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Ecclesiastical Lordship, Seigneurial Power and Commercialization of Milling in Medieval England

Author(s):Lucas, Adam
Reviewer(s):Slavin, Philip

Published by EH.Net (September 2015)

Adam Lucas, Ecclesiastical Lordship, Seigneurial Power and Commercialization of Milling in Medieval England. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2014. xxii + 414 pp. $165 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-4094-2196-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Philip Slavin, School of History, University of Kent.

Although the topic of medieval mills and milling has received scholarly attention, chiefly in excellent studies by John Langdon, much still remains to be done, to fill some gaps in our knowledge and understanding. Adam Lucas’s study of the place of mills and milling on ecclesiastical (primarily monastic) estates in high- and late-medieval England is an important step in this direction. The importance of the topic cannot be overstated: on the eve of the Black Death, the Church controlled about 43 percent of all the powered mills (about 5,200 of 12,000 or so).

Overall, this is a fascinating study and, indeed, important contribution to the fields of late-medieval economic, social and monastic history. As such, it would undoubtedly be of great interest to scholars from several field and disciplines. The clear exposition, convincing analysis and well-balanced arguments add to the virtue of the study. The bulk of the discussion and analysis is based primarily on monastic cartularies: a source relatively under-utilized by economic historians (partially, because charters tend to be overshadowed by manorial court rolls and accounts). Three main and recurrent aspects form the basis of the book: (a) mill acquisition, (b) mill management and (c) mill income. On the basis of his source material, Lucas debunks three perpetuated myths, related to milling in the later Middle Ages: (a) the omnipresent seigneurial extraction through the suit of mill (the tenants’ obligation to grind their grain at their lord’s mill); (b) the proliferation of water-mills from the late twelfth-century onward; (c) and monastic technological innovations.

Chapter 1 provides a general overview of social and economic foundations of English monasticism throughout the Middle Ages, and the place of mills in a wider context of lord-tenant relationships. Chapter 2 looks at seigneurial milling monopolies. In the course of the twelfth century, many lords shifted from direct management to leasing out of estates: a process, which entailed, in many cases, the loss of suit of mill. Chapter 3 deals with the process of commercialization of English milling in the course of the thirteenth and the early fourteenth centuries; this process was reversed by the population decline and economic slump of the post-Black Death era. Chapter 4 concerns mills on episcopal estates, which in part were directly managed by bishops and in part passed into tenants’ hands. Chapter 5 studies Benedictine mills, focusing on four houses. As Lucas shows, the income from mills was determined in many cases by whether or not the houses managed to acquire/retain/reclaim suit of mill. The topic of Augustinian mills is explored in Chapter 6. Unlike the Benedictines, the Augustine canons were a relatively young order, with fewer mills, lower rents and incomes and rare instances of suits of mill. Hence, Augustinian mill enterprise tended to be, overall, much less extractive, compared to the Benedictines. The Cistercians (Chapter 7), on the other hand, did their best to extract as much revenue from their mills as possible. Chapter 8 surveys the fortunes of mills on the estates of “minor” monastic orders. Chapter 9 is concerned with the legal side of seigneurial milling, through the prism of disputes over various issues, including the suit of mill, mill tithes and ownership or shared ownership of mills. These disputes are to be regarded within a wider context of property encroachments, especially in the thirteenth and the early fourteenth centuries. Chapter 10 nicely wraps up the conclusions of the book in a more theoretical manner. Here Lucas admonishes us against blindly accepting some perpetuated myths: the monks were neither philanthropic nor technologically innovative — in many instances, the Benedictine and Cistercians were as oppressive as lay lords (even though he duly concedes that other orders were much less extractive), and not very keen on investing and building new powered mills. At the end of the book, Lucas supplies five appendices related to mill income and expenses, as well as disputes over mill rights.

Despite many merits of the monograph, it suffers from several minor shortcomings. First, only male monasteries are treated throughout the study, while nunneries are left out. It is a pity that the author did not examine the contrast between male and female houses of the same orders — especially, the Cistercians or Benedictines. Second, the overall approach of this book is institutional, while the exogenous (environmental) aspect is almost entirely left out. What impact did the environment have on trends and fortunes of milling? For instance, the Great Famine of 1315-17 is mentioned only in passing and there is no appropriate discussion of its impact on the depression of mill income (because of the scarcity of the available grains for grinding). Third, Lucas relies exclusively on printed material, rather than archival material. Fourth, most of Lucas’s statistical examples (with the exception of three notable exceptions), presented in different figures throughout the book, are, in effect, snapshots based on one or several sampled cases, rather than chronological graphs, based on long runs of accounts. One other (and to some frustrating) issue is Lucas’s organization of his figures. No sources are indicated below the tables and charts, leaving readers to browse various footnotes and guess which sources were used for this or that figure. Also, the costs are given in pence, rather than shillings of pounds; thus, Chart 6.1 has costs represented in hundreds of thousands of pence, rather than hundreds of pounds. This makes the reader’s reckoning rather difficult. Finally, the printed font is frustratingly small (and this point is directed towards the publisher, rather than the author).

Nevertheless, notwithstanding those (to my mind insignificant) methodological and “cosmetic” drawbacks, this is a first-rate book, which adds greatly to our knowledge and appreciation of late-medieval mills and milling. Perhaps, now it is time for someone to write a complementary monograph on mills on lay estates.

Philip Slavin is the author of Bread and Ale for the Brethren: The Provisioning of Norwich Cathedral Priory, c.1260-1536 (University of Hertfordshire Press, 2012).

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval