On the economics of tenth-century mills

Every now and then I write a post for this blog that is probably really a paper. Occasionally this is deliberate, because I’m having trouble working something out and I try and explain it to an imagined audience. All of those posts are still in the queue, which is now so long that the paper may be finished before they are… but this one, like one or two others, I started writing merely to get something off my chest that I hoped might be interesting and then by the end it’s nearly three thousand words and has enough footnotes for a centipede. Were it not that a lot of these posts start as me trying to show someone wrong about something, it’d be a great way to carry out scholarship. But maybe that doesn’t stop it being a viable paper, and it’s been some time since I wrote about my actual research area, so, hey: let’s ask a Marxist question about mills in early medieval Catalonia! That question is, of course: who controls the means of production? There is an accepted answer about this and I’m not sure it’s quite right. Interest piqued? The rest is behind the cut below. If not, here is that really cool mill location I wrote about before once more, why not look at that instead?

Building set into a riverine waterfall at Marfà, Castellcir

Building set into a riverine waterfall at Marfà, Castellcir

Mills turn up a lot in the charters from Catalonia I’ve read, and they’re not unambiguous. They most often turn up as items on an estate that’s being transferred, but they turn up in a set of clauses that are basically intended to cover all possibilities and I don’t think it always necessarily means the mills actually existed. Even if they did—and I think that the variation in these clauses suggests that they were varied according to individual relevance sometimes, at least—it’s not always clear what sort of mills we mean. In particular, a phrase molinis sive molinibus has always troubled me. Mills and… little mills? It’s probably wrong to impose a type distinction here, but even if they were what would it be? What kinds of mills can we safely envisage here? Windmills seems unlikely this early; water-mills is possible, as we’ll see below; but should we also be thinking of humbler, animal-driven or even hand-worked installations? Would a portable handmill be enough of a fixture to merit mental inclusion? These documents will list winepresses…1

Scan of a diagram of the arrangement of a hypothetical medieval water-mill in Catalonia of the tenth century from Pierre Bonnassie's La Catalogne, I p. 460

Like the man says, a hypothetical plan of a water-mill and its appurtenances in the tenth century, grabbed from Bonnassie’s La Catalogne, I p. 460, full ref. in notes. Larger version linked through.

In some cases, however, we can be sure that we are really talking water-mills, as they were transferred with stuff that can only pertain to such, mainly concerning the water supply: a race, a pond, a stream and a caput aquis, the actual water source, about the only time documents here concern themselves with water access despite the frequency of such concerns elsewhere in the peninsula, and indeed despite controlled irrigation being a feature of agriculture here, though maybe not this early.2 The diagram above from Bonnassie’s Catalogne shows you the terminology and the set-up.3 Now these were not small properties in the local scheme of things, and consequently the question of who controlled them is significant. Large, mechanical mills are big labour-reducers when the alternative is doing it in the home with a hand-cranked quern, and if you don’t believe me, try five minutes with the latter at your local recreation centre. On the other hand, you can’t just build a watermill in a weekend in your backyard; it takes resource investment, and then it takes someone to run it who effectively must be there whenever it’s needed. There’s a position there that can be exploited, and therefore understandably it became part of Bonnassie’s model of feudalisation in the area. He wrote really usefully on the whole set-up, so I shall quote extensively in my quick-and-messy translation, denuded of his useful references, and yes, he really did use the historic present this much:

Due to the irregularity of Mediterranean torrents, direct use of the force of the current is impossible here: mills are always constructed at a distance from watercourses, on diversion channels…. Furthermore, a pool ensures the accumulation of the necessary water. Off this is branched the race that feeds the mill, while below it a spout returns the used water to the river. A set-up of vanes allows one to regulate the flow and also, further down, to divert the water destined for irrigation of the terras subreganeas (most often gardens). The system is almost always completed with fisheries or ponds as well as the millpond and by the exploitation of gravel in the lower streambed. Technically, therefore, mills already represent quite complex installations.

