Hand-Mills to Wind Turbines: Technology Gatekeeping in Medieval Europe and in Contemporary Ontario
By Dennis Alan Bartels
New Proposals: Journal of Marxism and Interdisciplinary Inquiry, Vol 5, No 2 (2012)
Introduction: In contemporary Ontario and in medieval England, the power and political influence of propertied classes and labour aristocracies were (and are) used to restrict popular access particular technologies, and to facilitate private appropriation of wealth. Past and present political-economic constraints on propagation of particular technologies, and on types of ownership of particular technologies, are explored in this commentary.
In the medieval period – ca. 1150 – 1400 CE – every English village or manor had a mill, or mills, sited on water courses, for grinding various grains into flour, the main ingredient of bread, a dietary staple. Mills were held by manorial lords, or by religious institutions such as abbeys. Peasants or serfs who worked a lord’s land were required to bring their grain to the lord’s mill for grinding. For this, the peasant had to provide a proportion of his grain – the ‘multure’ – to the lord. The amount of the multure varied widely. In some cases, serfs paid one-thirteenth while free men paid one-twenty-fourth.
Peasants who used hand-mills – querns – or who were caught trying to have their grain ground at a mill not held by their lord were fined. “If men were caught on the way to a rival mill, the custom of the manor was often such that, if the offence was other than the first, the lord was entitled to seize the man’s horse, while his miller took whatever [grain] or flour the wretched man was carrying”.
Lords designated particular millers to operate mills. Community ownership of mills by peasants and/or villagers was not an option.
In the feudal social order, it was in the miller’s interests to insure that the lord’s milling monopoly was enforced. While milling often involved hard, skilled work, it also afforded opportunities for millers to cheat peasants by adulterating high quality grains. Bennett cites a medieval riddle: “What is the boldest thing in the world? A miller’s shirt, for it clasps a thief by the throat daily”.