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The Mobilization of Labour in the Milling Industry of Thirteenth- and Early Fourteenth-century England

The Mobilization of Labour in the Milling Industry of Thirteenth- and Early Fourteenth-century England

By John Langdon

Canadian Journal of History, Vol.31:2 (1996)

Abstract: The recourse to wage labour has traditionally been seen by historians as a second-rate option for medieval people, where access to land remained the key factor for ensuring their survival. Yet, labour opportunities, especially for craftsmen, were seemingly attractive for much of the thirteenth century at least, both in relation to the levels of pay and the probability of finding work during a time of notable investment, particularly in building.

This article investigates the opportunities for labour in the milling industry of thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century England. By using mill data drawn from manorial accounts for the construction, operation and maintenance of water-mills and windmills, it was possible to estimate the equivalent full-time labour requirement for the industry. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, this ranged from 15,000 to 25,000 equivalent full-time workers per year. Employment opportunities of this scale reveal the power of industries like milling to draw substantial and varied workforces around them. The milling industry, however, peaked around 1315, after which opportunities for employment seemingly declined. Considering this in the context of the medieval economy as a whole, there seems to be a case for thinking of the adversities of the early fourteenth century in terms of recession rather than purely as a crisis in subsistence.

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