William TeBrake

title.none: Suttor, Vie et dynamique d'un fleuve (William TeBrake)

identifier.other: baj9928.0703.008 07.03.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: William TeBrake, University of Maine,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Suttor, Marc. Vie et dynamique d'un fleuve: La Meuse de Sedan à Maastricht (des origines à). Bibliothèque du moyen âge 24. Brussels: De Boek University Press, 2006. Pp. 695. $160.00 2-8041-5041-0. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.03.08

Suttor, Marc. Vie et dynamique d'un fleuve: La Meuse de Sedan à Maastricht (des origines à). Bibliothèque du moyen âge 24. Brussels: De Boek University Press, 2006. Pp. 695. $160.00 2-8041-5041-0. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

William TeBrake
University of Maine

This is an unusual book because of the manner in which it focuses primarily on a stretch of river while virtually ignoring the land through which it ran, except to the extent that the abutting land and its infrastructure directly affected the river itself. In Vie et dynamique d'un fleuve, Marc Suttor takes as his subject the middle Meuse River (Maas in Dutch), running from the French city of Sedan through Belgium to the Dutch city of Maastricht. The length of the middle Meuse thus defined is roughly 280 kilometers, about a third of the total length of the river, but, because this portion of the river is joined by a number of substantial tributaries, it drains nearly 25,000 square kilometers of land, about two-thirds of the total drainage basin of the Meuse.

The present work is a culmination of more than 25 years of research and publication on various aspects of the topic by Suttor. He describes it as a monograph in which he brought together all possible approaches that could possibly illuminate the role played by the Meuse in the history of the region through which it flowed. Suttor makes clear that his intention was to revise and extend the pioneering work of Felix Rousseau, La Meuse et le pays mosan en Belgique (Namur: Société Archéologique de Namur, 1930), by addressing issues that his predecessor never envisaged, issues that Suttor had previously examined in a series of preliminary studies: the physical characteristics of the Meuse, its function as both an axis and an agent of exchange, the types of boats or barges that traversed it, the navigation techniques of its naiveurs (boat or barge operators or skippers), and the structures and "improvements" placed within it or along its banks to facilitate navigation and crossing. In other words, Vie et dynamique d'un fleuve is a history of the middle Meuse, not the Mosan region, before the modern era.

The structure of this book is fairly straightforward: an extensive bibliography and an introductory chapter are followed by three major divisions that treat the political powers that controlled the river, the traffic that plied it, and the people who worked on or along it. In the introduction, Suttor begins by reviewing the possibilities and limitations of the sources at his disposal. In addition to a very extensive collection of printed materials, he used archaeological evidence, as well as construction contracts witnessed by notaries, testimony of naiveurs from unpublished, judicial inquests, and iconography. Not all of his sources could provide the same temporal reach: archaeology since ancient times; written and iconographic materials only sporadically from ancient through early-medieval times, more plentiful from the high Middle Ages onward; construction contracts and judicial materials primarily from the early modern period. Next, Suttor lays out in broad outline what he termed the "technical" conditions that determined transport by water during the period in question. These included, first of all, the physical character of the Meuse itself. The course of the river from Sedan to Maastricht, he maintains, constituted a fairly uniform segment from both geographical and hydrological points of view: navigable throughout under normal conditions, though extended droughts or freezing over during severe winters could bring traffic to a halt. Further, the course and character of the middle Meuse changed little over the period under consideration. Other "technical" aspects included the design and capacities of the boats that plied the river, from prehistoric and early historic boats constructed by hollowing out a split, single tree trunk to the development during the high Middle Ages of the characteristic flat-bottomed river barge, 30 meters or greater in length. Together, these "technical" conditions created the potential for navigation. Suttor also introduces some of the equipment and infrastructure that facilitated the work of boaters, that enabled crossing of the river, and that harnessed hydraulic energy -- tow paths, bridges, fords, wharfs, mills, and other constructions along the banks.

In the two chapters comprising part one, Suttor treats the various political powers that claimed sovereignty over all or parts of the region through which the middle Meuse flowed and the degree to which they exercised control over traffic on the river. Under Roman control (first century BCE through fifth century CE), the Meuse served as an important economic and strategic artery within a remote, frontier area along which a number of settlements were founded: Namur, Amay (near Huy), and Maastricht. These settlements became centers for the manufacture of products made from bronze, bone, wood, and ceramics, all traded up and down the river. During the Merovingian and Carolingian periods (sixth century to 925), the middle Meuse region became part of new configurations of political, economic, and ecclesiastical power, especially with the rise of the Arnulfing-Pepinid-Carolingian dynasty, which transformed the Mosan region into the very heart of Europe. The unification of the region with the German kingdom in 925 marked the beginning of a period of profound, sometimes contradictory, political change. For example, the establishment of the Ottonian "imperial Church" made it possible for the emperors, through their intermediaries, the bishops of Liège, to place Lower Lotharingia under their control. At the same time, however, territorial principalities made their appearance, not only the county of Namur and the duchy of Brabant, but eventually the prince-bishopric of Liège itself, all of which pursued policies designed to achieve independence from imperial control. This period ended with the 12th century, corresponding with the dissolution of the imperial Church system and the advance of princely power at the expense of royal or imperial power. The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries saw the further development and consolidation of the territorial principalities, especially the county of Namur and the bishopric of Liège. The final period under consideration began with the acquisition of the County of Namur by Duke Philip of Burgundy in 1421, which brought the Mosan region into a much larger political ensemble of "states" and significantly extended the strategic importance of the Meuse.

