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Milling through the ages: Medieval times

A new economy

(Credit: Jake Banyard, Garfield Weston Foundation intern at the Mills Archive)

Milling has never been a static industry. Throughout history the ways in which we mill has changed, and milling’s place in society has changed alongside it. Women’s involvement in technological innovation, as seen in the development of the windmill, contributed to the changing landscape of medieval milling. Windmills, inexpensive and adaptable to many locations, as well as watermills, provided the increasingly confident land-owning class with the opportunity to invest in their estates.

In the 12th and 13th century, more and more lords built mills on their estates for a multitude of reasons. The most obvious reason is perhaps of the simple need to feed themselves, their families, and their servants. The new technology of water and windmills were great labour saving devices and a lord could certainly put that saved time to use. The makeup of a lord’s estate was also a matter of personal pride. As more manorial estates added mills, not having a mill could perhaps mark them as being behind the times! Finally, a mill provided an estate with yet another way for its lord to profit from their serfs. The desire for profit has an important effect on medieval milling and this article will explore that effect, especially the consequences for women.

Lords were active in trying to profit from their mills. A lord who owned a mill could impose Suit of mill upon those who lived on his territory. This suit of mill meant that peasants included in the suit were legally obliged to use the lord’s mill to grind their grain. However, peasants using the mill would have to pay for the privilege. Multure was the term used to describe the payment taken by the lord for use of the mill and comprised a proportion of the total grain being milled by the peasant. The rate of this fee was not fixed, changing over time and between different mills. Variations in this rate ranged from a costly 1/12th of the total grain to a cheaper 1/30th of the grain that would be taken by the lord.

This raises questions about women’s involvement in milling. Women’s historic role in milling had been an essential one, they were the labourers who worked for hours every day to grind wheat on hand mills. Now, however, it seemed that milling was being taken out of the home and onto the estate, out of the hands of women and into the hands of the lord and the male miller he employed. But, as always, history is not so clear cut. Whilst lords may have officially outlawed domestic milling, manorial authority was not an all-seeing, all-powerful force. Women still had space to manoeuvre.

John Ambler and John Langdon provide a rough estimate that 20% of all grain milling was done in the domestic sector, i.e. by peasant women in their homes. There are cases of lords using the law to enforce their suit of mill, as we will see shortly, but this was not sufficient to put a stop entirely to women milling in their homes. In fact, it could even be argued that lords often didn’t want to go to the effort of stopping women from milling for personal use; hand milling was often tolerated as long as it did not infringe on the profits of the Lord’s mill. However, if a lord felt that a hand mill was acting as competition to his mill, legal action was often taken.

In 1243, John of the Mills charged Martin of Feltham and Agnes of Staines, his wife, with using a hand mill to grind their grain and thus denying him the multure they owed to him. The couple win the case, they are allowed to continue using their hand mill. What is interesting is the addition that they should not mill ‘alien’ grains, meaning other people’s grain. The priority seems clear, it was not the personal use of the hand mill which John saw important, but the potential commercial threat that the hand mill presented as an alternative to his mill.

A new economy

A wheat field in Devon
(Sue Watts Collection, the Mills Archive Trust)

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