The Influence of Water Mills on Medieval Society

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The Influence of Water Mills on Medieval Society


There were many sources of power used before the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century. The use of slave labor was the first source of large-scale power. This was followed by advances in animal power that were made possible by the invention of tools such as the horse collar. Even more significant was the success of medieval technology in harnessing water and wind power. The waterwheel is one of the oldest sources of power known to man. It was the first type of power harnessed by man that was not generated by animals or humans. When combined with the proper equipment to form a mill, waterwheels were used to grind grain, drive sawmills, power lathes, move pumps, forge bellows, make vegetable oils, and power textile mills. It served as the main source of power for medieval Europe and necessitated that most towns needed to exist near water to make use of this type of power source. It was estimated in The Domesday Book (a book based on William the I's survey of England in 1086) that there were nearly 6,000 water mills in England at that time, and many sources believe that this number more than doubled in the next two hundred years. The water mill served as a primary power supply until the advent of the steam engine during the Industrial Revolution.

From a modern perspective, the operating principles of the water-powered mill are quite simple. To generate energy, water is directed to a wheel and propels it in a circular motion. The spinning wheel transfers the power to a drive shaft that can be used to move many pieces of equipment. These were originally used to turn millstones and grind grain. Later, this generated power was harnessed to drive other types of tools.


There is evidence that water power has been used since at least 300 b.c. in Egypt. It is possible that that this technology may have been adapted from cultures such as the Persians or the Chinese. The earliest known examples of water mills used past examples of water power to utilize wheels that were flat on the water and attached directly to the drive shaft in a horizontal design. When the wheel turned, so did the drive shaft. Because this type of setup was inefficient, waterwheels with a vertical design were soon being manufactured. These types required different engineering because there was a need for gears and cogs to transfer the power to the mills. There were two types of vertical waterwheels put into use at this time. The undershot wheel rests directly in the stream and depends upon the force of the water to push the wheel. Therefore, without a constant level and flow of water, the wheel cannot generate much force, and it is useless in times of low water flow. The overshot model is much more efficient and depends much less on the amount and force of water because it uses the force of gravity to help drive the wheel. Water is channeled to the wheel via a flume or pipe and is dropped directly on the paddle of the wheel. The wheel spins and drives the shaft allowing the power to be harnessed as the user sees fit. As technology increased towards the later Middle Ages, milling operations became more and more complex.

The earliest form of grinding grain between two stones was adapted for use in a water mill. Grain was pounded between two millstones until it became meal. The bottom millstone was fixed while the top millstone that was powered by the waterwheel could be separated to control how coarse the meal turned out. Both stones were corrugated so that the grinding motion of the top stone would then crush the meal to a desired consistency. Additional wheat to be ground could be added to the mill through an opening in the top stone. The meal was then sifted through sieves to obtain flour.

A group of individuals who took full advantage of the water mill technology during the Middle Ages were the Cistercian monks. This monastic order was founded in the year 1098, just after the waterwheel had revolutionized western Europe. Early in the twelfth century, St. Bernard (1090-1153) took over the order and attempted to gain social freedom by utilizing water mills to provide financial independence. Within the next 50 years, the Cistercians had reached the cutting edge of water-power and agricultural technology. Monasteries were built on artificially manufactured canals that ran throughout the complex. This source of running water provided power for activities such as milling, woodcutting, forging metals, and making olive oil. It was also a source of fresh water for daily needs and fulfilled the needs for sewage disposal. The Cistercian monasteries were great examples of organized factories that proved to be important in commerce of that time.

Other sources of power that appeared during the Middle Ages were the windmill and the tidal mill. The windmill appeared before the end of the twelfth century. While not efficient due to a dependence on the amount of the prevailing wind for power, windmills could grind grain and perform other tasks similar to water mills. As the technology advanced, more efficient windmills were developed. These enabled power to be utilized in areas that were far from sources of water, provided there was a reliable amount of wind. The tidal mill, which appeared around the same time, attempted to use the power of the changing tide to provide energy for the mill. While their use did not appear to be widespread, the tidal mill more than likely had a significant favorable impact on the local populations that used them.


Water mills helped to change the way of life in Medieval Europe, and affected all levels of society from each individual to entire countries. Certainly water mills had an immediate and direct impact on the people who operated them. This positive influence would have been primarily in the saving of time and money. People could do a larger amount of work in a shorter amount of time and for lower costs with a water-powered mill. While not usually considered to be part of the Industrial Revolution, the mill was a precursor to that era. The price of human labor was quite expensive, so allowing a mill to do the majority of work was very cost effective. One person could now do the same job as many with the help of the power generated by the waterwheel. It does not seem, however, that many people used this technology to increase their leisure time. Rather, it seems that this technological advancement was used to increase greatly the manufacture of certain goods and materials for sale and profit.

The mill often served to shift the industrial organization and power from urban centers to more rural areas closer to water sources. Thus towns became more powerful, often at the expense of cities. One good example of this was the application of water power to the industrial process known as fulling. Fulling was the process of shrinking and thickening cloth. Prior to its use in water mills in the thirteenth century, fulling was carried out by individuals stomping on the cloth by foot or beating it with a bat. This was obviously a very time-consuming and labor-intensive process. The fulling mill allowed the work to be done by wooden hammers powered by water. Now, only one man was needed to ensure that the cloth moved properly through the machinery. This process revolutionized the industry and initiated reform. The majority of work was now centered in rural areas instead of urban centers.

The effect that this mechanization had on the establishment of national markets cannot be overlooked. Now that goods were produced at a faster rate, with greater quantity, and at less expense, new economic frontiers could be explored. Large national markets were established to find outlets for the increased availability of goods. Water mills diminished much of the human labor costs by providing power for grinding grains and other goods; tanning hides; pressing vegetables for oil; sawing wood; forging metals; polishing armor; pulverizing rock; operating blast-furnace bellows; and crushing mash for beer. The water mill served as the major source of power prior to the invention of the steam engine. Its technology was constantly being upgraded, and new uses were found for the generated power.

These advances in technology that led to the improvement of the water mill were eventually applied in other fields. As an example, the switch from the horizontal to vertical waterwheel required gears to be used on the drive train to transfer the power. This mechanized process became quite complex with successive improvements and these ideas were later adapted on a smaller scale to make clocks and other similar mechanical devices.

Water mills also served to change the balance of power, both locally and nationally. On a local level, whoever operated and controlled the mill had the most power. With a working mill, the town could prosper from the increase in trade. The increased output of goods intensified the demand for raw materials, which was largely met by local merchants. As revenues increased, the town could afford greater protection and thereby was safer. These same ideas could be applied on a larger scale for a countrywide level. The use of water mills enabled countries such as England to open new markets and significantly benefit from this commerce. The water mill had a significant influence on medieval society and left its mark at many levels.


Further Reading

Derry, T. K., and T. I. Williams. A Short History of Technology: From the Earliest Times to A.D. 1900. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Gies, F., and J. Gies. Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages. London: HarperTrade, 1995.

Holt, R. The Mills of Medieval England. London: Longman, 1988.

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The Influence of Water Mills on Medieval Society

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