Richard Hoffman

title.none: Langdon, Mills in the Medieval Economy (Richard Hoffman)

identifier.other: baj9928.0507.013 05.07.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Richard Hoffman, York University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Langdon, John. Mills in the Medieval Economy: England 1300-1540. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Pp. xx, 369. 0-19-926558-5. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.07.13

Langdon, John. Mills in the Medieval Economy: England 1300-1540. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Pp. xx, 369. 0-19-926558-5. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Richard Hoffman
York University

Following well-received work on transport and agricultural technologies in medieval England, John Langdon has turned his attention to the milling industry, an essential component of food production and arguably the largest aggregate investment in fixed capital to have worked in the medieval economy. By characteristically systematic, records-based research Langdon refutes certain well-known creative reductionist interpretations, revealing complexities and contingencies of human living. Readers gain a strong sense of the connectivity in medieval economic activity.

Langdon aims to situate milling in late medieval English technology and economic life. He picks up the story after Richard Holt's The Mills of Medieval England (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988) and Edward Kealey's Harvesting the Air: Windmill Pioneers in Twelfth-Century England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), which together established the principle technical components of mills and their diffusion to an acknowledged peak in mill numbers by around 1300. Langdon closes his treatment of this established industry on good methodological grounds when dissolution of the English monasteries broke off the largest component of the medieval record. His work rests primarily on an original database of all evidence concerning mills in a sample of 333 manors covering the whole period (and thoroughly outlined in appendices 1 and 2). Systematic management of this data aggregated individual mill experiences on the various manors into regional and national statistics at (in principle) any date in the period. Results from the database analysis are then amplified and interpreted with the aid of especially rich local clusters of topical evidence.

Short methodological and historiographic remarks introduce six thematic chapters. Inthe first, "The Milling Industry about 1300," Langdon uses the inquisitiones post mortem and other sources to enter into critical dialogue with Holt. He pushes the estimate of mill numbers down to about ten thousand, the lower bound of the earlier one but still some forty percent greater than that inferred from the Domesday survey of 1086. Only in certain limited regions had wind power replaced water. Langdon then establishes essential parameters of his study, pointing out that mills could function as independent market service facilities or as components integrated into larger economic enterprises. He will henceforth distinguish four sectors in the industry: demesne, tenant-held, corporate borough, and domestic mills, with the first counting about forty percent and the others each about twenty percent of the total number. This is already an important corrective to the overwhelmingly lord-controlled situation which Marc Bloch had postulated in 1935 and historians still widely repeat.

The next chapter traces mill numbers and revenues from the early fourteenth century to the mid-sixteenth. The 333 manor sample indicates no change before the Black Death (1348-50) and then a stepwise decline by about twenty-five percent between 1350 and the 1440s, with sluggish recovery following into the 1520s. While the share of windmills fell, those serving industrial purposes (fulling, grinding ore, etc.) increased in number. Revenues, though distinctly more volatile (and surprisingly sensitive to extreme weather events), followed a similar path. As an essential service function, however milling remained resilient even in difficult economic times.

Chapter 3 examines milling technology, using the detailed record of investment and repairs available in English manorial accounts to explore the formation and diffusion of technical ideas in late medieval society. The normative form of vertical watermill called for heavy investment in water-control systems and complex gearing to change and control the direction of rotary motion. Windmills, which had known a minor twelfth-century boom, affected the landscape less but both the more common post mill and the rare tower mill (only the cap rotated to catch the wind) posed practical problems of engineering and durability. Horse mills and hand mills, less complex and less costly, are also less well documented. Langdon unearths stories of repeated small-scale adjustments and incremental design improvement within a well-established construction tradition, a process of ingenuity and problem-solving without formal 'science.' Though mill owners commonly provided the initiative and capital, paradigmatic design solutions were arguably created and passed on by semi-literate or illiterate carpenters. Langdon's meticulous probing at how a technological system evolved within a preindustrial culture deserves attention of scholars far beyond medieval England.

The fourth chapter examines the actual functioning of mills as economic enterprises, both production systems and as consumers of milling supplies. Manorial accounts and royal purveyance records let Langdon estimate rates of production for mills working flat out in emergencies and throughput under more normal conditions of continual grinding. Whether driven by wind or water, a day's work by a pair of mill stones ordinarily produced 1-2.5 quarters (at 8 bushels per quarter), which came to 250-500 quarters a year. Langdon extrapolates the high end of these figures to an annual national output between five and eight million quarters. Considered in light of findings by Christopher Dyer and others on medieval English diets this argues for a potential maximum capacity about 1300 to feed as many as eight million English people--but probably a good deal fewer. Production levels in the milling sector do not, in Langdon's view, support the most aggressive estimates of English population numbers at the start of the fourteenth century and may, indeed, argue for excess capacity in the industry. While rural mills tended to offer a generalized product, some urban mills specialized, notably in either bread or brewing grains. Milling also operated as the spatially diffuse center of its own supply networks which provided lubricants and machinery parts, timber for structural maintenance, and most notably a national yearly total of two to three thousand millstones, some weighing up to a ton. Archaeological and verbal evidence identifies regional markets in millstones, with some parts of England relying on domestic quarries and others on overseas suppliers in northern France or Rhineland Germany. Output and investment together establish the critical mass of this industry in the late medieval economy.

