Today, wind is harnessed by turbines to generate electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor.... (The ancient Greek god of wind, Aeolus, lends his name to the technology in many languages.) It is one of the most widely discussed renewable energyEnergy sources that are naturally replenished so quickly that they can be considered inexhaustible on a human time scale... sources. But the use of wind dates far back in history. Long before the modern era, wind-powered mills were a common feature of the landscape. The distinctive silhouettes first appeared in Europe in the Early Middle Ages, before developing rapidly in the 12th century. They sprang up in many areas, in a variety of shapes, colors and technical designs. Over time, the familiar landmarks inevitably found their way into the world of literature
Alphonse Daudet: Letters from My Windmill (1869)
The most famous windmill in French literature is surely that of Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897), who begins his celebrated collection of Provençal short stories by buying “a windmill for grinding flour [...] the said windmill, abandoned for over twenty years, and not viable for milling, as it appears that wild vines, moss, rosemary and other parasitic greenery are climbing to the tips of its sails”. The Fontvielle windmill was undoubtedly a source of inspiration, even if Daudet never actually lived in it. Located near Saint-Rémy de Provence, it is today open to visitors. Surrounded by pines and fragrant scrubland, it is the perfect place to indulge in daydreaming. When Daudet moves into the windmill, or so the story goes, it is the rabbits who are astonished because they had made it into a sort of headquarters, the “Jemmapes mill” of rabbits (Jemmapes was a French victory in November 1792). The Jemmapes mill is as famous as the Valmy mill (Valmy was won in September 1792). Both revolutionary sites have become legendary in French history.
One of the first stories told by Daudet is also about a windmill, the one owned by Master Cornille. “There was a time when the millers did a great business, and from ten leagues round the farmers brought us their wheat to grind. […] The hills all about the village were covered with windmills. To right and left one saw nothing but sails twirling to the mistral above the pines.” But with the advancement of civilization, coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from... replaced wind and became the dominant energy source in the 19th century. “Unhappily, some Frenchmen from Paris had the idea of building a steam flour mill on the road to Tarascon.” Soon the windmills stopped turning and disappeared from the countryside. Except that of Master Cornille, who went about the village shouting “those brigands make bread with steam, an invention of the devil, whereas I work by the mistral and the tramontane, which are the breath of the good God.” Although the sails of his mill continued to spin, the villagers felt something mysterious was afoot. At the end of the story, the secret is revealed in a sequence of events both happy and sad. For although the mill temporarily resumed operation, the days of windmills were over, says the author of Fontvielle “like those of the barges on the Rhone, the parliaments, and the big-flowered morning coats.”
Cervantes, Don Quixote and Windmills
Many a masterpiece of world literature is remembered for a particular scene that becomes so famous everyone has heard of it. It may even give rise to a new expression. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) is universally known for a relatively short but irresistibly funny episode depicting the story’s main protagonists. Don Quixote, a man from La Mancha who has read too many tales about chivalry, confuses fiction and reality. Dressed as a knight, he embarks on an adventure to fight evil and seek glory accompanied by his servant Sancho Panza, a man of good sense whose primary concern is being paid for his services.
One day the molinos de viento (Spanish for windmills) rise up menacingly before the defiant knight, challenging him to battle. It matters not that his horse Rocinante is not brave, that he is poorly equipped or that Sancho Panza sees nothing but windmills. Don Quixote is convinced that the monstrous giants with long arms must be fought and swept off the face of the earth. Paying no heed to Sancho Panza’s cries, he gives the spur to his horse and heads into what he expects to be an arduous battle. At this moment, the wind picks up and the vanes begin moving, making the mills look even more threatening to the valiant knight. Praying to his lady Dulcinea to support him in this time of need, he charges at the terrifying creatures with his lance at full tilt. When he strikes, however, a gust of wind pushes the sail so hard it knocks him to the ground. Sancho Panza arrives on his donkey, finding his master in a frightful condition. He helps him up, but Don Quixote refuses to see the truth, saying a magician turned the giants into windmills “in order to rob me of the glory of vanquishing them”. Once astride poor Rocinante, also in a sorry state, Don Quixote continues to laud the “merits of his sword” and pursues his quest for adventures, justice and glory.