Fair enough, so, who controls this fairly complicated means of production, M. le Prof. B.?

To construct them, the peasants grouped together. Towards the middle of the tenth century, many mills are thus the property of associations of users (mostly small freeholders). Each of the members of these communities disposes of a “part”, which can be defined either as a fraction of the revenues from its exploitation or, most often, as the timespan over which he or she can use the mill for his or her profit, for example three days and four nights (in the week?) or two weeks (in the month?). These parts are freely negotiable and it is not exceptional, in the acts of the tenth and of the beginning of the eleventh centuries, to come across sales of ‘milling days’ or nights.

Sounds idyllic, n’est-ce pas, if surprisingly proto-capitalist for a peasant collective. But this is too good to last. On the very next page the old enemy raises his head:

However, alongside these ‘peasant mills’, built by pioneers in the course of the first stage of the colonisation of the country, exist from the middle of the tenth century more important installations belonging to great lay or ecclesiastic proprietors…. In the run-up to the year 1000, this phenomenon… intensifies. The construction of mills becomes, in fact, a more and more costly enterprise, because no doubt of the technical advances that are applied to it… wood seems to cede its place to metal: in any case, ferramenta are from now on invoked with insistence in the descriptions of mills…. Finally, the feeder channels get longer and are no longer set up to supply isolated mills but groups of mills built in a line.

Ineluctably, the building of such things could only be countenanced by the wealthy, and the result was predictable: heavy fees to use them, linked with the enforcement of exclusivity by the means of would-be-feudal élites everywhere, which is to say, arbitrary violence.4 Now, there are parts of this picture with which I wouldn’t argue, and they include the way it winds up, even though I satirise to an extent above because it has become such a topos. My doubts are about the peasant collective mill that supposedly precedes the aristocratic takeover, as maybe you could already tell. Even in its own terms as Bonnassie described it there’s something weird. Firstly, there is the idea that you could cede profits from the mill. This is no good to anyone unless other people pay for their milling somehow, so at the very least, the collective putting that imaginary mill up is expecting customers from outside the collective. I’m already happier calling this association a company, aren’t you? And it may not need to be a very big company. In Bonnassie’s examples above, if somebody really did hold the rights for three days’ and four nights’ use of the mill a week, that’s a full fifty per cent share; if the other share was similarly distributed that mill was owned by two people, and if it wasn’t then what was being sold there was clearly the controlling interest. The same applies to a share of two weeks per month. I don’t know what to do with the one I mentioned last time I wrote about mills, at Marfà, where the recipient was getting the use for nine days and nights—obviously not in a week, but in a month? Something like a quarter-share if so, though it does strike me as being possible that these shares might all be yearly since so, we assume, would the harvests have been, or at least twice-yearly…5 The implications of that are a bit hard to figure out, though. In any case, it’s by now worth having a look at the documents Bonnassie was founding his view on, all of which are now printed. I’ll summarise below, but the actual texts he referenced are:

Ego Ato et uxori tue Livira, vinditores sumus tibi Amalrico emtore. Per hanc scriptura vindicionis nostre vindimus mulinos V… sic vindimus tibi in ipsos iamdictos molinos in uinquisque annis menses VIa tuum proprium [...] a tenendum et usuandum….6

Ego Orizius et uxor mea Dacholina vinditores sumus vobis Ennalego et Bardina, emptores. Per hanc scriptura vindictionis nostre vindimus vobis… ad ipsa isola que dicunt Scamposa, vindimus vobis in ipso molino ipsas nostras porciones, id est, tres partes…. qui nobis advenit per excomparacione….7

Ego Bonushomo, et Wifredus, et Baio, nos qui sumus elemosinariis de quondam Longovardus…. Et precepit nobis ud ad domum sancti Cucuphati martir cenobii carta donacionis fecissemus, sicuti et facimus… infra termine de Cervelione, in ipso molino qui est in locum que vocant Monestirolus die i et nocte i, cum sua usibilia….7bis

