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Gems of the Archive: Tilting at Windmills

On my first day at the Mills Archive, my preconceived notions of quaint Dutch windmills were quickly blown away and my eyes opened to the incredibly universal nature of mills and milling. I’ve been struck by how widely mills have been used across centuries and cultures, and this week’s Gem is a perfect example of this: showing how the widespread presence of mills has resulted in similar imagery and symbolism cropping up across the boundaries of time, space and even battle lines.

Poster Image

This postcard was produced in France during the First World War. It depicts a horse and rider (representing Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire) being defeated by a mill, which is representing France. It is a typical example of war-time propaganda so frequently used in the 20th Century.

Interestingly, however, at the same date a cartoon was circulating in Germany using the same idea, but with a few changes. In this cartoon the roles are reversed, with France, England and Russia (the horse and rider) being defeated by Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire (the mill).

This imagery comes from the idiom ‘Tilting at Windmills’ meaning to waste time fighting imaginary enemies or to pursue an imagined but impossible goal. It comes from a 17th Century Spanish novel written by Cervantes which recounts the misadventures of its protagonist Don Quixote. In this episode, Quixote charges at a group of windmills which he has mistaken as a group of giants. He ends up shattering his lance and being thrown off his horse by one of the turning sails.

Not only has this phrase entered popular language, but as these pictures show how it has moved from the context of the Spanish Golden Age to the battlefields of the First World War. There is something deeply poignant about this imagery: despite the differences between global cultures leading to some of the most destructive conflicts in human history, we are nonetheless united by our common needs and desires – and, as it turns out, by mills.