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From Quern to Computer: The history of flour milling

The first milling stones

Cereal grains form the staple food of many societies but such grains cannot easily be digested by humans until their hard outer cellulose shells have been broken up or removed. From earliest times this has been achieved by breaking open the grain between two stones.

The first milling stones were hand-operated and are generally known as querns, a word derived from the Old English word cweorn.  Most querns are made from stone, hence ‘quernstone’, but other materials have also been used, such as sun-dried mud coated with bitumen or wood studded with pieces of iron. 

The best type of stone for making querns is that with a well-cemented matrix of fine to medium grains which gives a naturally hard-wearing and abrasive surface, or that with a vesicular texture (full of small holes) which provides continuous cutting edges even as it wears.  As a result a wide variety of rock types have been used over the millennia to produce quernstones, including sandstones and limestones and igneous rocks such as basalts and granites.

Where no locally suitable stone was available, however, they were obtained from further afield.  Consequently there is evidence for the trade of quernstones from earliest times.  It also appears that querns from certain sources were preferred over others. 

In Britain querns from the Prehistoric and Roman greensand quarries at Lodsworth in West Sussex have been found as far afield as Gloucestershire and Northamptonshire and, from the Roman period onwards, lava querns were imported from Mayen and Neidermendig in the Eifel Mountains of Germany.

Whilst stones have been used to crush and grind seeds, plants and minerals for thousands of years, corn milling as a definitive art or craft really only began with the domestication of wild wheat and barley in the eastern Mediterranean region some ten to twelve thousand years ago.   The beginnings of cereal cultivation led to, or were caused by, the adoption of grain-based subsistence strategies and a growing reliance on cereal-based products.  In turn this led to the development and increasing use of the oldest specific milling tool, the saddle quern

‘The maid-servant that is behind the mill’.  Grinding grain on a saddle quern, after an Egyptian statuette (MWAT-004)
‘The maid-servant that is behind the mill’. Grinding grain on a saddle quern, after an Egyptian statuette (MWAT-004)

A saddle quern comprises a flat or dished slab of stone and a hand-held upper stone which is rubbed to and fro across it. Saddle querns were sometimes used in conjunction with mortars, in which grain was first pounded to remove the husks, but the flatter grinding surface of the lower stone was much more effective than the mortar for grinding grain sufficiently finely to obtain the maximum release of nutrients.

The saddle quern was generally worked on the ground, with the operator, usually a woman, kneeling behind it.  It was hard work, the user needing to exert enough pressure with the rubber to break open and reduce the grain to meal. In some communities saddle querns were later set in raised emplacements which made the task slightly easier.  The saddle quern is the mill referred to by Moses in the Old Testament and upon which Samson was made to grind in the prison house (Exodus 11.5, Judges 16.21).

It is perhaps worth noting here that from ancient Mesopotamian texts, throughout the Bible to the 7th century laws of Æthelbert of Kent and to the writings of historians such as William Harrison, quoted below, documentary and also ethnographic evidence indicates that grinding foodstuffs on a quern is generally considered to be the work of women, slaves and prisoners.  Of course, there are exceptions.  All male enclaves such as armies and monasteries had their own querns and men also used querns to grind other materials such as ochre and, in due course, tobacco.      

Neolithic saddle quern from Windmill Hill causewayed enclosure, Wiltshire (MWAT-005)
Neolithic saddle quern from Windmill Hill causewayed enclosure, Wiltshire (MWAT-005)

As the knowledge of farming spread across Europe, so too did the saddle quern, reaching Britain in c.4000BC.  Saddle querns have been found on some early Neolithic sites, such as the causewayed enclosures at Windmill Hill near Avebury in Wiltshire and Etton in Cambridgeshire.  They vary greatly in form from neat saddle-shaped stones, which give the tool its name, to chunky bowl shapes and large trough-shaped lower stones.  The saddle quern was the main means of grinding grain in Britain for some three and a half thousand years but in the Middle Iron Age, c.400BC, a new form of milling tool, the rotary quern, was introduced.  Dating evidence suggests that it was first used in southern England, gradually spreading north and west to reach Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Cornwall by the first century BC.

