wasn't 6th century based on the sources. Guy's blog was gone most of today for some reason. I'm glad it's back up.

  13. hefenfelth

    March 27, 2011 at 4:35 am

    Strangely it got to Ireland in the 6th century but we have so little literature from 6th century Britain its just impossible to tell. On the waterwheels, it just occurred to me that I think Martin Carver may have found a waterwheel at his monastery in Pictland. I seem to remember something about horizontal water channels.

  14. Curt Emanuel

    March 27, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    Michelle, you're great! Just found an article by Carver; "Early Scottish Monasteries and Prehistory: A Preliminary Dialogue" in The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 88, no. 2, October 2009, 332-351.There's a bit on mills in this but I'll wait to comment on it until I have a chance to look at it more closely.

  15. theswain

    March 27, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    Curt, another thoughtful commentary. My hat is off to ya (and the subsequent review!). You all are more up on this than I, but no one has mentioned diet change: I recall reading somewhere that starting in the second half of the third century continuing throughout the fourth and into the fifth that there are increasingly fewer fields under the plough having been transformed into pasture. That indicates that there is less grain being produced. Accompanying that of course is decreased population in cities and centralization in villas, which means local grinding of grain by human power most likely rather than down to the mill. As for pottery…..there are also other kinds of vessels…including wood that in this case would not survive for us to look at. Still though, these are puzzles that I'd love to have answers to as well.

  16. Curt Emanuel

    March 27, 2011 at 9:07 pm

    Hey Larry, long time. I haven't been on SHM in forever. You're absolutely correct on the change in use of fields. I'm currently reading something which discusses what the Romans brought to Britain, including drainage to make some land useful for cultivation. Starting late in the 3rd century those drainage systems begin to silt up and much of that land (not all) converts back to pasturage.If I come up with some answers to this (obviously there will be nothing definitive anywhere) I'll add another post.

  17. Jonathan Jarrett

    March 30, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    A technical point: you don't have to grind grain by mechanical mill, be it water- or wind-powered. Remember those quern-stones that King Offa wrote to Charlemagne about! Here's a historical example of a hand-mill. This is kind of a weird edge case of technical devolution, because on the one hand it's obviously easier to imagine this than a big community project in a sub-Roman settlement if we're imagining social collapse more widely, but on the other hand you can't just dig up quern-stones, like salt they have to come from somewhere where that resource can be obtained, which suggests that some networks must have remained… Maybe any stone will do at a pinch.|

  18. Jonathan Jarrett

    March 30, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    Agh. On re-reading, sorry, you plainly know that, my apologies. I offer the link as some penance for assuming too little.

  19. Curt Emanuel

    March 30, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    You've done something – it's hard to assume too little when it comes to me! Plus I don't have a picture as good as the one in the link.It has raised my curiosity as to how many people a single handmill could grind grain for – twenty people? Fifty? There could still be some degree of specialization if you could find someone with the strength to turn that thing by hand for an extended period.

  20. theswain

    March 30, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    Hi Curt, I just returned to SHM after a hiatus of some months. I didn't miss much. Sad. Anyway, how many people? Depends on how much grain you want to grind and how many hands to turn it.


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