the first windmills -- 9/10/20

Today's encore selection -- from Heaven's Breath: A Natural History of the Wind by Lyall Watson. The idea of windmills was likely brought to Europe from the Middle East by the Crusaders, and helped the Europe of the Middle Ages build what was perhaps the first complex civilization not dependent on slave labor:

"No one knows who first conceived the simple and extraordinary notion of harnessing the wind to grind corn, but it seems to have taken place in Persia sometime around the sixth or seventh cen­tury. There are reports of windmills pumping water in the province of Segistan in 134 BC, but it was probably not until some centuries later that square towers, now called panemones -- literally 'things of all winds' -- were built on the windy plains of eastern Iran and Afghanistan with slots that opened on to a bladed wheel whose shaft led down to a grindstone. The design seems to represent a happy fusion of eastern and western ideas. The milling mechanism was copied from the Roman waterwheel, but the wind turbine is pure Tibetan prayer wheel.

"From Persia, the principle travelled east to China, where it was discovered that if the sails were 'feathered', set at an angle on the shaft, it was not necessary to have an enclosed wheel with slots channelling the air directly on to each blade. And as the invention moved west again, this free wheel seems to have been gradually tilted more and more by the use of gears until it eventually stood upright in the manner of a classic 'Dutch' windmill.

See the 1,000-Year-Old Windmills Still in Use Today -- National Geographic

"The Crusaders were apparently responsible for bringing the idea back to Europe, because before 1096 there were no such mills in the north, but by the end of the following century, they were common enough to be the subject of a new papal tax.

"This ready acceptance of the new wind engines is characteristic of the Middle Ages, whose glory is usually seen to rest only in its cathedrals and scholars, but which was equally notable for having built the first complex civilisation which relied on non-human power, rather than that provided by sweating slaves. This change of heart was a direct result of an implicit theological assumption of the worth of humanity, but it did not of course prevent the church from cashing in.

"The first actual record of a windmill in Europe is an oblique one from 1180, in which an abbey in Normandy receives the gift of a piece of land at Montmartin en Graine, which is described as being 'near a windmill'. The first English mill seems to have been one built at Bury St. Edmunds in 1191, but demolished again almost immediately by order of the lord of the manor, an abbot who held the local monopoly on grinding. There was never an act of parlia­ment that made this practice legal, but by custom known as the Milling Soke -- hence the expression to be 'soked' or 'soaked' by taxes -- all tenant farmers were forced to grind their grain at the lord's mill, giving him one sixteenth of the proceeds."



Lyall Watson


Heaven's Breath: A Natural History of the Wind


New York Review of Books


Copyright 1984 by Lyall Watson


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