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Milling through the ages: Medieval times

Margaret Bavand of Chester

Sometimes tenant mills came into competition with other mills. The Abbey Mills in Chester were run by a Margaret Bavand in the 16th century. Chester, however, was served by the Dee mills which were owned by the king and leased out. The current owners, the Goodmans, decided that they wanted to enforce their claim to the suit of mill of the people of Chester, a suit of mill that Margaret Bavand was infringing upon. Indeed, her husband, Thomas Bavand, had long served the residents of streets outside of the Abbey mill’s suit of mill and Margaret had continued to do so after Thomas’ death. In 1567 the Goodmans brought Margaret and four other millers to court, accusing them of grinding corn taken out of the city to the detriment of Dee mills. Of the five defendants, Margaret Bavand was the only one to give a defence, but she was unsuccessful. Bavand was told to stop taking custom from inhabitants of the city, yet, in complete defiance of the court’s order, she continued to take whatever custom she could for the next four years. Only in 1570 is she forced to stop by a second court judgement, ordering her to compensate Dee mills for the business she took from them.

Unfortunately for Bavand, her attempts to keep the mill running and support herself did not pay off, yet she does highlight the very real involvement of women in the milling industry. Despite the numerous and significant changes to milling in the medieval ages, women were not pushed from the stage, and people like Margaret Bavand show that women, especially those of the upper classes, could act independently and autonomously when it came to matters of milling.

Women, whose traditional role as the millers in the home was perhaps threatened by the significant changes to milling in the medieval period, remained important in the industry. New power structures and milling technology changed how flour was produced in the UK, but women were active participants in the process, not passive spectators. Their participation was varied, reflecting the expanded and more diverse ways that milling was carried out in medieval society, but also reflecting the differing natures of women’s lives. Women were not, and have never been, one homogeneous unit, and factors such as location and class affected women’s relationship to milling. Variations in multure rates and feudal power across the country led to differing levels of hand milling. Class based distinctions meant that peasant women dominated the domain of hand milling, whilst more upper class women had access to ownership or leases of wind and watermills. What emerges, therefore, is a picture of diverse and varied involvement in a changing, yet still essential, role in society.

Ambler, John and Langdon, John. Lordship and Peasant Consumerism in the Milling Industry of Early Fourteenth-Century England, Past and Present (No.145, Nov, 1994) pp. 3-46.
Bennett, Richard and Elton, John. History of Cornmilling: Volume 4. Some feudal mills, (London, 1904)
Langdon, John. Mills in the medieval economy; England 1300 – 1540, (Oxford, 2004).
Lucas, Adam. Wind, Water, Work; Ancient and Medieval Milling Technology, (Leiden, 2006)
Mousnier, M. Moulins et Meuniers dans les Campagnes européennes, (Toulouse, 2002).
Smith, S. V. Towards a social archaeology of the late medieval English peasantry: Power and resistance at Wharram Percy. Journal of Social Archaeology, (2009), 9(3), 391–416.

Margaret Bavand of Chester

Figure 7) A postcard of Dee Mills in Chester
(Watlington Postcard and Art Collection, the Mills Archive Trust)

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