Category Archives: Technology

Book Review: Wind & Water in the Middle Ages

Walton, Steven A., ed, Wind & Water in the Middle Ages: Fluid Technologies from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (2006). Pp. 300, xxviii. ISBN: 9-780866-983679.

This book originated from a conference, Wind & Water: the Medieval Mill, held at Penn State University on April 16 and 17, 2004. It consists of eleven papers and a useful introduction by the editor, Steven A. Walton. It is not a narrative history of the uses of technology powered by natural forces but is, “more interested in how their [technologies] uses, legal status, workforce, depictions, and meanings in essence helped form the modern world.”(xxi) The papers are divided into three general thematic sections with three papers having an archaeological focus, five concentrating on how mills “worked”; not physically but rather how they and their uses were integrated into society. The final three papers discuss how mills and milling were viewed by contemporaries through an examination of art and literature.

The opening paper, “The ‘Vitruvian’ Mill in Roman and Medieval Europe” by George Brooks discusses the uses of watermills during the days of the Roman Empire and the transmission of its use to the early Medieval period. He focuses his discussion on the vertical watermill described by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio in his De Architectura. Based on the architectural evidence, Brooks does not believe that the theory first proposed by Marc Bloch and later adopted by others that “. . . after a slow crawl through the ancient world, watermilling took hold during the decline of the empire and took off in the Middle Ages.”(21) Instead he believes that while literary references were rare, the frequency of archaeological finds indicates that, “Watermills were known throughout the entirety of the Roman Empire and treated as common devices which accomplished a basic and necessary task.”(24) Brooks credits the medieval period with the development of the horizontal watermill, a simpler design(27). Ultimately he believes that it is likely there were more mills during the early Medieval period than during the Roman, however this should not indicate that the Romans were unaware of the usefulness of mills or that they were hesitant to use them. 1

Niall Brady in “Mills in Medieval Ireland: Looking Beyond Design” discusses what archaeological evidence of mills may have to tell us about Ireland. Unlike the situation in Britain, numerous mills have been found in early Medieval Ireland. Brady discusses where mills have been found and has several charts and maps where these are identified by type (vertical, horizontal, etc.) and construction date. Brady believes this mill evidence may have important consequences for how the economy of early Ireland should be viewed, most notably that it may not have been a subsistence economy but was able to support market-based economic activity. He believes the evidence for mills should “. . . prompt us to reassess the essential economic paradigm that has been formulated to characterize Ireland in the early middle ages.”(62)

D. Fairchild Ruggles turns to a little-studied topic with her paper, “Waterwheels and Garden Gizmos: Technology and Illusion in Islamic Gardens.” Here she studies evidence for the use of waterwheels and water technology in Islamic gardens. These were used both for irrigation and aesthetic purposes. As little archaeology has been done on this in the Islamic world, she focuses on literary evidence such as contained in the Bayad was Riyad manuscript and The 1001[Arabian] Nights. More archaeology is available from Spain and she discusses several finds including the Court of the Lions at Alhambra Palace in Granada and the Monzòn Lion which was part of an eleventh-century fountain near Palencia. This was an interesting paper which, in addition to pointing out the extensive use of water technology in Medieval Islam, helps illustrate the importance of gardens to that culture.

Another of Marc Bloch’s theses was that monasteries were critically important to the expanded use of mills in Medieval Europe. The Bloch thesis proposes that, as part of the class of great landowners, monasteries promoted the use of watermills as a way to increase their economic control over the lower classes. Lewis Mumford, writing at about the same time, also believed that monks were vital to the adoption of watermill technology but credits them with being very inventive, rather than seeking economic dominance. These concepts have persisted for a long time and have influenced several more recent authors. 2 In “The Role of the Monasteries in the Development of Medieval Milling,” Adam Lucas takes a new look at this.

Lucas utilizes a combination of archaeological and textual evidence. By looking at finds, tax rolls, court cases and dispute resolution he provides a picture of Medieval milling which is very different from that of Bloch and Mumford. He finds that while the Benedictines played a substantial role in the development of mills, particularly in the ninth through eleventh centuries, they were not the only factor. Even the concept of mills being almost exclusively controlled by the elite fails to hold up under scrutiny. Instead Lucas finds that many mills were owned and operated by those of the lower classes, particularly from the thirteenth century on, and that while the elite had much control over mills and milling, this falls short of what could be considered a monopoly. Lucas provides a detailed examination of the evidence in this paper. Despite an unfortunate misstatement, he provides considerable evidence that the development and control of Medieval milling was not as simple as it was once believed. 3

Another very interesting paper is provided by Janet S. Loengard. She examines litigation involving mills in “Lords’ Rights and Neighbors’ Nuisances: Mills and Medieval English Law.” Mills were a money-maker but they were also dirty, noisy, sometimes smelly, could divert water from other uses and the operators might use a variety of means to cheat their customers. Loengard samples the extensive evidence from disputes involving mills and uses it to examine various aspects of mill ownership including; the obligation of peasants to grind at a mill; power relationships between the nobility, mill-owners and mill customers; how mills and millers were viewed by most elements of society and; property rights. This paper uses sources extensively and provides an intriguing look at mills through the lens of litigation and dispute resolution.