The rotary quern comprises two circular stones, one of which is rotated above the other by means of a projecting handle.  Grain is fed into a central hole or eye through the upper stone and ground between the faces of the two stones.  Comparatively easier to use than a saddle quern, it was also more efficient.  It could also be turned by two people working together, again usually women, making a chore a more companionable task.  Like the saddle quern, the rotary quern was at first worked on the ground, but later it became more usual for it to be placed on a special table or stand.  The rotary quern was quite literally a revolution in milling technology and the principle of milling by turning one circular stone above another was to hold throughout the future development of milling with stones.

However, rotary querns are more difficult to make than saddle querns, for which two suitably sized as-found stones could suffice.  Consequently saddle querns were not superseded by rotary querns and such milling tools are still in daily use in parts of the world today.  The saddle quern is therefore not only the oldest but also the most continuously used milling tool.

The origins of the rotary quern remain obscure but it may well have developed in Catalonia, Spain, where early examples reliably dated to the 5th century BC have been found.  

The rotary quern is thought to be the mola Hispaniensis (Spanish mill) referred to by the Roman writer Cato in the first century BC in his book on agriculture, in which he also mentions the mola asinaria (donkey mill) and mola trusatilis (saddle quern) (On Agriculture 10.4).  The rotary quern appears to have spread from Catalonia to other parts of Spain and into France and from there to Italy and central Europe, reaching Germany by about the 3rd century BC. 

Its comparative early appearance in southern Britain, however, suggests that it may have been introduced here direct from the Iberian peninsula.  Its expansion into the central and eastern Mediterranean area, however, was somewhat slower.  Here, a sophisticated form of saddle quern, the Olynthus mill or hopper rubber, the upper stone of which was operated by a lever, was in use.  The Olynthus mill may have originated in the 7th century BC or earlier, although the earliest surviving examples are 5th century BC in date.

Iron Age rotary quern from Hunsbury Hillfort, Northamptonshire (MWAT-006)
Iron Age rotary quern from Hunsbury Hillfort, Northamptonshire (MWAT-006)

Iron Age rotary querns in Britain comprised two thick, heavy stones, sometimes referred to as ‘beehive’ querns from the distinctive shape of the upper stone.  They vary greatly in size from about 260 to 380mm diameter.  Several different regional forms have been identified and it is noticeable that those from the south generally have sloping grinding faces and wide eyes with a handle hole in the side or a slot across the top, whereas those from the midlands and north, including southern Scotland and Ireland, have narrower eyes and flat grinding faces, with one or more handle holes in the side.  In northern Scotland, however, a flatter disc-shaped form of quern with an upright handle appeared, perhaps as early as 200BC, which it is thought was introduced independently, perhaps direct from the continent.   

The upper stone of a Romano British rotary quern from Probus, Cornwall (SWAT-003)
The upper stone of a Romano British rotary quern from Probus, Cornwall (SWAT-003)

Although beehive querns continued in use during the Roman period, rotary quernstones generally became larger in diameter and thinner with wide eyes.  The grinding faces, which were flat or slightly sloping, were often dressed with a pattern of furrows similar to that used later on millstones.  Their design, which shows great variety, was probably influenced by the querns of German lava which were imported on the heels of the Roman invasion in AD43.  Indeed the Roman army brought such querns with them in their baggage train. 

In the later Roman period it was not uncommon for upper stones to have a raised collar or ridge around the eye.  Some querns had a hole in the top or side for attaching the handle, others an L-shaped hole from the top to the side or a slot across the top, features that are also found on the upper stones of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Viking querns. The grinding surfaces were similarly flat or slightly concave but the faces were simply picked rather than being dressed with a pattern of furrows.  By way of contrast medieval quernstones were simpler in form, the upper stones generally having a flat, collarless top with an upright handle hole.  They varied greatly in diameter from about 250 mm to 570 mm.

