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Milling through the ages: Medieval times

Agnes of Mountchesney

The book also contains a gazetteer, detailing some of the earliest windmills in England and containing evidence of the involvement of women. Agnes of Mountchesney, for example, was the daughter of one of Henry I’s top officials. She was a benefactor of Godstow Abbey in Oxfordshire and was an owner of one of these early windmills. In the 1180s she made several donations to the Benedictine nuns who ran the abbey, offering land, tithes (one tenth) of her hay and a parish church. Amongst these offerings, Agnes also donated her windmill to the Abbey, allowing the nuns free access to land on her estate that was located in Dinton, Buckinghamshire.

Beatrice of Somerton
In Norfolk, another woman windmill donor can be found. Beatrice of Somerton, possibly around the year 1200, but definitely sometime before 1250, donated her windmill in the town of Rollesby to Hickling Priory. Her motivation for this act seems largely religious, she wanted to ensure the salvation of her soul and the souls of her relatives. To this end, a penny was to be taken from the profits of the mill each year and offered to her Lord.

Emma Burnham
Women were also involved in the building of early windmills. Phillip and Emma Burnham lived in Fincham, Norfolk and in around the year 1200 acquired the land they needed to build a post-mill. In two separate charters, both husband and wife record their exchange of land with William Fitz Osbert, and it is likely that the windmill they subsequently built was functioning before the year 1215. The couple then donated the windmill, along with the land it was built upon, to the Castle Acre Priory in the town of Castle Acre.

The Saint Sepulchre nuns
A final example comes from a group of women in Canterbury. The Saint Sepulchre nuns worked with the Eastbridge Hospital brethren to construct a windmill. The two groups cooperated, with the nuns granting the Eastbridge brethren a plot of land on which the windmill was to be built. The Hospital paid the nuns six pence a year and the nuns agreed to cover twenty five percent of the costs of constructing and maintaining the mill. In return for this, the nuns would be given access to the mill whenever they wanted to get their grain milled, and would take twenty five percent of the profits of the mill.
Looking back from a modern perspective, it can be easy to assume the inevitability of the use of post-mills and windmills in general. Milling has long played a part in the process of feeding people, and the use of wind power seems an almost obvious development. However, it must be remembered that at the time of its development, the post-mill was entirely new. The women involved in pioneering this technology were in uncertain territory, championing a technique that departed from other established methods. The success of post-milling was not a guaranteed one and these women’s willingness to contribute in a variety of ways to its development should not be forgotten. The next article will continue to explore the significance of the windmill alongside the watermill, examining how milling’s place in medieval society changed and how that affected women’s relationship to it.

Adam Lucas, Wind, Water, Work; Ancient and Medieval Milling Technology, (Leiden, 2006)
Edward J. Kealey, Harvesting the Air; Windmill Pioneers in Twelfth-Century England, (Woodbridge, 1987)
William Coles Finch, Life in rural England, (Kent, 1928)
William Coles Finch, Vanishing wind and water mills: Their romance and history, Chatham, Rochester and Gillingham Observer, August 14th, 1925.

Agnes of Mountchesney

Figure 3) Possible site of Agnes of Mountchesney's post-mill in Dinton, Buckinghamshire

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