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Sustainability is one of the core themes of the University of Exeter’s new MA in International Heritage Management and Consultancy, at a time when organisations such as Historic England and National Trust must manage heritage sites in the context of accelerated environmental and coastal change. Studying the past can inform responses to the challenges posed by climate change and provide us with a better understanding of preservation, loss, and material or immaterial change. Questions of heritage are also central to ongoing debates about renewable energy policy. For instance, plans to build wind turbines near Dartmoor National Park were opposed in 2003, 2004, and 2009 by those concerned about ‘the character of the landscape’ (The Telegraph, 10 August 2009), whereas a 2002 discussion of wind turbine proposals by the Dartmoor Society began with a public lecture surveying the historical use of wind power in the area (5th Dartmoor Society Debate, 19 October 2002).
Following discussions with colleagues in the Renewable Energy department, I became interested in not only the historical use of wind power, but also past attitudes towards this energy source. I was already investigating how William Shakespeare and his contemporaries participated in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century debates about air quality. While references to increased coal use and coal-smoke emissions feature in various plays, though, windmills are rarely mentioned. Shakespeare’s characters Falstaff and Shallow discuss time spent at ‘the Windmill’ in 2 Henry IV, but the allusion is probably to a local inn or brothel, as it is elsewhere. A few English playwrights follow the late-medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s lead, portraying millers as greedy or controlling, or echo the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes in connecting the windmill with mental disturbance or overblown speculation: Cervantes’ Don Quixote became famous in the seventeenth century for tilting at windmills in the belief that he was fighting giants. However, I could find little evidence that Shakespeare and his contemporaries were interested in the windmill as a wind-powered technology.
That discovery was surprising, since early inventors such as Francis Bacon were certainly interested in harnessing the power of the winds. Having been introduced to parts of England, Flanders, and northern France in the late twelfth century, windmills would have been a familiar sight to London’s sixteenth- and seventeenth-century playwrights: two maps from around 1600 suggest that Shakespeare’s Globe theatre was built near to several local windmills. Across the English Channel, seventeenth-century Dutch artists created landscape paintings in which windmills often feature prominently, reflecting pride in the recent technological achievement of using these mills to drain low-lying marshy lands (Jonathan Sawday, Engines of the Imagination). Why, then, do sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English playwrights seem to have so little interest in windmills as a power source? Why, when they refer to windmills at all, do their plays typically associate such technology with greed or failed investment, rather than success?
While I do not have a firm answer, I suspect that English dramatists, including Shakespeare, probably classed windmills among the many resources that the rich and powerful controlled during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and so made them a target of theatrical mockery, just as audiences might be invited to laugh at the use of luxury or imported goods such as perfume and tobacco. Since English dramatists were much more interested in representing the the wind-powered technology of sailing, windmills were perhaps also considered unexciting, even boring: a familiar feature of the domestic landscape, rather than a potential route to future overseas expansion. Given Shakespeare’s literary dominance, however, this gap in the dramatic representation of windmills may mean that we are today more likely to underestimate the scale and scope of their historical presence in the English natural and built landscape.
If what we read plays a role in how we think about the past, it may even be that this long-ago tendency to ignore or mock windmills could impact contemporary efforts by the advocates of wind power to appeal to heritage arguments for the introduction of wind turbines, as wind power establishes itself as the leading source of renewable energy in the UK and beyond. More attention to how our literary and historical heritage may shape modern attitudes to renewable energy, as well as initiatives to tackle climate change, will help us to better understand how the past can speak not only to the present, but also the future. As the heritage sector addresses the challenges posed by climate change and engages in debates about renewable technologies in the context of listed buildings, conversation areas, and Word Heritage sites, such conversations can inform our approach to heritage management and sustainability.
Written by Dr Chloe Preedy, Senior Lecturer in English, University of Exeter, Penryn Campus