This funny, iconic scene showing the hero taking his dreams for reality has led to the coining of a popular expression: “tilting at windmills”, which means to fight imaginary enemies or pursue a vain goal. Today, in the La Mancha region of Spain, visitors can still see several white windmills perched on a hill and imagine the headlong rush of Don Quixote and Rocinante.
Windmills, an Object of Poetry
Besides these two highly acclaimed works, European literature is filled with examples of paeans to windmills. Their shape, size and height are conducive to reverie but also to nostalgia since they evoke a bygone era. One example is a poem extolling the windmills of Mykonos by Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990), an English writer who spent many years on the Greek islands. A lesser known poet, the Frenchman Gaston Couté (1880-1911), lamented the fate of the obsolete structures:
The scent of boxwood, the tolling of the knell,
Snowy weather, a drunken night
Sadden me less than the forlorn
Windmills whose sails no longer turn!
Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893), known more for his novels than his poetry, is not far from Don Quixote when he writes:
How is it that I saw, like one sees in a dream
A fearsome body rise and expand
Until its forehead brushes the distant heavens,
The old mill grow to such an unimaginable height
That its arms, whirling to the sound of sails,
Suddenly vanished among the stars,
Before descending, all aglitter with gold dust
Stolen from the cloaks of the comets?
In the Netherlands, windmills have become a fixture of the national consciousness, as illustrated by this excerpt from a poem:
From Rotterdam to Friesland,
From Zeeland to Groningen,
Windmills are here, there and everywhere around the country!
The mills in the village of Kinderdijk, which were once used to pump water from the polders, have been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
The works cited above are just a few examples of windmills in poetry. There are still many more.
The Mill, the Miller and the Donkey
No mill would be complete without the miller and his donkey, two other favorite literary characters. La Fontaine (1621-1695), for example, wrote a fable called The Miller, his Son and the Donkey, whose moral is you cannot please everyone. The well-known German fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, The Musicians of Bremen (1819), revolves around a donkey: “A man had a donkey, who for long years had untiringly carried sacks to the mill, but whose strength was now failing, so that it was becoming less and less able to work. His master thought about getting rid of it, but the donkey noticed that an unfavorable wind was beginning to blow and ran away.” On its way to town, the donkey meets a dog, then a cat and finally a rooster. Together they find themselves a pleasant home after chasing away a bunch of robbers. The merry foursome is depicted in a number of statues.
“Miller, you’re sleeping, your mill spins too quickly...” goes a popular French children’s song telling the miller to be careful the wind does not break his precious machine. In the French language, there is an expression “to enter as if going into a mill”, which signifies to enter somewhere without difficulty. The original expression was “to enter like a donkey going into a mill” (either to deliver grain or turn the mill), which meant something along the lines of to enter somewhat brazenly, but the reference to the donkey has since been dropped. Street names are also reminders of the popular edifices. In Paris alone, there are streets named mill, green mill, mill of the virgin and mill of the meadows. And let’s not forget the most famous mill of all – the Moulin Rouge. Windmills are unquestionably still among us today.
Find out more:
- The Cervantes classic Don Quixote is a must, at least the abridged version. Letters from My Windmill by Alphonse Daudet is easy to read. It is also available in audio format, narrated (naturally) with a southern French accent. Other works include The Miller of Angibault (1845) by George Sand, and Le Moulin du Frau (The Mill of Frau – 1891) by Eugène le Roy.
- There are many publications on the subject of the architecture, technical design and function of windmills, which played a key role in the economy from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. Other sources include G. Simonet’s La France des moulins (Albin Michel, 1988) and Le moulin et le meunier, mille ans de meunerie en France et en Europe, by Claude Rivals (Paris, Empreinte, two volumes, 2001).