Millers were vital members of fourteenth century society. Everyone ate bread, and grain had to be ground into flour. This could be done by hand, using a quern, but it was very time-consuming. Powered mills (by water or wind) were labour saving devices, allowing the man who had grown the grain (or his wife and children) to do something else while the grain was being ground. The quality of the flour from a mill was also better, being more finely ground and containing less grit.
For the lord of a manor a mill was a source of income, if he had one on his land. Many had more than one. His peasants had to pay to have their grain ground and they were not allowed to grind it themselves. Many did so secretly, however, using a domestic quern, which had to be well-hidden. If they were caught they would be fined and the quern confiscated or destroyed.
This monopoly was resented by the peasants. During the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 some men forced their way into St Albans Abbey where confiscated millstones had been set into the parlour floor. The millstones were dug up and broken into pieces.
Mills were expensive to build. Watermills needed ponds, weirs and leats to provide enough water moving quickly enough to turn the millstone. The millstone itself had to be cut properly before it could be used. All of this meant that they could only be built by the lord of the manor.
Windmills were invented towards the end of the twelfth century. They were used in flat areas where the water did not move fast enough to turn a wheel.
The most famous miller of the fourteenth century was the one in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. He is described in the Prologue as being a bit of a brute: tall, wide, and strong enough to break a door down with his head, and the winner of every wrestling contest he entered. He was not an attractive man, having a hairy wart on the end of his nose. He stole from his customers, overcharging them for good measure. The tale he tells is lewd, but very funny.
Not all millers were as dishonest as Chaucer’s miller, but he did represent the contemporary view that millers were thieves. Most of what is known about millers comes from court records, which contain mostly complaints about theft, dishonest weights and overcharging. Millers certainly had plenty of opportunity to steal from those who brought their grain for milling.
Millers either rented the mill from the lord of the manor, or collected the tolls and payments for the lord if employed by him. Some mills were by bridges and the miller would also collect the tolls from those crossing the bridge.
Peasants had to pay a multure to have their grain ground. This was sometimes a sixteenth of the grain or flour. Freemen paid a smaller percentage. Despite the cost, freemen who did not have to use the mill took their grain there and paid to do so. Not only did the mill produce better quality flour, but it was also a more efficient use of their time than grinding by hand, even though it was considered inconvenient to take the grain to the mill.
Some mills used tidal water for their power. Tide mills were less efficient, however, as they could only operate for six to ten hours a day. Eling Tide Mill on Southampton Water benefited, and still benefits, from Southampton’s double tides in order to mill for longer. Travellers are still required to pay a toll to cross the nearby bridge. Although there has been a mill on the site for nine hundred years, the current building dates from the late eighteenth century.
Watermills were made of wood and there is rarely much left for archaeologists to find. Despite this, the team at Guédelon Castle decided to build a watermill as part of their project to build a castle using only techniques from the thirteenth century. Last year I reviewed the DVD Secrets of the Castle about the project. It shows the operation of a wooden watermill, as well the use of a quern. Some of the difficulties involved in operating a watermill are highlighted, not least the problems involved in producing enough power to turn the millstone.