Windmills, patriotism and making the green case

In the last few days I’ve been visiting some of the country’s surviving windmills around East Anglia and along the way have discovered (or rather, rediscovered as I first took a look at the history of windmills around a decade ago) that the windmill as we know it is an English invention.

Or more precisely, the horizontal axis / vertical sail windmill is an English invention, dating from the 12th century with vertical axis windmills and the Persian “wind tunnel” having come first.

These English roots, with windmills having previously spread widely across our countryside, highlight both an historical and a political point.

The historical one is about how random the record can appear to be as to which items from a country’s past become symbols of the nation and which are forgotten. In this country it’s Holland that has become associated with windmills. It is, in our eyes at least, the land of clogs, windmills, talented footballers, canals and (if it is left-of-centre political people you are asking) relaxed drug laws. The equivalent list for England – leaving aside the complications of England versus Britain – features a similar smattering culled from through the ages, including even the historically tenuous bulldog. Windmills don’t make the cut.

As for the political point: modern green electricity generating wind farms are the technological successor to windmills. They are frequently attacked by those who do not like them as an alien intrusion into our landscape, yet in fact they are the successor to an English invention that used to be a regular part of the English landscape.

Windmills also come with a reminder of the sometimes better nature of previous generations, for one of the most common sources of windmills in the 12th century was charity – rich landowners gifting windmills to others, particularly charitable and religious institutions. Moreover, the spread of windmills, utilising a power source that was widely available, undermined traditional control in society:

The post-mill offered quick-witted peasants an opportunity to evade manorial regulations, act independently, and become quite prosperous. In apprehensive reaction, many of the knights who had first idealistically championed a wide dispersal of the novel technology and had considered windmills excellent charitable donations later selfishly fought to regain control of local competition and to monopolize mill construction.

That quote is from an excellent history of windmills in England – Harvesting the Air: Windmill Pioneers in Twelfth-Century England by Edward Kealey.

4 responses to “Windmills, patriotism and making the green case”

  1. I like this post, Mark. Mind if I put up (appropriately credited) on our campaign site? The point about ‘undermining traditional control’ is quite dear to my heart…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All comments and data you submit with them will be handled in line with the privacy and moderation policies.