France | Brittany

The water mill

Mills, whose use became widespread in the 12th century, were central to Breton peasant life. Driven by wind or water, mills were used mainly for grinding grains and for fulling (thickening) cloth, particularly woollens; however, there were also paper mills, tanning mills, tobacco mills and sawmills. The traditional water mill harnessed the power of free-flowing or falling water to turn the wheel and set the interior mechanism in motion. Water mills generally used one of three kinds of wheel, depending on the waterway. The paddle wheel was used for powerful water flows; the bucket wheel maximized the energy of rivers with steep grades; and the more economical horizontal wheel was submerged directly beneath the mill.

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Ruined mill on the Vilaine River.
France, Brittany, Ille-et-Vilaine, Le Boël, Vilaine River
Study, gouache, on Ingres paper
Credit: Frédéric Back
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