Milling through the ages: Medieval times

Burn the mill

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

Women have long been involved in the milling of flour. However, as will be discussed in the upcoming women in milling articles, this role has changed over time. One of the ways women were involved in the creation of flour in the medieval period is through the transporting of grain to the mill. Two illustrations from a medieval manuscript named the Smithfield Decretals depict such an act, and its potential complications.

The first illustration shows a woman, laden with a sack of presumably wheat, talking to the miller of a windmill. We can assume that they are discussing the rate of multure to be taken, i.e. the amount of grain the miller would take from the woman in return for her use of the mill. The taking of multure was a standard aspect of medieval milling, and, in the most expensive cases, peasants could expect to lose up to 1/10th of their grain.

Negotiations seem to have collapsed. The second illustration shows the woman setting the mill on fire! Clearly whatever terms had been agreed did not satisfy our protagonist and she has decided to take revenge on the miller.

Manuscripts like the Smithfield Decretals can teach us a lot about the history of milling. Although they should not perhaps be taken as literal depictions of medieval life, their portrayals of characters and episodes are massively valuable. These illustrations show us the involvement of women in transporting grain and a responsibility of negotiating a satisfactory multure rate. Also interesting is how the miller is portrayed. Hiding away in his windmill, the miller seems an almost cowardly figure; perhaps these illustrations represent a more widespread negative attitude to the medieval miller. Indeed, the miller was not always a well-liked member of the community, sometimes seen as ripping off peasants by charging high rates of multure. It is no surprise that some fought back.

Credit for the images goes to the British Library where the illustrations and the rest of the manuscript can be accessed.
British Library [Royal 10 E IV, f. 70v] -

Burn the mill

Figure 6) The same woman sets alight the post-mill. Presumably due to a dispute over the multure rate. Accessed through the British Library [Royal 10 E IV, f. 71