Motive Power

The use of the motive power supplied by water and, later, by wind opened up vaster prospects. At the end of the eleventh century so small a country as England had 5,624 mills situated in 3,000 localities. France could boast at least ten times as many, and two centuries later hundreds of thousands of flour and oil mills were installed throughout the country on the banks of streams and on dams; these latter formed lakes that modified both the landscape and the water system. Wind power was used in Castille from the tenth century, but was hardly known in the rest of Europe before the twelfth.

Those mills had a great impact on life in the rural districts. On the other hand, they freed a large portion of the manpower that had previously been needed to move the primitive grindstones inherited from a bygone age. On the other, a building of that sort, built sometimes of timber but incresingly of stone and often fortified, complete with dam and power-plant, the main parts of which were made of or strengthened with iron, required an important investment that only a landed proprietor could provide. To recover his outlay he had to impose on the peasants who brought him their grain such heavy taxes that they were tempted to make do with their old grindstones, which cost them nothing.

This led to conflicts, for the landlord obliged his tenants to use his mill and confiscated their handmills. The case is known of a monastery that paved its cloisters with the grindstones wrested from the peasants, The grasping miller enriched by the wheat extorted in payment and his preety, flighty wife, free to enjoy herself while her husband supervised his millstones and the peasant waited for his flour, were well-known characters of the rustic scene (Life in the Middle Ages.pg. 140).

By: Maureen E. Gallagher

Delort, Robert. Life in the Middle Ages. Edita Lausanne: New York. 1972.


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