Precarity, Gender, and Labour in the Medieval Home: an investigation of quern stones

Dr Ben Jervis, Senior Lecturer
Cardiff University

Quern stones are fairly common finds on medieval rural excavations, they provide evidence of household scale processing of grain (fig. 1). Whilst there have been various studies of their petrology (their geological composition), which have allowed us to understand the trade in these items, less attention has been paid to what they can tell us about labour in rural households. Over the past 4 years the Living Standards and Material Culture in English Rural Households (www.medievalobjects.wordpress.com), 1300–1600 project has been exploring the possessions of medieval households, including quern stones. The study is an interdisciplinary investigation, which combines finds from archaeological excavations with the study of lists of the possessions of felons, outlaws and suicides, which were seized by the crown (fig. 2). 

Fig. 1: Reconstructed quern stone.
Fig. 2. Depiction of the Peasant’s Revolt from the Froissart Chronicale. ©British Library

It was the historical documents which piqued my interest in quern stones. Within our sample we have a number of lists dating to 1381 and relating to individuals who were executed following the peasant’s revolt. All of them are from Kent and, with one exception, these are the only lists in our whole sample which refer to quernstones (hand mills). First of all I assumed this could be related to the popular legend of how the Abbey of St Albans seized the quern stones from their rebellious tenants, ground them up and used them to make a floor in the Abbey (Justice 1994, 136). However, this did not explain why querns were only listed in Kent – this warranted further investigation. 

Fig. 3. distribution map of England. Source: Author.

In the medieval period there was a custom called suit of mill, which obliged tenants to use the manorial mill. This custom did not exist in Kent – it has particularly quirky tenurial arrangements dating back to the early medieval period. It was clear from the distribution of querns in our archaeological sample that these are most prevalent in 2 areas; Kent and East Anglia, where suit of mill was weakest (fig. 3). In contrast, they are scarce in the north, where the custom was most strongly applied. I started to think there was another explanation; are our lists and archaeological evidence showing that domestic scale milling persisted for longer in areas where suit of mill was less prevalent and households were less restricted? This has real implications for thinking about the division of labour in the household and the impacts of a commercialising economy on medieval households. 

In Kent, excavated quernstones come from 2 main types of context. The first are manorial complexes. They were presumably used to process the produce of the estate, and in some cases are found in association with specialised bakehouse complexes (fig. 4), particularly on the large ecclesiastical estates in the east of the county. Where we have evidence of them being found in association with houses they are at the periphery of a central zone of intensive wheat cultivation across the county, where there is the strongest historical evidence for the presence of mills. It seems as well, that the documented seized quern stones are from areas where mills had not yet developed (fig. 5).

Fig. 4. Medieval bakehouse, © J Paul Getty Museum
Fig. 5. Distribution map of Kent. Source: Author

The historian John Langdon (2004, 230–1) suggests that in the 14th century around 20% proportions of England’s grain were still milled domestically, and he suggests that this was likely a task undertaken by women, around other domestic tasks. Such simplistic assumptions about the division of labour are increasingly being critiqued by archaeologists and historians drawing on feminist theory. I started to think about this a bit more deeply. We are clearly seeing different forms of household organisation in medieval Kent. At the periphery some households were able to continue domestic scale milling, perhaps specialising in this and bringing income to the household; a commercialising economy was enfolding households into an emerging set of capitalist relations.  

Fig. 6. Watermilling in the Luttrel Psalter ©British Library

If it was women undertaking this work, we might perceive of a change in their role within the home, enfranchising them as economic agents. In the core we see something different. Capital investment in mills pulled this activity out of the home, potentially marginalising those who had engaged in domestic milling, stripping them of economic agency, as household economy was reshaped by external forces. In thinking about this I found the work of the feminist post-human scholars Rosi Braidotti (2013) and Anna Tsing (2015) particularly useful. Tsing talks about how commercialisation leads to the emergence of precarity, as domestic activities become drawn into wider webs of capitalist relations. Braidotti argues strongly against gender binaries, advocating for a philosophy of difference, informed by feminist theory and thinkers such as Deleuze and Guattari.  

Through beginning to apply their thinking to the study of the household and the interpretation of the quernstones, we can begin to think about how these stones tell us a story of precarious households and transforming gender relations; as they became entangled in relations of commerce and capital, households, and the people and objects which comprise them were transformed in different ways. The emerging capitalist economy of the later Middle Ages enfranchised some and disenfranchised others, creating inequalities and differences in experience between households, genders and regions. These seeming simple stones challenge us to think differently about the implications of a commercialising economy for medieval society. 

References:

Braidotti, R. 2013, The Posthuman, Cambridge: Polity 

Justice, S. 1994, Writing and Rebellion. England in 1381, Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press 

Langdon, J. 2004, Mills in the Medieval Economy. England 1300–1540, Oxford: Oxford University Press 

Tsing, A.L. 2015, The Mushroom at the End of the World. On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Princeton: Princeton University Press 

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