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The role of the monasteries in the development of medieval milling

The role of the monasteries in the development of medieval milling

By Adam Lucas

Wind and Water in the Middle Ages: Fluid Technologies from Antiquity to the Renaissance, edited by Steven Walton (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2006)

Introduction: For more than seventy years, historians from several different sub-disciplines have argued that the monasteries of Western Europe played an important role in promoting technological progress and the transition to modernity. While perhaps not the earliest, two of the most influential publications to make the case appeared within a year of one another in 1934 and 1935. Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization (1934) and Marc Bloch’s “Avènement et conquêtes du moulin à eau” (1935) approached the subject from different intellectual backgrounds, and differed substantially in the depth of their analyses, but the basic elements of the narrative which they outlined were the same.

Both contended that although the watermill was invented in classical times, the Romans and their contemporaries made little use of it. Christian monks were largely responsible for its dissemination in medieval times, introducing it to areas where knowledge of it had died out or never existed. Monastic mills and their associated waterworks thus provided technological exemplars for other social groups to emulate. The monks’ activities were, indeed, paradigmatic of a revolution in humanity’s approach to nature and technology that occurred during the second half of the Middle Ages.

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