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Milling through the ages: Medieval times

Milling as resistance

It seems that despite this increased regulation, women’s use of hand mills remained common and widespread. Indeed, just based upon the large number of hand millstones being imported into England, it’s not difficult to come to the conclusion that hand milling was still prevalent. Archaeological evidence can add to the picture. Sally Smith’s article, Power and resistance at Wharram Percy, uses the dig site at the abandoned town of Wharram Percy in North Yorkshire to improve our understanding of the medieval social landscape. Fragments of quern stones were found in multiple areas across the village, leading her to conclude that women did a substantial amount of hand milling, in spite of the two manorial mills which claimed suit of mill over the village. These women, through their hand milling, were therefore resisting on a daily basis the proclaimed authority of the lords of the area. In the midst of the changing milling environment, the ancient methods of hand milling persisted. Whether it was through an active resistance to manorial authority or a simple desire to avoid the cost of multure, women across the country continued in their role as millers in the home.

But domestic milling was not the only way in which women were involved. Another aspect of the medieval milling economy not yet discussed is the ‘tenant’ or ‘free’ sector. Whilst many lords managed their mills directly, some would lease it out to a lessee who would be responsible for the running and maintaining of the mill. It was rare for these lessees to be women, however there are cases of it happening. Women could take over the lease of their husband, often in the case of his death. Joan Roundell, for example, held a 20 year lease starting in 1529 for three watermills in Tanshelf, Yorkshire at a price of £16 per year. In Saxton, Yorkshire, Joan Scargill also signed a long lease of 21 years starting in 1533, for a watermill at £4.2s per year after her husband died. Women could also take on leases entirely independently. Agnes Manusell, held a lease from 1399/1400 to 1420/21 for a windmill in Cridling, Yorkshire.

Milling as resistance

Figure 5) A woman brings grain to a post-mill. From the Smithfield Decretals, a late 13th/early 14th century manuscript. Accessed through the British Library [Royal 10 E IV, f. 70v]

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