Ego Richilde femine vinditrix sum tibi Uiuani episcopo, emptore…. Per hanc scriptura uinditionis mee uindo tibi in uno molino rocherolo, ipsa quarta parte; qui mihi advenit de genitore meo siue per quacumque voce.8

Ego Emmo, femina, vinditrice sum vobis domno Odone, pontifice et nutu Dei abba cenobio s. Cucuphati…. Per hanc scripturam vindictionis mee, vindoque vobis in ipso molino qui fuit de Filioli, quondam, ipsa quarta parte in solo et superposito, in capud aquis, in ipso rego et super regum et subtus regum, in decursibus aquarum, et in ipso cachabo, vel in universa utensilia quem ad molendinum pertinet ad molendum, et in ipsa terra quem ibidem est…. Qui mihi advenit hec omnia per vocem viro meo, quondam Planchario, vel per meum decimum vel per qualicumque voce.9

Ego Gilielmo vinditor sum tibi Landerico emptore. Per anc scriptura vindicionis me vindo tibi in uno molindino ipsa mea ereditate, id sunt, dies III et noctes IIIIor, et sorte I de canamare prope ipso molindino…. Atvenit de genitores meos.10

Ego Rigoaldus, levita, comutator sum tibi, Odone, episcopo, et fratres tuos monachos cohabitantes in monasterio s. Cucuphati. Comuto namque vobis in uno molinario ipsa mea hereditate, id est, ipsa quarta parte cum suo integro exio, cum rego et capud rego et subtus rego, et in alio loco pecia una de terra, qui mihi advenit hec omnia per genitores meos vel et per quacumque voces11

Ego Mello, femina, sic dico pro anima mea, precor ut fiant meis elemosinariis domno Odone, gratia Dei episcopo, et Richinario et Fruila, et Cixila, et Odegario, et Bonucio…. Et faciatis carta ad sancti Michaelis, qui est suo domo in domum sancti Cucuphati, de ebdomada i de molino, et parilio i de boves cum illorum apero, et ad sancti Cucuphati alia ebdomada de ipso molino, et asina i.a, et asino i.o cum illorum stratus et sogas ad sancti Cucuphati…12

I won’t translate all of that, which certainly isn’t all of what Bonnassie might have adduced, but I will draw out some common factors. Firstly, perhaps ineluctably, what we are largely seeing in these documents is big ecclesiastical institutions getting mills, and that may bias us towards the large ones. The fact that that institution is so often the monastery of Sant Cugat del Vallès is probably a different kind of bias, either because Sant Cugat is in good lands for large-scale agriculture or because Bonnassie was using it as reference wherever possible because when he wrote it was almost the only Catalan archive in print. (Perhaps therefore, it is now almost the only one online.) And from these documents one can certainly understand Bonnassie’s impression that big landowners were scooping up mills that had been owned by groups, even if that isn’t true in all these cases and in Mello’s bequest the mill remained split, between two churches. Nonetheless, even if these are big mills, they are largely owned by a small number of people. It’s quite possible for a wealthy widow like Mello to be bequeathing a mill among a shedload of other stuff she got from her husband; the slightly less wealthy widow Emma had a quarter share from her husband but the mill was named for a single original owner. There’s no case here where equal shares would lead to there being more than four people involved in a mill operation, several where it must have been fewer and at the beginning there Ató and Livirà were selling a half-year’s share in five mills altogether, implying that they owned at least two-and-a-half mills’ worth and probably all five by themselves. It does seem to me that if you wanted to make Bonnassie’s case these are not necessarily the documents that you would choose to have to hand.