But who paid for it? Langdon now turns to entrepreneurship, considered both as economic initiative and source of capital investment. Here the manorial account roles show a gradual shift from seigneurial leadership to a more diverse set of lessees and tenants. In the demesne sector, the operating millers and other participants in the peasant economy who around 1300 had typically leased the lord's mill gave way, by the 1500s, to gentry investors with wider economic orientations. Mills held as long-term traditional tenancies also maintained a strong place in the market, especially with the growth in industrial milling. Processes of piecemeal recapitalization had by around 1500 made the milling sector competitive for investors of various sorts.

Finally, Langdon turns to the workers and consumers in what was plainly the "sufficiently robust monetary economy" of milling. About 1300, a large and varied work force of fifteen to twenty-five thousand full time equivalents built, operated, and maintained England's mills. Millers, for all their brash and crafty literary stereotypes, were paid workers or, at best, big peasant tenants paying cash rents. Labour for construction and maintenance cost as much as did that for operation. Leading and best-paid were the millwrights and master carpenters, independent expert contractors with regional clienteles whose remuneration rose after the mid-fourteenth century. Langdon then approaches the customers of mills in light of Marc Bloch's 1935 thesis that they were coerced victims of exploitation, which leads him to begin with close study of "suit of mill," the claim to exclusive milling rights, as a legal concept. A sample numbering in the hundreds of actual English litigation over suit of mill before 1350 shows the issue pervasive but highly diverse. Disputed claims to a milling monopoly revolved far more often around water rights and nuisance flooding than they did around compulsory use of a particular mill. The high economic cost of coercion, asserted by Bloch and others, simply cannot be demonstrated. Suits of mill quietly vanished from the English courts during the later Middle Ages. More essential, in Langdon's view, was the real function of mills as points of social engagement, where entrepreneurs, workers, and customers reenacted a stable, though never friction-free, element of community interaction and economic articulation.

Langdon's various findings rest on important methodological decisions. Certainly his laborious and thoughtful construction and use of his data base should be a model both of tenacity and of original critical use, for even in the most statistically-driven discussions he retains a strong sense of his sources and their limits. I missed only more explicit controls for the necessary bias of data over-sampled from the best-documented large estates. In another place the author puzzles with the nature and social locus of expertise and innovation in traditional society, and brings his concrete grasp of medieval England into conjunction with T. S. Kuhn's revolutionary and others' gradualist theories on intellectual--hence also technological--change. This willingness to consider wider connections begins to distinguish Langdon's work from that of more narrowly English students of his material and period. He links his technical issues to studies of Normandy and Flanders--though no further afield--and what he finds on the milling business to broader English, but not continental, demographic and other economic trends and benchmarks. For all that the trade in milling supplies certainly has to say about economic integration in and beyond England, more explicit treatment of the mills' own patterns of marketing and use (how far did consumers travel? what scale had individual commissions? etc.) would deepen the analysis and allow clear comparison to behaviour elsewhere. Langdon's sense that social tensions emerge primarily from roles inherent in the local market relationship usefully balances exclusive class-based analysis. But in a comparable vein, direct engagement with conflicts over water rights, flooding, drainage, and broader environmental impact could better round out the whole context of this technological system.

Langdon eventually draws from his study two general conclusions about the later Middle Ages as a period of change. At this particular interface between technology and economy, he finds a tradition-based mind set reluctant to take new initiatives with technical elements, organization, or investment, though plainly able successfully to respond to changing economic and demographic conditions. Raising his gaze to a broader historiographic context, Langdon discerns a poor fit between experience in this industry characterized by late medieval "consolidation of a particular technical, legal, and business philosophy" and received scholarly stories about dramatic late medieval rises (capitalism, proletariat) and falls (serfdom, the feudal system). In Langdon's view the difficulties with which people of the fourteenth through sixteenth century coped posed no fundamental discontinuity, but rather reinforced those traditional patterns which E. P. Thompson would later characterize as "preindustrial mentalities."

Langdon's findings set a recognizable benchmark in English economic history and for subsequent comparison by students of the milling sector on the medieval and early modern European continent. His methods could be a prototype for the patient, disciplined gathering and analysis of historical data that is required to avoid, test, and replace facile impressionistic speculations. His book is recommended to medievalists, economic historians, and historians of technology. As Langdon's evidence-based assertions gain a wider audience, they will, if slowly, correct such cliches as the exploitative effect of water mills, the need for capitalists to drive technological innovation, and the later Middle Ages as a time of revolutionary change.