Windmills, Water Wheels and Labor Savers in the Dark Ages

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  • 0:06 The 11th Century Mill Boom
  • 1:31 Need for an Old Technology
  • 3:26 Agricultural Surpluses
  • 5:53 A Positive Feedback Loop
  • 8:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten

Max has an MA in Classics, Religion, Philosophy, Behavioral Genetics, a Master of Education, and a BA in Classics, Religion, Philosophy, Evolutionary Psychology.

This lesson explores the advent of mechanized labor in Medieval Europe. We note the frenzied pace of wind and watermill construction in Europe. We examine the causes of this phenomenon and hypothesize on its implications.

The 11th Century Mill Boom

Around the middle of the 11th century, Europe was swept up in a mill-building craze. Hundreds of watermills were constructed along the powerful rivers of Northern Europe. A watermill is a machine that captures the motion of a flowing river with a wheel and uses that rotation to do work.

Though the watermill had been around since ancient times and had been in use in Medieval Europe since at least 650 CE, the sudden explosion of watermills around 1050 was unprecedented. In a single French province, watermill production increased from an average of a mill every 5 years (from 850-1080) to a mill a year (from 1080-1125) to 5 mills a year (from 1125-1175). In 1086, William the Conqueror recorded over 6,000 watermills in England alone.

Chart showing the increase of watermill usage in Medieval Europe
Watermill Boom Chart

This frenzy of mill building was not just limited to watermills. Further north, in Holland, where there were few swift flowing rivers, medieval engineers designed windmills to harness the constant breezes from the North Sea. These windmills spread as quickly along the Dutch lowlands as watermills did along the river valleys further south, to the point where the windmill has become an iconic symbol for Holland.

So, why did this mill frenzy happen when it did? And what were the effects of this labor-saving revolution?

A New Need for an Old Technology

The timing of the mill boom is by no means coincidental. The technology had been around for a thousand years. The Romans were certainly technologically advanced enough to build watermills, but they rarely did so.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, the Romans had few swiftly flowing rivers to work with. No powerful rivers meant very few watermills.

But that wasn't really a problem for the Romans. You see, the Romans had lots and lots of slaves, so there was no real incentive to save labor with mills. They had more labor than they knew what to do with. If they wanted to turn a wheel non-stop, they'd buy a team of slaves to do it. A rich Roman might own hundreds or even thousands of slaves. Someone who has a slave to put his sandals on for him is unlikely to be concerned with labor-saving inventions.

This is not to say that the Romans did not have waterwheels. The waterwheel had been around since at least as early as 300 BCE. They just had very little use for it.

In fact, the most common Roman use for a waterwheel was the exact opposite of the labor-saving devices we think of today. Rather than using moving water to turn a wheel, the Romans would use slaves to turn a wheel to move water out of a mine or to lift it to irrigate land.

By contrast, Northern Europe is full of swiftly flowing rivers. More importantly, they did not have armies of slaves at their disposal. Instead, most of Medieval Europe was constantly struggling with a labor shortage.

They had a rather small population trying to tame a vast wilderness. Every hand was needed, and anything that could do the work of 40 men without being fed was a welcome addition to any village.

Agricultural Surpluses

Another reason that mechanized labor swept across Europe in the 11th century was that, at last, it was needed. A favorable climate, a return to stability after centuries of Viking raids, and new agricultural technologies all combined to help Northern Europe produce major food surpluses.

Around 950, temperatures around the world rose by as much as 1 degree centigrade - for Americans out there, that's a shift of about 2 degrees Fahrenheit. This medieval warm period lasted for about 300 years.

The warmer, dryer climate was just what Northern Europe needed to start taming the waterlogged soils of their alluvial plains. This may be part of the reason the Vikings toned down their invasions. They were finally able to produce their own agricultural surpluses in their chilly lands to the north.

With fewer Viking raids and the gradual development of some semblance of stable government, new arable lands were colonized and opened to cultivation, and agricultural technologies that had languished since the time of Charlemagne (or earlier) were finally put to use. The heavy plow broke up and drained the dense soils of Northern Europe with its iron blade. These heavy plows were pulled by two-horse teams wearing horse collars and iron horseshoes.

A whole host of iron-reinforced farming implements, from wheelbarrows to harrows to hoes, became more readily available. A new three-field crop rotation system allowed a farmer to use two-thirds of his land each season without depleting the soil, a marked increase over the half-land system that came before.

All of these factors combined to produce unprecedented agricultural surpluses, easily doubling or even tripling the surpluses generated in earlier centuries.

The increased availability of farming equipment contributed to crop surpluses.
Iron Farming Supplies Available

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