(If you’re expecting big water-wheels, by the way, you may be slightly off the relevant map. This reconstruction at the Museu Històric de Cambrils, on the site of the erstwhile Molí de les Tres Eres, ‘Mill of the Three Heiresses’ (and note the name) shows you the more likely set-up for the mills we’re dealing with here.)
Upper workings of a reconstructed medieval watermill at the Molí de les Tres Eres, Cambrils

Upstairs…

Lower workings of a reconstructed medieval watermill at the Molí de les Tres Eres, Cambrils

and downstairs!

I suppose that what was in Bonnassie’s mind was the model of churches, where quite large communities could often have been involved in their construction; we can tell this from both the crowds who attended the consecration of new churches and those who helped endow them with land, the latter obviously notables but often many of them.13 I think the smallest share in a mill I have seen in these documents is a fifth, though. What we’re looking at in these sales, as I’ve observed elsewhere, is timeshares, much avoided by all canny holiday-makers to the Iberian peninsula in the 1980s but clearly rather older than that, and these establishments were businesses.14

The Riu de Ter in spate, viewed from l'Esquerda

Sometimes there can even be too much water power in some places in Catalonia… here the Riu de Ter viewed from l’Esquerda in 2010 by your humble author

They could even be family businesses. A relatively early charter from Vic describes a sale of land at Sacalm to the Vicar Sal·la, a man who liked buying mills.15 The sellers’ names were Joan, with his wife Cristiana, Eimeric, Deudó, Donelda and Guilarà, which one might take at last to be one of Bonnassie’s collectives were it not that they claimed to have got the mill from, “ruptura [a claim of vacant land], purchase and, in the case of the children, by inheritance from our late mother Cristiana”. That would seem to mean that at least some of these people were siblings, and the younger Cristiana probably daughter of the elder meaning that Joan’s claim might have been through marriage, though if so that isn’t said. (Since no claim through marriage is made at all, I guess either husband or wife bought their share and maybe that’s even how they got together! Who knows where romance may blossom!) An example that might have suited Bonnassie rather better would be the priest Danlà, whose bequest to Sant Benet de Bages of mills on the Llobregat accompanied quite a lot of other property which his wife and heirs (yes) got to keep the use of for their lifetimes, although in fact they did not entirely succeed as we know from elsewhere.16 That would have suited Bonnassie better because Danlà was plainly an aristocrat, and we certainly see such people interested in getting hold of mills, including the Vicar Sal·la as mentioned, the deacon Guadamir who seems to have been a kind of frontier developer for the cathedral of Vic and the Vicar Argemir, who in 958 bought several mills on the Riu de Ter (seen above, in conditions that would have somewhat nullified his investment) near the old city of Roda but seems to have been based in relatively distant Voltregà.17 More interesting, if only to wonder what on earth brought it on, is the monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll selling half of all their mills on the Ter in 955.18 Bonnassie was right that big mills with metal workings would come later; but what we therefore seem to have instead at the earlier stage is people aiming for ownership of a whole bunch of them, including ones run off a single stream which we can see as early as 965.19

The Riu Cardener in full flow

More potential water-power on the Riu Cardener

Anyone taking a boat down the Ter or the Llobregat must have found suitable points practically clogged with mills, in fact, all of which implies that there was enough demand from the surrounding countryside to necessitate them all. My favourite example is a piece of property in Callús, right down in Manresa, which was sold to the priest Miró Marcuç in 982: it included a mill itself, whose supporting lands bounded on the Riu Cardener thus ensuring water access, but on the other side of the river were more mills belonging to one Guifré; this was a long way out into the development zones of the county, even in 982.20 One gets the idea that building such a thing was a good investment, even in thinly-settled areas, and one that was definitely intended to turn a profit for their often single or small number of owners. But at that rate, we’re not really talking peasants. I’m not saying there were no peasant collectives laboriously putting these things up, and maybe if they did we wouldn’t see it because they wouldn’t have sold them; if so, however, that would seem to imply that they weren’t held in “parts” as Bonnassie envisaged, or I’m sure we’d have records of people selling them, and selling portions rather smaller than a fifth. Maybe such mills were all held as common property, that is possible, and documented for other sorts of property rather later.21 If it were so, however, we have no evidence of it that I know, and Bonnassie apparently had none either.

