Industrial Milling in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds: A Survey of the Evidence for an Industrial Revolution in Medieval Europe
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Technology and Culture 46.1 (2005) 1-30

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Industrial Milling in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds

A Survey of the Evidence for an Industrial Revolution in Medieval Europe

In 1934 and 1935, Lewis Mumford and Marc Bloch published two very different pioneering works in the history of technology, Technics and Civilization and "Avènement et conquêtes du moulin à eau," the first an ambitious attempt to trace the development of technology in human civilizations over several thousand years, the second a historical overview of the development of milling technology from Greco-Roman times to the end of the Middle Ages.1 What was to prove an extraordinarily influential thesis about the development of medieval technology appeared in both publications, namely, that the second half of the European Middle Ages witnessed a rapid increase not only in the number of mills powered by water and wind but also in the range of industrial processes to which waterpower and wind power were applied. These phenomena were, according to Mumford and Bloch, emblematic of a medieval revolution in the use of power technology that laid the foundations for what happened in the Industrial Revolution [End Page 1] several hundred years later and helped to explain how European society was subsequently able to transform itself in the way it did.2

In 1941, Eleanora Carus-Wilson added some empirical flesh to the bones of Mumford's and Bloch's thesis. Her widely read article, "An Industrial Revolution of the Thirteenth Century," argued that during the thirteenth century traditional methods of fulling by hand and foot in the urban cloth-manufacturing centers of England were largely replaced by mechanized fulling in a number of rural wool-producing areas, leading to large-scale social and economic changes comparable to those that occurred in the English textile industry of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.3

Until the postwar period, to suggest that the Middle Ages had made any meaningful contribution to later scientific or technological achievements was to invite ridicule. The prevailing academic and popular view was that scholastic religiosity and superstition suppressed natural philosophical, mechanical, and mathematical interests. Scientific and technological stagnation reigned in the Middle Ages as it had done in the ancient world.4

Although they approached the subject in very different ways, Mumford, Bloch, and Carus-Wilson captured the imaginations of a younger generation of scholars in the emergent field of the history of technology with their [End Page 2] new vision of medieval technological prowess. Samuel Lilley, Robert J. Forbes, W. H. G. Armytage, Bertrand Gille, and Lynn White Jr. were some of the more prominent of the young converts. Over the succeeding decades, these pioneering historians of technology articulated what was to become a core set of claims about an exploratory medieval culture exemplified by a number of technological innovations. These included mechanical innovations such as the cam, crank, and clockwork; administrative innovations such as double-entry bookkeeping, annual accounts, and audits; and agricultural innovations such as the horse harness, heavy plow, and three-field crop rotation. The effects of these technological changes were so profound, they argued, that a revolution in social and economic conditions took place in the second half of the Middle Ages. The most compelling evidence for a medieval technological revolution was, however, the rapid growth in the use of nonhuman sources of power from the tenth or eleventh century onward.

By the late 1960s, a relatively detailed account had emerged of how the industrial revolution of the Middle Ages had unfolded. Its basic assumptions appear to have been ultimately derived from Bloch. The first was that the Romans had failed to make widespread use of waterpower, even though they possessed the relevant technology for at least five centuries before the collapse of their empire. The second was that Christian monasteries were leaders in the reintroduction of Roman water-mill technology to Western Europe at the end of the so-called Dark Ages. The third was that monkish inventiveness had acted...