A different type of mill is explored in Tim Sistrunk’s “The Right to the Wind in the Later Middle Ages.” In this paper he examines twelfth through fifteenth century attitudes toward the wind and how these attitudes were manifested through regulations regarding windmills. Air was considered free, belonging to no one. How then could windmills be taxed or tithed? Through the examination of this question Sistrunk provides substantial information on the evolution of European land rights and the concept that something may be owed to the Church or government based on its value as property, not its use of resources.

Less about mills and more about water is Roberta Magnusson’s “Public and Private Urban Hydrology: Water Management in Medieval London.” This paper covers a lot of ground. It looks at the Thames and tributaries and how construction of the city of London impacted it and how authorities worked to mitigate some of these impacts. Of particular interest is how the original London Bridge, constructed beginning in 1176, altered the flow of the river.

Moving back to litigation, Thomas F. Glick and Luis Pablo Martinez use disputes and court records in “Mills and Millers in Medieval Valencia” to examine the economic structure of what they term the wheat-flour-bread cycle. While the description of the disputes is interesting, what is of most value is their conclusion that the trade in buying grain from the farm and bringing it to the mill to be ground into flour was carried out by middlemen, “. . . large numbers of impoverished agents and dealers, operating on scant profit margins of only one to six percent, and who were constantly in debt.”(189) These middlemen operated in other areas as well, such as in the wool market. (205)

The final three essays turn to how mills were portrayed in art and literature. In “John Ball’s Revolutionary Windmill: ‘The Letter of Jakke Mylner’ in the English Rising of 1381.” During the peasant revolt five letters were written, attributed to John Ball. In the Jakke Mylner letter, a four-sailed windmill is invoked. This paper examines the meanings which Ball may have intended to convey through his use of the windmill, including messages of hard work, insight, the corruptness of the state, etc.

Kirk Ambrose examines the meanings in Romanesque sculpture in “The ‘Mystic Mill’ Capital at Vézelay.” The columns of the Vézelay Church have numerous sculptures, including one of a windmill. Ambrose selects seven of these to assess late Medieval meanings which, unsurprisingly, are religious in nature.

The final paper, Shana Worthen’s, “Of Mills and Meaning,” examines a broad range of representations in text and images in the late Medieval period. Artists and writers have variously depicted mills in ways ranging from evil, when Dante depicts Satan’s three heads as the sails of a windmill, to symbols of salvation where the sails are used to depict an image of the crucifixion.

This is a very good book. All of the papers are of high quality and offer interesting perspectives which have implications for more than just, “this is a mill and how it worked.” They are rigorously sourced and well written, enough so that I found all of them to be of interest, even those addressing areas I have not previously been drawn to such as Islamic gardens and art history. The papers cover a broad range of subjects from city government to broader themes of mills and millers frequently being the object of scorn in literature and based on dispute evidence. You will note that the length of my assessment of the papers will represent how much the particular topic interested me as well as my familiarity with the topic. In particular, the papers by Brooks, Niall, Lucas, Loengard, Magnusson and Glick and Martinez were very interesting and enlightening for me.

While it is impossible to cover everything in a single volume, I believe an assessment of how the use of mills spread across Medieval Europe would have been extremely valuable. George Brooks provides excellent information on how this occurred during the Roman period. A paper with a similar focus for the early Medieval period would have made an excellent companion piece and provided a nice framework for the other essays. A few other more comprehensive studies may also have been useful, such as a comparative examination of characteristics of communities that had and those that lacked mills, however one cannot cover everything.

Wind & Water in the Middle Ages is a very good book. I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in the development of technology in the Middle Ages.

1 For Bloch, Brooks references; Marc Bloch, “Avènement et conquêtes du moulin à eau,” Annales d’histoire économique et sociale 7 (1935): 538-63. For more recent authors adopting the Bloch thesis see; Lynn White Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1964), p. 82; Jean Gimpel, The Medieval Machine, New York: Penguin Books (1976), pp. 6-10; Frances and Joseph Gies, Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel, New York: HarperCollins Publishers (1994) p. 35 and; N.J.G. Pounds, An Economic History of Medieval Europe, 2nd edition, New York: Longman Publishing (1994), p. 198. Gimpel and Gies & Gies both offer the concept that the Romans eschewed the use of the watermill because they had plenty of slaves to do the work.

2 For Bloch, see note 1, above. For Mumford, Lucas references; Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (1934; rpt. Orlando: Harcourt & Brace, 1963).

3 I have to admit I did a double-take when I read, “Around 500, Gregory of Tours wrote a detailed description of the construction of a watermill complex at Loches, as well as the watermills installed in the defensive walls of Dijon.”(93) In this instance Gregory wrote of events that occurred in and around 500 but he died in 594 and his writings date from around 570 to his death. I’d guess this was a translation error from the source he used but I still wish Lucas would have found and corrected it. Lucas references; Örjan Wikander, Exploitation of Water-Power or Technological Stagnation? A Reappraisal of the Productive Forces in the Roman Empire, Scripta Minora Regiae Societatis Humaniorum Litterarum Lundensis (Lund:1984), p. 31 and; Paul Benoit and Joséphine Rouillard, “Medieval Hydraulics in France,” in Paolo Squatriti, ed., Working with Water in Medieval Europe: Technology and Resource-Use (Leiden: Brill, 2000), pp. 169-70.

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Posted by on March 27, 2011 in Books, Economy, Technology


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What Happened to Watermills in Britain?

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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