In the medieval period the use of querns was widely prohibited as many manorial tenants were compelled to have their grain ground at the manorial mill, which could be some distance away, and to pay a toll for the privilege.  Not surprisingly, some preferred to use their own querns and manorial accounts frequently contain references of fines for those not taking their grain to the lord’s mill.  The dispute between St Albans Abbey in Hertfordshire and the townspeople over the use of querns was long and bitter and in Thomas 

Medieval pot quern from Rievaulx Abbey, North Yorkshire (SWAT-004)
Medieval pot quern from Rievaulx Abbey, North Yorkshire (SWAT-004)

Walsingham’s 14th century chronicles of St Albans Abbey, he admits that for malting, handmills had come into action again.  But not everyone was so bound.  Freemen could use their own querns and special licenses were sometimes granted, such as that to two men on the manor of Aldenham, Hertfordshire in 1315 who paid their lord a capon at Easter for the privilege.  Establishments such as castles and monasteries often had querns in their kitchens.  Two kitchen servants are recorded at Peterborough Abbey in 1125 whose sole job it was to grind flour by hand.  Hand querns are also recorded in the kitchen of the Great Tower at Wallingford Castle, Oxfordshire.  Indeed a new form of rotary quern, the pot quern, came into use in the Middle Ages.  This derives its name from the shape of the lower stone which has a circular recess within which the upper stone turned, the ground meal being expelled through a spout cut through the side of the lower stone. 

Pot querns vary greatly in design, demonstrating much individuality.  The lower stone may be circular, square or polygonal in shape and the upper stone, which is usually between about 230mm and 350mm diameter, may have a domed, flat or dished top with one or more handle holes or lugs.  The grinding surfaces were often furrow-dressed.  In addition, the spouts of some pot querns were sometimes carved into the semblance of a face, the meal being spewed out through the mouth. 

Geared handmill from Rogate, West Sussex (Drawing J.K. Major, Mills Archive Collection, JKM-DRW-26-001)
Geared handmill from Rogate, West Sussex (Drawing J. K. Major, Mills Archive Collection, JKM-DRW-26-001)

In the post-medieval period rotary querns continued to be used in the home, mainly for grinding small amounts of malted grain and mustard seed for domestic consumption.  Writing in 1587, William Harrison tells how his wife grinds ‘good malt upon our quern’ to save paying a toll.  The final development of the rotary quern was a handmill in which a small pair of millstones was mounted on a timber frame, the upper stone being turned by a handle through a pair of gears. 

Querns and handmills are often listed in household inventories of the 16th and 17th centuries, although more frequent references to ‘old querns’ in those of the later 17th century suggest that they were going out of use by this time.  However, the 18th century agriculturalist William Cobbett wondered why more farmers did not possess their own hand or horse mill given the time, expense and inconvenience of taking grain to the local mill.  Nevertheless by the 19th century rotary querns had gone out of use across much of Britain and were described by interested antiquarians as relics or obsolete contrivances. 

In 1898 Bennett and Elton wrote that the quern ‘virtually only exists as a relic of antiquity in the cabinets of the curious’.  But that is not the end of their story, for querns were to remain in daily use in the Northern and Western Isles of Scotland and in Ireland into the 20th century where they were not only used for preparing porridge but also for grinding barley for that illicit drink, poteen.  And, like the saddle quern, they are still used in parts of the world today.

Select bibliography

  • Curwen, E.C. 1937: Querns, Antiquity, 11, 133-150
  • Englund, R.K. 1991: Hard Work – Where will it get you? Labor Management in Ur III Mesopotamia, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 50.4, 255-280
  • Frankel, R. 2003: The Olynthus Mill, its origin and diffusion, typology and distribution, American Journal of Archaeology, 107, 1-21
  • Heslop, D.H. 2008: Patterns of Quern Production, Acquisition and Deposition, Yorkshire Archaeological Society, Occasional Paper 5
  • Moritz, L.A. 1958: Grain-Mills and Flour in Classical Antiquity, Oxford, Clarendon Press
  • Peacock, D. 2013: The Stone of Life, Southampton Monographs in Archaeology, New Series 1, Southampton, Highfield Press
  • Watts, M. 2002: The Archaeology of Mills & Milling, Stroud, Tempus Publishing Ltd
  • Watts, S. 2014: The Life and Death of Querns, Southampton Monographs in Archaeology, New Series 3, Southampton, Highfield Press