So I am inclined to see this as a case of a bit too much Marxism, if anything: as is so often the case, Bonnassie’s position of a `pre-Catalonia’ dominated economically by small peasant freeholders whom the wealthy eventually squeeze out of their collectively-agreeable position proves to be somewhat ideologically determined, and the probable truth nearer the gloomy picture of Gaspar Feliu, that the wealthy had their mitts on the means of production all along.22 But! if so, note that another thing here is not down with the Marxist dialectic, which is the sheer number of mills and proprietors we seem to be talking about, what must, surely, imply competition. If a slew of mills on the Ter was worth owning from far away, was it that they all came with an obeisant clientèle bound to use them? Or is it in fact that there were so many choices, all crammed next to each other, that what we have here might even have been something like a capitalist market situation? If so, and the feudal mode actually replaced the capitalist one, Marx’s beard would bristle indeed, and yet I don’t see why it shouldn’t have been so unless we assume a great deal more subjection and tying of peasantry to resources than the historiography otherwise admits. So, you know, I’m prepared to say it’s likely. There is probably recent work that either says all this already or refutes it but for now I’m on the side of the pre-Catalan proto-capitalists. No way that kind of statement can get me into trouble, right?

Graffiti reading `100% capitalista` with Catalan flag from Gurb, Osona

Graffiti from the bridge under the C25 highway by which one gets from the modern village of Gurb to the church of Sant Andreu


1. To try and keep the footnotes to a reasonable length, I’m going to instance everything I can instance from my usual fallback, Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-arqueològica 53 (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, referred to as CC4 with editor’s numeration of the documents below. That’s mainly because it’s the largest single collection from before 1000, so there’s just more chance of things cropping up there anyway, but it’s also because I know its material best. The best instance here therefore is CC4 1148, a will that involved both a winepress and several mills of apparently varying sizes, and we’ll be back to that, but more would be easy to find.

2. For example caput aquis in CC4 653 among others; cf. Thomas F. Glick, Irrigation and Society in Medieval Valencia (Cambridge 1970), online here and last modified 21st November 2001 as of 25th March 2013.

3. Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle&nbsp: croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail A.23 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, I p. 460.

4. Ibid. pp. 459-464, translations from pp. 461-462 & 464.

5. Cf. Peter Reynolds and Christine E. Shaw, “The third harvest of the first millennium A. D. in the Plana de Vic” in Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 339-351 with English abstract p. 352!

6. CC4 597 (947).

7. Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Sebastià Riera i Viader & Manuel Rovira i Solà (edd.), Catalunya Carolíngia V: els comtats de Girona, Besalú, Empúries i Peralada, rev. R. Ordeig i Mata, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-arqueològica 61 (Barcelona 2003), 2 vols, doc. no. 367 (966).

7bis. José Rius (ed.), Cartulario de «Sant Cugat» de Vallés Vol. I (Barcelona 1945), online here, last modified 25th May 2007 as of 25th March 2013, doc. no. 282.

8. Àngel Fabregà i Grau (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Barcelona: documents dels anys 844-1260. Volum I: documents dels anys 844-1000, Sèries IV: Fonts Documentals 1 (Barcelona 1995), doc. no. 240×65 [sorry! lost the reference, it will be two weeks before I can check it, maybe this will do for now] (994).

9. José Rius Serra (ed.), Cartulario de «Sant Cugat» del Vallés Vol. II (Barcelona 1946), online here, last modified 11th March 2008 as of 25th March 2013, doc. no. 363 (1001).

10. Gaspar Feliu, Josep Marí Salrach (edd.), Els Pergamins de l’Arxiu Comtal de Barcelona de Ramon Borrell a Ramon Berenguer I, Diplomataris 18-20 (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 61 (1002).

