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Welcome, as always, dear readers.

Although we think we might have another post or two on things in Bilbo’s hall, we thought it would be fun to take a break and look elsewhere in Middle-earth.

In a posting long ago now, we looked at Saruman and his attempt to ruin the Shire.  Cutting down trees was certainly part of his plan, as Farmer Cotton tells the hobbits:  “They cut down trees and let ‘em lie” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8)  There was much worse, however, as he continues:

“Take Sandyman’s mill now.  Pimple knocked it down, almost as soon as he came to Bag End.  Then he brought in a lot o’ dirty-looking men to build a bigger one and fill it full o’ wheels and outlandish contraptions.”

“Wheels” made us think of two things:

  1. Fangorn’s description of Saruman himself: “He has a mind of metal and wheels” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 4, “Treebeard”)
  2. and, secondly, just what level of technology Middle-earth actually has

JRRT himself wrote of Hobbits, in the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings:

“They do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though they were skilful with tools.”

As far as authentic depictions, we have one, by Tolkien himself, in this picture of Hobbiton.


Presumably, that’s the Sandyman mill in the foreground.  You can see in the left middleground what appear to be hay stacks (also called “haymows”) which rather resemble these from a painting by Caillebotte (whose work appeared in our posting on umbrellas) and are where the material saved from the growing/reaping cycle is stored.


The whole process for what eventually gets to the mill begins with plowing the land and sowing the seed (and keeping off the birds, if possible).


Then, when the grain is ripe, it is reaped and stacked.


At this point, the grain is still on the stalk and needs to be detached.  This is done by flailing it.


At that point, however, it’s still in its beard


and the kernels of wheat need to be shaken free by the process called winnowing.  This can be done by a number of methods, but the easiest includes using the air currents to help remove the hull (the chaff—and, if you know the expression “to separate the wheat from the chaff”, now you also know where it comes from).


Now, when you finally have the pure grain, the next step is to grind it to a powder.  The most ancient method (still used for crushing grain in some parts of the world) is this—


But the Romans sped this up with a kind of early machine, both slave-driven and animal-propelled—



The flour (pretty coarse and gritty, we understand—which wore down people’s teeth) was then mixed with water and baked


and sold as this.image12.jpg

(This is real Roman bread—abandoned in an oven when Vesuvius exploded and found many centuries later, still in the oven.)  Some bakers liked to label their bread, as you can see, with a special name stamp.


In time, some clever Roman got the idea that there might be a more efficient method than slaves and animals and harnessed water as a power source and even occasionally harnessed it more than once, as here, at Barbegal, in southern France.


This technology does not appear to have been lost along with so much else of the Roman world and continued to be used in later centuries.


As you can see from this illustration, the basic idea is simple:  the water is channeled to pour over the paddles of the wheel, thus turning it.  The turning motion is then conveyed through a series of gears until it spins the upper stone of the two millstones, thus grinding the grain.


There are several types of wheel:  overshot, breast, undershot, and pitchback.


Our research suggests that the overshot is the most powerful—but, as you can see in JRRT’s illustration, the Hobbiton mill is of the undershot variety.


Tolkien’s model for this is assumed to have been the Sarehole Mill, in the village of Sarehole, south of Birmingham, where his mother took him and his brother to live, for about 4 years in the late 1890s, in this house.


From its front door, he could look across and see this mill—here’s a 1905 postcard of the mill.


After a certain amount of searching, we still can’t tell what kind of wheel Sarehole had in Tolkien’s day, but there are certainly some other strong differences visible between it and the Hobbiton mill.  First, of course, there’s that chimney on Sarehole, which was installed in 1852 as part of the addition of a steam engine to the mill’s older water-driven system.  (Is this one of the “outlandish contraptions” Farmer Cotton complains about?)  But perhaps this suggested the tower on the left of the Hobbiton mill?  Second, and a little stranger, might be those round windows—although we might see these as a quiet joke:  just as an older Hobbit hole, like Bag End, had such windows, so it might be fitting for a Hobbit mill to have them, too?

Thanks, as ever, for reading.




Here’s a LINK, by the way, to a 1966 interview with JRRT about his early years in Sarehole.