The English Medieval Windmill

Windmills abounded in England from the twelfth century onwards. Terence Paul Smith describes how their bodies usually revolved on a vertical post so that the miller could face the sails into the wind.

In the earliest Middle Ages milling - where it was not done by hand using quern-stones (‘blood-mills’, as they were sometimes expressively called) - was performed using either water-power or horsepower. But from the late twelfth century in Europe a new source of power became available through the invention and rapid spread of the windmill. Dependent as they were on the vagaries of the wind, windmills were not well suited to most non-milling jobs, although windmills were later used for fen drainage.

In the Middle Ages most windmills were used as mills proper - for grinding corn into flour, the inhabitants of the manor usually having to take their corn to the lord’s mill; exclusive possession of the manorial mill was one of the privileges that the manorial lords generally managed to arrogate to themselves.

Because of this established monopoly, the millers were in a position to cheat, like the miller in Chaucer’s The Reves Tale (‘a theef he was for sothe of corn and mele’), though his was a watermill, not a windmill. In the next century John Lydgate suggested in a short poem Against Millers and Bakers that those two groups of men should form a guild and set up a chapel ‘Undir the pillory’ - the most appropriate place for them!

Several types of sources are available for the study of the medieval English windmill. First, there are documentary references giving locations though rarely details of construction or even of appearance; there are occasional literary references too, like the poem of c.1265- based on a real incident - which tells how Richard of Cornwall ‘makede him a castel of a mulne (mill) post’ though these are not useful for studying the nature of the mills.

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