Watermills: A Key Tech of the Middle Ages

Origin of Watermills

Braine-le-Château (Belgium), the old community watermill on the Hain river.

Braine-le-Château (Belgium), the old community watermill on the Hain river.

Watermills: A Key Technology of the Middle Ages

Watermills: A Key Tech in Medieval Europe – Before the Industrial Revolution, various sources of power were used, including slave labor and animal power. However, medieval technology made significant progress in harnessing water and wind power. The waterwheel, one of the oldest sources of power, did not rely on animals or humans and was used for various purposes such as grinding grain, driving sawmills, forging bellows, and powering textile mills. In medieval Europe, it was a primary source of power and many towns were located near water sources to utilize it.

The Domesday Book estimated that there were around 6,000 watermills in England in 1086 and it is believed that this number increased over the following 200 years. Watermills were a main power supply until the steam engine was introduced during the Industrial Revolution.

The History and Evolution of Watermills

From a contemporary perspective, the principles behind how a watermill generates power are straightforward. Water is directed towards a wheel, causing it to rotate, which then transfers power through a drive shaft to various pieces of machinery. Originally, this power was used to turn millstones and grind grain, but later it was utilized to operate other types of tools.

Water power has been utilized as far back as 300 BC in Egypt, potentially being adapted from cultures such as the Persians or Chinese. The earliest watermills utilized flat wheels attached directly to a horizontal drive shaft, but this was inefficient and was eventually replaced with vertical waterwheels that required gears and cogs to transfer power to mills. There were two types of vertical waterwheels: the undershot wheel, which relied on the force of the water to push it and was not effective during low water flow, and the overshot wheel, which was more efficient and used gravity to drive the wheel through water channeled through a flume or pipe. As technology advanced in the later Middle Ages, milling operations became more complex.

The earliest method of grinding grain between two stones was adapted for use in a watermill, where grain was crushed into meal between two millstones. The bottom millstone was stationary while the top millstone, powered by the waterwheel, could be separated to adjust the coarseness of the meal. Both stones had ridges so that the top stone’s grinding motion would crush the meal to the desired consistency. Wheat could be added to the mill through an opening in the top stone, and the resulting meal was sifted through sieves to obtain flour.


The Cistercian Monks

The Virgin, the Abbot of Saint-Vaast, and Etienne Harding, Prophecy of Jeremiah, around 1125

The Virgin, the Abbot of Saint-Vaast, and Etienne Harding, Prophecy of Jeremiah, around 1125

Cistercian Monks and Their Use of Watermills in the Middle Ages

The Cistercian monks were a group of individuals who played a significant role in the development and utilization of watermill technology during the Middle Ages. This monastic order was founded in the year 1098, just after the waterwheel had revolutionized Western Europe. Early in the twelfth century, St. Bernard (1090-1153) took over the order and attempted to gain social freedom by utilizing water mills to provide financial independence.

Within the next 50 years, the Cistercians had reached the cutting edge of water-power and agricultural technology. Monasteries were built on artificially manufactured canals that ran throughout the complex. This source of running water provided power for activities such as milling, woodcutting, forging metals, and making olive oil. It was also a source of fresh water for daily needs and fulfilled the needs for sewage disposal. The Cistercian monasteries were great examples of organized factories that proved to be important in commerce of that time.

The Cistercian monks were heavily invested in the development and utilization of watermill technology. They established a large network of watermills throughout Europe, and many of these mills were located in remote and isolated areas. These watermills were an important source of power for the Cistercian monasteries, and they played a key role in the daily life of the monks.

Innovators in Watermill Technology and Agriculture

The Cistercian monks were skilled craftsmen and engineers, and they made many improvements to the watermill technology. They developed new methods of construction and improved the efficiency of the waterwheels. They also developed new machinery and equipment that could be powered by the watermills, including sawmills, trip hammers, and bellows.

In addition to their technical expertise, the Cistercian monks were also skilled farmers and agriculturalists. They developed new methods of irrigation and introduced new crops to Europe, such as rice, sugarcane, and citrus fruit. The watermills played a key role in these efforts, as they were used to pump water for irrigation and to process crops.

The Cistercian monasteries were also important centers of education and learning. The monks were known for their knowledge of science, mathematics, and engineering, and they passed this knowledge on to others through their schools and libraries. The watermills played a role in this educational mission, as they provided a practical example of the principles of physics and engineering.

The Cistercian monasteries were an important part of medieval society, and the watermills played a key role in their daily life. They provided a source of power for various industries and helped to support the educational and agricultural endeavors of the monks. The Cistercian monks were skilled craftsmen and engineers who made many improvements to the watermill technology, and their contributions had a lasting impact on the development of medieval society.


The Impact of Watermills on Medieval Europe

Watermills had a significant impact on the way of life in Medieval Europe, influencing people on all levels of society and even entire countries. They had a direct and immediate impact on those who operated them, primarily in terms of saving time and money. Watermills allowed for a larger amount of work to be completed in a shorter period of time and at lower costs.

Watermills as a Precursor to the Industrial Revolution

While not typically considered part of the Industrial Revolution, watermills were a precursor to that era. Human labor was expensive, so using a mill to do the majority of work was cost-effective.

One person could now do the same job as many with the help of a waterwheel. However, it appears that this technology was primarily used to increase the production of goods and materials for sale and profit rather than increasing leisure time.

The Shift of Industrial Power from Urban to Rural Areas with the Use of Watermills

Watermills often led to a shift in industrial organization and power from urban centers to more rural areas near water sources, strengthening towns at the expense of cities. One example of this was the use of water power in the industrial process of fulling, which involved shrinking and thickening cloth.

Before being used in watermills in the 13th century, fulling was done manually through stomping or beating the cloth, a labor-intensive process. The fulling mill allowed the work to be done with wooden hammers powered by water, requiring only one person to oversee the movement of the cloth through the machinery. This revolutionized the industry and led to a shift towards rural areas rather than urban centers for the majority of work.

The Impact of Watermills on the Creation of National Markets

The mechanization brought about by watermills had a significant impact on the creation of national markets, as the faster production of goods in greater quantities at lower costs opened up new economic opportunities. Large national markets were established to sell the increased availability of goods, and watermills played a major role in this by providing power for various industries such as grain grinding, hide tanning, vegetable oil pressing, wood sawing, metal forging, armor polishing, rock crushing, and beer brewing. Watermills were the primary source of power before the invention of the steam engine, and their technology was constantly being improved and expanded to new uses.


Stamp ore crusher by Georgius Agricola
Stamp ore crusher by Georgius Agricola
The Impact of Watermill Technology on the Balance of Power

The technological advancements in watermill design, such as the switch from horizontal to vertical waterwheels with gears on the drive train, were eventually applied in other fields and led to the development of mechanical devices like clocks. Watermills also had an impact on the balance of power, both locally and nationally. At a local level, the person or group in control of the mill held a position of power, as the town could prosper from the increased trade and demand for raw materials. On a national level, countries such as England were able to open new markets and benefit greatly from this commerce. Overall, watermills had a significant influence on medieval society at various levels.



  • The Influence of Water Mills on Medieval Society | Encyclopedia.com. (2022). Encyclopedia.com. https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/influence-water-mills-medieval-society

  • NN, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2022, November 21). Medieval technology. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medieval_technology#Milling

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