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Wind and Water in the Middle Ages: Fluid Technologies from Antiquity to the Renaissance (review)

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 49, Number 1, January 2008
pp. 261-263 | 10.1353/tech.2008.0048

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

This is a collection of eleven essays variously associated with a 2004 Pennsylvania State University conference, "Wind and Water: The Medieval Mill." The general scope and quality of this fine ensemble are seen in the engaging titles: "The 'Vitruvian Mill' in Roman and Medieval Europe" (George Brooks); "Mills in Medieval Ireland: Looking beyond Design" (Niall Brady); "Waterwheels and Garden Gizmos: Technology and Illusion in Islamic Gardens" (D. Fairchild Ruggles); "The Role of the Monasteries in the Development of Medieval Milling" (Adam Lucas); "Lords' Rights and Neighbors' Nuisances: Mills and Medieval English Law" (Janet Loengard); "The Right to the Wind in the Later Middle Ages" (Tim Sistrunk); "Public and Private Urban Hydrology: Water Management in Medieval London" (Roberta Magnusson); "Mills and Millers in Medieval Valencia" (Thomas F. Glick and Luis Pablo Martínez); "John Ball's Revolutionary Windmill: 'The Letter of Jakke Mylner' in the English Rising of 1381" (David W. Marshall); "The 'Mystic Mill' Capital at Vézelay" (Kirk Ambrose); and "Of Mills and Meaning" (Shana Worthen).

Although each essay is independent and in its own way compelling, editor Steven Walton cogently suggests in his introduction that they may be grouped into three separate themes. The theme for the first three: the evidence, textual and physical, for the origins and spread of various types of water mill—vertical and horizontal, stream and tidal, bridge and boat— and the times and places in which the evidence may be found, from the Roman period through the Middle Ages, and from Europe to the Islamic areas. For the next five: the identification of the several categories of medieval mill ownership—monastic, ecclesiastical, secular—and of the legal status, including relevant litigation, that attended milling, with one essay there devoted to the medieval invention and utilization of the windmill and two more throwing separate nets on water usage, its importance and problems, in two specific arenas, London and Valencia. And for the last three: cultural transmission of the medieval utilization of and fascination with wind- and waterpower, both utilitarian and symbolic, in literature and the arts.

Walton's introduction further identifies what he posits as two theses that emerge from the book's collection of scholarly probes. One serves to explain the "fluid technologies" part of the title: the timely explanation's point might otherwise have been missed by some readers and it can give a recurrent charm to the reading. That is, the obvious fluidity of the currents of water and wind that initially activate the milling devices may be seen, functionally and metaphorically, as: effectively moving on through the coordinated interactions of the structural parts of these machines; the production of the goods therefrom; the dynamic effect—economic, social, political—not only of those goods now made available for consumption but also the creation and maintenance of the machines by their owners and operators; the active cultural inspiration variously to be seen in literature and the arts; and the movement of it all in time and space, from antiquity through the Middle Ages and throughout Europe and the Middle East.

The editor's discussion of fluidity as a thesis, if not explicitly orchestrated in each article, not only elucidates the book's title but also offers an essentially unobjectionable, even enjoyable, point of view from which to read the collection of writings. But from that same fluidity Walton also derives a thesis of historical continuity, seeing in the history of wind- and waterpowered devices an evolutionary movement through the time and space covered by these essays. This he regards as a refutation of the more revolutionary development perceived in all this by some of the early scholarly pioneers of the subject such as Lewis Mumford, Marc Bloch, and Lynn White jr., all of whom credited monasticism as a major force in that revolution.

This reviewer agrees in part with several observations made throughout the book regarding the solid evidence of an evolution of grain milling from ancient times, e.g., the Vitruvian mill through the Middle Ages; there was no outright revolution in the production of flour by medieval millers, monastic or otherwise. There is, however, good reason to see the revolutionary progress cited by White et al. in the new industrial...



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