Getting soaked

The historical mystery around Medieval water power starts with an archeological observation:  there are two basic types of water mills, and they are rarely found in the same region.

Simple "Norse" water mill caught the flow of water downstream with horizontally oriented paddles.

One type of water mill was simple and portable, but not very efficient.  The other was complex, fixed in place, and about six times more efficient.

The simple “Norse” mill had a paddle wheel turned on its side, horizontally, to catch a stream of water. This was directly linked to round mill stones grinding grain only a few feet above the water.

A more complex type of mill was the vertical mill. It had a paddle wheel turned upright, vertically, and it could capture both the flowing energy and also the weight of the water falling down the front of the wheel.

This complex vertical mill dominated England, northern France and Germany, completely displacing the simple horizontal mills by the time of the Domesday Book in  1086. It continued to dominate northern Europe until the industrial revolution of the 19th century.

Meanwhile, the simple horizontal type of water mill was used for a millennium in southern Europe and the Mediterranean.

How do we account for this discrepancy:  complex technology in the feudal north, simple technology in the south and remote regions of the north?

For many years, historians believed that the discrepancy reflected the backward nature of remote rural areas and southern Europe. The idea conveniently fit patterns of prejudice, but it did not square with other evidence of technological capabilities. In fact, Roman engineers described vertical water mills in the first century AD.

If we look at this not as a problem of technology diffusion, but rather, a problem of the social context of technology, the discrepancy is more easily explained.  Complex milling technology had a well-known purpose in the feudal society of northern Europe. Farmers of all kinds had a duty to seek out the lord’s grain mill.  This “duty to seek” was the root of the concept of legal  jurisdiction, called, in old English, the “soke.”

Complex vertical mills modeled at the Smithsonian in Washington DC. Left to right: Overshot, breast shot and undershot.

The great advantage of the complex technology was that taxes could be easily collected by taking a portion of grain right there at the mill. Theoretically, this “soke” tax was one part in 15, but farmers were often cheated, judging from the complaints we read in the literature of the day. (For example, Chaucer depicted a miller with a golden thumb on the scales).  A modern reminder of the soke tax is found in the phrase “to get soaked,” which to this day, means to be cheated. That it survives indicates the depth of the resentment.

Although it was possible in some areas to grind grain for one’s own family using a quern (a large mortar and pestle), in feudal regions these devices were illegal and often confiscated or broken when discovered by the lord’s agents. Harsh punishment could follow. And no one in northern Europe, laboring under a feudal lord, could have set up a simple mill for a family group, as farmers did in Mediterranean regions.

Resentment over unfair taxes built up into the Peasants Revolt of 1381 in England and a many others. The soke taxes were only one of many issues between the lords and their farmers, but they were among the most serious.
Over time, feudal laws controlling peasants faded out, but  the soke rights of the nobility remained in some of the more backwards corners of Europe until the early 19th century.

Windmill technology shows a similar pattern of simple versus complex differentiation between lower and upper classes, although the geographic differences were not so pronounced in the later Middle Ages, when windmills became common. Low-tech “post” windmills could be disassembled and moved at will. However, high-tech stone windmills built on hilltops with rotating upper turrets were far more efficient, and usually, owned by the upper class.

It is interesting that writer Miguel de Cervantes envisioned Don Quixote attacking a windmill, and that the style of windmill he attacked  was one of the large high-tech mills such as those found at the Castle of Consuegra, on the plains of Toledo province in central Spain.

While Don Quixote’s enemies were entirely imaginary, the social implications underlying the battle were not entirely quixotic. Quixote’s fight against the windmills might be seen as a protest against an unjust social structure that used complex technology to force peasants to pay a food tax. Quixote’s madness was a pretext for social commentary at a time when it would be dangerously bold coming from a sane person.

And so, wind and water milling technology presents us with historical questions.  If we look at technology through the lens of progress,  a complex vertical milling technology looks like a triumph, while the simple mills of the Mediterranean and Norse regions appear backwards.  On the other hand, if we want to understand the social context of technology, it’s clear that complex mills existed to centralize political and economic power at the expense of ordinary people, whose surplus food was simply “soked up” by the feudal lords. Complex technology may not have provided a short-term social benefit, but an unanswered question is the extent to which the feudal structure may have provided a longer term benefit.

Left to their own devices, people preferred using a system that was simple enough to control rather then the technology made for them by the political elite.

This is as true in medieval times as it is today.  For example, even though  statistics prove that it is safer to live next to a nuclear power plant than it is to drive to the grocery store, most people would prefer the risk of driving, since it is a simple technology that they can control to some extent.

In fact, public opinion polls show a clear and very strong preference for simpler types of power systems, such as solar and wind.

Technological feudalism remains in the 21st century as a force that clings to the past and uses complexity to centralize public power in private hands.

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