The Medieval Mill - A Productivity Breakthrough?

In the Middle Ages mill-owning was a sound investment and led to the invention of the windmill but, as Richard Holt points out, these halcyon times were of short duration.

Everything that was accomplished in the Middle Ages, from the construction of the great cathedrals to the day-to-day work in field or workshop, was achieved by the systematic exploitation of the strength of men and animals – by endless drudgery. Even so, with the advantage of hindsight we can see that already some of the technological groundwork for a mechanised society was being laid. One major source of natural power had been harnessed, and the people of the Middle Ages were to learn how to exploit another. To the watermill – a legacy of the Ancient World – the medieval west added its own peculiar creation, the post windmill. Later centuries would see the watermill in particular play the crucial role in industrialisation and economic growth, with the Industrial Revolution becoming only in the latter part of the nineteenth century emphatically a triumph of the steam engine rather than of the waterwheel. But how important a role did wind and waterpower play in the gradual transformation of the medieval agrarian economy? Did the mill have any noticeable effect on existing patterns of production?

To read this article in full you need to be either a print + archive subscriber, or else have purchased access to the online archive.

If you are already a subscriber, please ensure you are logged in. 

Buy Subscription | Buy Online Access | Log In

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week