11. Rius, Sant Cugat II, doc. no. 373 (1002).

12. Ibid., doc. no. 377 (1002).

13. Ramon Ordeig i Mata, “La consagració i la dotació d’esglésies a Catalunya en les segles IX-XI” in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium Internacional sobre els orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), 2 vols, also published as Memorias de le Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991 & 1992), II pp. 85-101.

14. Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 92-93, though what I say there about there being a ferry at Casserres is badly out of date.

15. He did so in at least CC4 239, 240, 377, 394 & 570.

16. CC4 1148, again, with ref. to CC4 1826 & 1870.

17. CC4 807.

18. CC4 729.

19. CC4 973.

20. CC4 1391.

21. Gaspar Feliu, “La pagesia i els béns comunals” in J. Farré and Flocel Sabaté (edd.), Els grans espais baronials a l’edat mitjana: desenvolupament socioeconòmic. Reunió científica: I Curs d’Estiu Comtat d’Urgell (Balaguer, 10, 11 i 12 de juliol de 1996) (Lleida 2002), pp. 23-40. I owe my knowledge of this paper to Professor Feliu’s kind gift of an offprint.

22. Feliu, “La pagesia catalana abans de la feudalització” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 26 (Barcelona 1994), pp. 19-41, likewise with thanks to Professor Feliu.

5 responses to “On the economics of tenth-century mills

  1. An impressive accounting, but what kind of mills? When we think of windmills we know they were used to mill wheat — at least in Holland. But that’s quite unlikely in Catalonia. Even my house, when I bought it in the 1970s in a village near Figueres, had a mill downstairs — on street level. It had formerly been ‘powered’ by a mule or donkey, moving that heavy stone around. A hundred yards below was a watermill at a steam next to the Muga, You should have mentioned that ALL these mills had only one purpose:, to make olive oil.

    • That actually seems very unlikely to be the case. Olive trees hardly ever appear in this area’s documents so early, and oil of any kind doesn’t appear in renders. That is a thing that develops over the eleventh and twelfth centuries. I’m pretty sure that these were in fact grain mills, though I wouldn’t want to say that all the grain was wheat!

  2. Allan McKinley

    Is there not something of a conceptual problem (perhaps inherited from the Marxist conception of mills…) in dividing peasantry and aristocrats? Unless I’ve missed a hereditary caste of Catalan aristocrats (if so, you fail to mention them in all your work I’ve read as well) then how do we define the boundary between aristocrat and peasant? I have a sneaking concern that getting a mill (or other means of production in a capitalistic sense) under your control without having to work it might be a pretty good marker of elevated status, if not really something we can describe as aristocratic. It was certainly a statement of power and potential, and indicated the owner as a potential patron (for he or she could do something for you, and had demonstratable ability to do things – which a patron needs). Numbers of mills may therefore not indicate a market so much as competition for clients (and the church’s acquisition of groups of mills may thus indicate a changed way of displaying status and potential in the locality, perhaps involving disposition of property in a public fashion).

    Anyway, that’s my take (based mainly on earlier Alsatian materials – where they have the watercourses but I can’t remember mills). I suspect the diehard Marxists of the world may have a rather different view – one of the joys of history.

    • Well, of course, there absolutely is a conceptual problem dividing peasant from aristocrat. Chris Wickham’s division, between someone who works for their living and someone who doesn’t, is maybe the only coherent one, but it gets problematic down at this end of the economic scale. I have more a-coming on this but I certainly wouldn’t disagree with anything you say here. That said, as well as anything else mills are just a necessary tool for exploiting large-scale agriculture, so I don’t think that the Church necessarily has them just for their power to gather a clientèle! The finished product of bread is also something with which one can gain clients, as any Anglo-Saxonist meeting the word hlaford well knows… But this is all operating at once, profit from customers, patronage by providing a service and agricultural processing for a surplus already owned, I doubt we can tell which was which in any individual cases…

  3. Pingback: Where on Google Earth, reverse home edition | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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