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Milling through the ages: Medieval times

Windmills; A story of innovation

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

Milling by hand was a difficult task. Rotating a heavy quernstone required great physical effort and could be a long, monotonous process. In Roman society, milling was often the job of slaves. Treated awfully and enduring arduous conditions, the often female slaves would work revolving mills to grind grain. However, human muscle power did not remain the principal driver of flour production throughout the whole of history. Beast mills, tidal mills and watermills worked to harness other sources of power from the natural environment.

Watermills, for example, are first alluded to by the Greek, Antipater of Thessalonica in around 85 B.C. whilst the first mention of an English mill is found in a charter in 664 A.D. By the time the Domesday Survey is carried out in 1086, more than 6000 watermills are recorded on streams and rivers across England. Whilst watermills certainly had a large impact on flour milling, and also provide the modern British landscape a charming companion thanks to conservation efforts, it is on the development of windmills that this article will focus.

Around the year 1137, the first instance of a mill that harnesses the wind appears in England. The common form of the new windmill was that of a post-mill. Post-mills were structured around a wooden post, hence the name, upon which the machinery and sails are built. These windmills were therefore relatively simple to build and, perhaps more importantly, they were less constricted in placement than watermills. Whilst a watermill, by its very nature, requires some kind of stream or river in order to function, a post-mill is far more adaptable; it only needs a bit of wind! These post-mills could be built all over the country and meant that manorial estates, convents and monastic communities all had access to mechanised milling. But post-mills didn’t grow on trees, and women, alongside men, played an important role in their development and popularisation.

Edward J. Kealey’s book, Harvesting the Air, provides a fascinating account of the emergence of this new windmill in England. It identifies 56 early post-mills from the 12th century and, significantly, their ownership status. Of the 56, four were directly controlled by women, three were managed jointly by wives and husbands, several changed ownership multiples times (with some of the owners being women) and some were donated to women’s religious houses.

Windmills; A story of innovation

An image of a medieval watermill, from the 14th Century Luttrell Psalter Manuscript

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