Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

The Mobilization of Labour in the Milling Industry of Thirteenth- and Early Fourteenth Century England

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

The Mobilization of Labour in the Milling Industry of Thirteenth- and Early Fourteenth Century England

Article excerpt




The relationship between land and labour in medieval England has traditionally been set in terms of priorities. In a predominantly agricultural society, the much preferred option -- for all ranks of society -- was to won (or have some sort of proprietorial control over) land. Those with limited access to land -- whether through poverty, eviction, the vagaries of inheritance customs, or population pressure -- have traditionally been seen as being very disadvantaged. In such a context, selling one's labour's was very much a second-rate option.(1)

This pessimistic view of labour has strongly influenced various hypotheses about the medieval economy and society. One long-standing notion has been to look at medieval labour strictly as a means of exploitation, often primarily from the point of view of money rents or labour services.(2) Perhaps even more prominent and insidiously pessimistic is the examination of such labour from a functionalist perspective, its ability to satisfy the basic subsistence and other wants of people.(3) This has been the focus of a great deal of work on the standard of living question, the emphasis on "real wage" movements and so forth.(4) It was in this direction that David Farmer's work was so important and did so much to improve our view of the fortunes of medieval people at various times during the middle ages.(5) Such an approach, however, presupposes that the overwhelming concern of medieval people was to keep themselves fed, and when standard-of-living calculations are made wages are generally measured against food.(6) It all serves to perpetuate the notion that wage labour in particular was primarily geared to satisfying the shortfall between land availability and subsistence.

Yet, important as all this work has been, it has failed to do justice to many aspects of medieval labour: its variety, its flexibility, and its redistributive powers. There is much to point to in the medieval economy that indicates the power and pervasiveness of wage labour. The growing urban element in medieval England, particularly up to the end of the thirteenth century, presupposes large pools of wage labour, as does the developing industrial sector of the time. Wage levels for much of this labour must have looked very attractive, particularly for craftsmen, whose earning were considerably above those for less skilled labour.(7), Secondly, although there are some famous statements to the contrary,(8) levels of investment in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries in particular kept employment prospects relatively high, particularly in building projects.(9) The impact of this economic expansion upon the demand for labour must have been substantial.

Yet the notion stubbornly persists that the migration of labour to support the growth of towns and new industry in the preplague period was largely comprised of those whose prospects (primarily in terms of land) were virtually non-existent at home: that is, the impulse here was one of "push" from an over-populated countryside rather than "pull" to urban centres or new industries.(10) As such, it downplays the employment attractions of towns and especially new industries. It is the purpose of this article, by using the milling industry as a case study, to show how the opportunities for alternative occupations to fanning grew in the thirteenth century. It will also show the negative, how this growth made labourers more vulnerable. In this vein, it will argue that the crisis in the early fourteenth century ought perhaps to be considered as much in terms of recession -- that is, a crisis in investment and labour opportunity -- as in subsistence.


In many ways, the milling industry is ideal to study for this purpose. Huge amounts of documentation survive about the activity, thanks to the interest showed in it by medieval lords, who saw milling as a potent source of revenues. …

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