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Milling through the ages: Medieval times

Hand milling

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

The history of women in milling has in some ways been a hidden one. Stereotypical images of grand, industrial roller mills or quaint, rural windmills run by male millers often occupy our imagination of milling in the UK, leaving little space for women. And yet women have played important and interesting roles in the processing of grain and production of flour over the course of history.
Milling grain and creating flour is not a new process. For example, evidence of use of the pestle and mortar to crush grain has been found dating back to 1490 B.C. The Romans also used this technique and, notably, it was primarily women who did the pounding. Even from the early days of flour processing, women have had a position in the foreground.

Saddle Querns
Other methods can be traced even further back in time. The technique of using a saddle quern to crack nuts may be 77,000 years old and archaeological evidence from Israel, Italy and Australia suggests it began to be used to grind seeds 25-30,000 years ago. With a saddle quern, grains could be finely ground, releasing more nutrients for whoever was fortunate enough to eventually eat it. The user positioned herself behind the saddle, grinding the grain up and down along the stone. These were certainly widely used in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and to a lesser extent in England as well.
The graves of early British women sometimes contained quern stones, much like how weapons would accompany warriors to the afterlife. The tools of their lifetime came with them, highlighting both the significance attached to their role as the literal bread-makers of their societies and providing evidence for the argument that it was in fact

Rotary Querns
Other methods of using quern stones also came about. Rotary querns were introduced in Britain in around 400 B.C. and are comprised of two quern stones, one placed upon the other, and a handle, used to rotate the top stone and grind wheat. Once again these are not limited to use in Britain and Ireland; two lines in Homer’s Odyssey bring to life Ancient Greek milling.

‘Full fifty handmaids from the household train;
Some turn the mill or sift the golden grain’

It seems likely that the ‘turn’ of the mill refers to the turning of the handle of a rotary quern and the clear reference to ‘fifty handmaids’ tells us that it is women doing the work.

Women are heavily involved in milling in early history. But, as we have seen through just these three technological developments, milling is not a static industry. Constant change, development and innovation characterise the story of milling in the UK, and as the nature of milling changed, so did the nature of women’s relation to it. The upcoming articles will look at medieval milling, a period of great transformation and social change as watermills, and subsequently windmills, fundamentally alter how flour and food is produced.

Coles Finch, William. Life in rural England, (Kent, 1928).
Peacock, David. The stone of life: Querns, mills and flour production in Europe up to c. AD 500, (Southampton, 2013).

Hand milling

Postcard of a woman using a pestle and mortar in 1928 in Argentina
(Watlington Postcard and Art Collection, the Mills Archive Trust)

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