Millstone quarries in France : extraordinary enterprises at the service of a bread of high quality
Grinding wheat is an art. One might think that extraction of flour consists simply of mashing cereals between two stones. It is in fact an activity that requires a great deal of ability on part of the miller. The millstones must spin at a specific speed and they must maintain a specific distance of separation. They also require a regular dressing with a hammer to maintain their abrasiveness. Abore all, not just any type of stone can be used. A stone that is too soft and supple will only tear the wheat to shreds and not extract the bran. On the contrary, a stone that is too hard turns the flour into a fine dust that is difficult to bake and contains oil that prevents its conservation. Finally, millstones should not be worn down too rapidly, since worn stones would bankrupt their 18th century owners. Their prices were tantamount to that of a house. The ideal millstone must then possess several contradictory features. It must be solid, hard, and supple at the same time. To borrow an expression of Steven Kaplan, it must be 'intelligent'.
'Intelligent' stones are, nevertheless, not easily found. They originate in specific mineral deposits that were actively sought since the Middle Ages - and even in Antiquity. These deposits gave rise to a specific type of exploitation : the millstone quarry. Thousands are found all over France. Some consist simply of a few circular hollows cut into bedrock, while others - more than 200 in France alone - cover several hectares. And there are even vaster exploitations spread over a surface of several dozen square kilometres.
The heyday of the modest, local millstone quarries was the Middle Ages. At this time the state of roads prevented or rendered it very difficult to transport cargos exceeding a metric ton. Millers or mill owners were thus obliged to outfit their mills from nearby quarries and, at the same time, they were obliged to settle with the first available stone. Rock samples collected throughout France, analyzed in laboratories, confirm the image - far from glittering - suggested by texts and archives. The frequent mediocre stones produced a coloured flour containing minute grains of sand that produced a horrible "crackling" bread. Furthermore, due to a life of consuming large quantities of bread containing silica, the population of Hughes Capet (941- 996) or Saint Louis (1214-1270), ended up wearing out their teeth before reaching the age of forty. Their molars were worn down to the root and their faces became deformed. They endured horrible pain and occasionally even deadly infections. Besides suffering all these afflictions, they could not even delight in the simple pleasure of a meal.
Since the 16th century, physicians and agronomists denounced the effects of poor millstones and counselled the search for a better adapted stone. Yet millers were already beginning to change their practices. Based on the study of about 3000 registers and cases located in the national and departmental archives, and the study of about 100 sites spread across the country, as well as the contribution of sciences that traditionally are hardly solicited for the study of modern history (archaeology, geology, chemistry, nuclear physics, paleoanthropology, odontology), we can assert that a radical evolution took place during the course of the Old Regime. Progressively, during medieval and modern times, millers began to prefer quarry sites of higher quality located nearer to navigable waterways. During the 14th and 15th centuries some of these regional quarries were already operating on an industrial scale, dispatching their products in a radius of several dozen kilometres, and even to several more distant provinces. Their success became more widespread and amplified in what is considered to be their golden age - the 16th and 17th centuries. This situation provoked little by little the demise of local town sites. Hence, in the 18th and 19th centuries, local quarries only provided stones to mountainous areas out of the range of routes designed for chariot traffic.
Later, the larger regional millstone quarries were in turn eclipsed by the rivalry of a handful of very large exploitations. Specialists of the manufacture of almost pure silica millstone opened sites in the Forêt de Moulière (Poitou), near the Domme and Bergerac (Périgord), in Touraine (Cinq-Mars) and especially, in the regions of Champagne and Brie, around La Ferté-sous-Jouarre. It was here, at the gates of Paris, that a stone was unearthed that is reputedly to be the best in the world. It was laboured by a multitude of workers who from the 15th century supplied the mills from the Parisian Basin to Flanders and from Brittany to England. In the 16th and 17th centuries, while millstones from the Brie region gained new commercial grounds ( in the south of France, Germany, even the American colonies), the site fell into the hands of a few merchants. These tradesmen concentrated all of the phases of the industrial process : from procurement of the raw material, to control of labour, to long distance commerce. But all millstone workers, especially the independent master craftsmen, did not appreciate this change in the system of production. Some mill's rights even saw their status reduced to simple hired hands. Two villages in the Brie area of the Champagne region tried to halt the insatiable appetite of the merchants of La Ferté. They went as far as triggering an Affair of State in the course of the debates of the Age of Enlightenment. However nothing could be done to slow down the entrepreneurs. While they accumulated more wealth and, in some cases, attained ranks of nobility and high positions in government, these merchant-mill-makers from La Ferté, either took control of competing quarries, or provoked their disappearance. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the La Ferté millstone, and its equivalents from the southwest of France, imposed themselves upon the whole world as the sine qua non of modern milling. This was accompanied by a wide literary and scientific campaign of promotion.
Subsequently, the demise, in the 1960s, of the traditional flour mill led to the closure of the last millstone quarries. La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, Quaix, the forest of Moulière and all the other major and minor quarries were condemned to oblivion.
Quarrymen of the past have nevertheless bequeathed us with innumerable, and often spectacular and moving, sites. They can be considered monuments to commemorate the concept of daily life as well as the obstinacy and ingenuity of man. They are to the history of the quotidian what castles are to the existence of the elite classes - and what churches are to religious heritage. The difference nonetheless is that, contrary to bell towers and celebrated fortifications, no millstone quarry in France benefits from classification as a historical monument ! As incredible as it sounds, only about ten in France are fitted to welcome tourists. In contrast, other European countries have long understood the interest and the economic benefits that this unique type of patrimony can generate.
From the historical standpoint, millstone quarries prove that the history of bread is much more complex than heretofore believed. The disciples of Clio have probably attributed too much credit to the complaints of the subordinates of the Old Regime subjected to taxation. Far from being a black sheep, the staple food of the tables of the past benefited from both an early and constant qualitative research. By turning away from the local, mediocre millstone quarries in favour, first of improved regional quarries, and then the superior quarries from the Brie region, the French population in general, and the rural sector in particular, sought to improve the flavour of its bread. The quest for a better taste was also accompanied by a desire for a whiter bread, an meaningful quality in a society that already placed considerable significance on appearance. By the 14th and 15th centuries, few were the towns not yet equipped with a 'white mill', with either limestone or silica millstones yielding an untainted wheat flour. During the 17th and 18th centuries the nec plus ultra of all stones - the Brie stones or their equivalents - outfitted practically all communities with the exception of those located in extremely remote or mountainous areas. French bread became, at this time, the finest in the world (S. Kaplan), even for the residents of towns. A remarkable medical advance accompanied this culinary revolution, namely : the decrease of dental wear and its ensuing troubles.
Millstone quarries therefore take part in the general current of progress. A good millstone yielded good bread well before the 19th century and the ensuing Industrial Revolution. Is this surprising ? With the great amount of recent research unveiling the advances in questions of dress, lodging, tools and techniques of the Modern Era, it would be surprising that research on the staple of French food remain behind the movement.
Behind this apparently anecdotal subject of millstone quarries, there is hidden a vast range of notions concerning former societies. A whole industrial sector was once in place with an importance manifest in the sheer quantity of stones exploited and a vast commercial network. Its former importance is also perceived through its massive sales figures, its employed workforce, and its deployment of talent. In addition to these concepts are their effect on daily life. 'It is a powerful indicator of the manner in which material culture intervenes in history', concludes the historian, Daniel Roche.
Extract from La pierre à pain. Les carrières de meules de moulins en France, du Moyen Age à la révolution industrielle .
Presses Universitaires de Grenoble,
2006, vol. 2, pp. 253-254.