Published by EH.NET (January 2007)

John Langdon, Mills in the Medieval Economy: England, 1300-1540. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. xx + 369 pp. $150 (cloth), ISBN: 0-19-926558-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Karine van der Beek, Department of Economics and Business, Universitat Pompeu Fabra.

Mills represent one of the largest and most significant investments in physical capital in the pre-industrial European economy. Nevertheless, economic aspects of milling have received little scholarly attention so far and most studies in this field are dedicated to technological aspects of milling and to their pattern of diffusion.

Mills in the Medieval Economy by John Langdon, professor at the University of Alberta and a leading figure in the field of medieval economy and technology, is a well-written study, based to a great extent on original data, that not only provides an exceptional survey, but also explores key economic aspects of medieval milling and offers the reader an overall understanding of the industry.

This book focuses on England from 1300 to 1540 and examines various aspects of milling in a period that saw a dramatic peak in mill numbers and in population. Through skilled and convincing use of numerous documents and other sources, Langdon shows that the development of the industry displayed continuity over the period, both in terms of technology and investment, rather than a radical breakdown, as has often been emphasized in Marxist analyses of the Middle Ages.

Langdon’s book is obviously of great value to technology historians and social historians in general. Nevertheless, I find it to be of prime interest to economic historians. It presents an interesting case of entrepreneurial organization of a capital-intensive key industry that was characterized by low profitability and that was highly sensitive to periods of instability.

In successive chapters that examine most aspects of milling, it is shown for the first time that mills, which were traditionally seen as the symbol of peasant exploitation and as an important source of feudal income, were in fact hard to uphold. Their construction and maintenance required vast resources, and their revenues were highly volatile. The milling industry was widely exposed to demographic disasters caused by bad weather, wars, and plagues, which were commonplace from the mid-fourteenth to the end of the sixteenth centuries. These features of milling, which are noticed by Langdon but which should have been more emphasized throughout the book, are what makes the observation of continuity in this industry interesting, to my opinion.

The total number of mills in 1300 was about 10,000. This number remained relatively unchanged in the half century leading up to the Black Death. Yet, although the number of mills was clearly affected by the catastrophic demographic outcomes of the Black Death, the overall impact was not as critical as one might expect and it declined by only 10 percent in the first decades following the plague.

Langdon sees this moderate fall and quick adjustment of the industry as a testimony to what he refers to as “the determined entrepreneurial spirit” (p. 236). He explains it by an adjustment of the use of mills, which he observes in the documents. Mills, which had been most commonly used for grain grinding, were widely converted into industrial activities, such as textile fulling, after the Black Death. Such use was more profitable than grain grinding in periods of demographic crisis due to the relative rise in real wages.

Nevertheless, mill operation involved regular and costly maintenance, which was difficult to maintain during long periods of instability and low profitability. This is why, from the late fourteenth century to the early sixteenth, following a long period of instability that delayed the recovery of the milling sector, many mills were abandoned and mill numbers shrank by another 10 percent.

The different managerial strategies of dealing with the volatile profitability of mills are described in depth by Langdon in chapter five. This chapter demonstrates to the reader once again that medieval entrepreneurs were no different than modern ones. It shows that owners tended to lease the mills for a fixed rent. The relative bargaining power of mill owners, usually feudal lords, and lessees was reflected in the contract, in the degree of risk imposed on each part, revealed in the repair agreements. Langdon provides extensive data concerning the level of risk sharing and how it has changed over the period. The data show, for example, that as the situation in the milling industry worsened and revenues declined in the beginning of the fifteenth century, owners began to take a larger share of the maintenance costs.

Langdon also examines the extent to which the legal framework affected peasant demand and challenges the thesis posited by Marc Bloch. He argues that customers generally came to mills because they wanted to, not because they were coerced by lords to do so. There is much evidence that supports this claim, particularly in areas where feudal lords were holding small scattered estates and could not prevent peasants from going to nearby rival mills, such as in the South of England.

To conclude, Mills in the Medieval Economy is an in-depth study of late medieval milling which deals with the wider nature of industrial change. It is an admirable study that provides economic historians with a comprehensive description and thoughtful analysis of the medieval milling industry and of pre-modern entrepreneurship in general.

Karine van der Beek is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, as part of the CEPR Economic History RTN: “Unifying the European Experience.” Her research focuses on early European growth and on the effects of political structures on institutional formation, market organization, and productivity. Her recent papers include: “Political Fragmentation and Technology Adoption: Watermill Construction in Feudal France,” and “Political Fragmentation and Investment Decisions: The Milling Industry in Feudal France (1150-1250).”