Sovereignty over the Meuse provided the holders of political power with a number of significant benefits. First there were a number of originally royal prerogatives--control over and disposition of fisheries, riverbanks, ferries, tolls, and bridges, as well as the right to grant urban rights and privileges--all of which provided important revenue. Over time, most of these were conceded to or taken by others, especially the territorial princes. Next came a number of additional sources of income, such as the collection of tariffs on merchandise (the tonlieu) and of fines from the administration of justice. The strategic importance of the river lay in its function as a route for the movement of goods and people that was increasingly controlled, from the high Middle Ages onward, by a series of castles, keeps, and fortified towns along its banks under the control of the counts of Namur and the bishops of Liège. Part of such control was demonstrated by a ruler's ability to force merchants handling basic provisions to make obligatory stops and offer their cargoes for sale at specified urban landings or "steps" along the river.

The second and largest section of the book begins with a long chapter in which Suttor examines the full range of cargoes that moved along the middle Meuse in the pre-modern period. He treats these in the following sequence. First he considers basic provisions, comestibles, such as wine, fish, salt, cereals, meat, dairy products, fruits and vegetables, beer, mead, and cider, and various spices and condiments. Next he looks at raw or primary materials--cloth-making products: wool, dyes, and mordants such as alum (a caustic that helped to set dyes in cloth); metals, including iron and its derivatives, lead, zinc, copper, tin, metal alloys, scrap metals, and precious metals; construction materials of wood, slate, stone, and lime; fuels of wood, coal, and charcoal; products for tanneries such as skins, furs and hides. Further, Suttor describes the craft or artisinal products that were shipped along the middle Meuse: cloth; metal products of iron, bronze, and tin; arms, ammunition, and powder; leather and leather products; and pottery. Finally, he considers human cargoes: the Meuse boats transported people both by regular passenger service and by various ad hoc arrangements, including troops for military purposes.

After his extended description of cargoes, Suttor moves on to a broad analysis of Mosan traffic in which he attempts to describe the general character and quantity of exchange and, despite enormous documentary problems, to interpret its evolution from ancient to early modern times. For example, he argues that traffic along the middle Meuse appeared early and intensified more quickly than it did in most other parts of Europe north and west of the Alps, including England, Germany, the Ile de France, Champagne, and even upper Lotharingia (Lorraine). He attributes this in part to precocious urban development. Because cities such as Dinant, Namur, Huy, Liège, and Maastricht very quickly outgrew the capacity of their hinterlands to provision and supply them, they increasingly procured their basic foodstuffs, including wine, and the primary resources needed by their artisans, wool, tin, copper, and the like, from ever more-distant markets. In exchange, these cities exported their manufactured products, especially cloth and arms. Elements of such trade existed already during the Roman period, especially with the lower reaches of both the Rhine the Meuse, and, reappearing during the seventh century, expanded dramatically through the high Middle Ages. From the Rhine-Meuse delta area came large quantities of foodstuffs, such as saltwater fish, salt, and cereals, while from upstream more foodstuffs arrived, as well as various primary materials, including iron, lumber, slate, stone, and coal. From the second half of the sixteenth century, products of the Liégeois steel industry became extremely significant. In addition to such long-distance traffic, there always was a very intense regional exchange between the cities of the middle Meuse and a largely undocumented local commerce.

In the first three chapters constituting part three, Suttor examines various practices and institutions that linked humans to the middle Meuse. The naiveurs or boat operators constituted the most direct and enduring connection between human society and the river. He looks not only at the origins of their knowledge and expertise but also the professional organizations that they developed from the fourteenth century onward, resembling in broad outlines many other medieval corporations or guilds. The naiveurs themselves largely underwrote most fluvial navigation by, for the most part, owning their own boats and often purchasing or leasing cargoes themselves, in short providing almost the entire framework of the inter regional commerce that tied the cities of the middle Meuse to the larger world outside the valley. They also played important roles in matters of state by carrying urban militias to their destinations. In short, through their corporations, the naiveurs achieved a virtual monopoly on the transport of cargo and became so influential that many of them were able to acquire rights of citizenship in the cities lining the river.

The final chapter in part three actually serves as a conclusion for the entire volume. It is followed by a series of appendices, containing maps, charts, tables, diagrams, lists, and a glossary, and an index.

With this handsomely-produced volume, Marc Suttor has produced an impressive piece of scholarship that makes an important contribution to European economic and environmental history. The bibliographic apparatus of Vie et dynamique d'un fleuve is extraordinary: the bibliography alone accounts for an astounding 138 pages, while most pages have substantial footnotes, often representing half or more of the text. The result of this is a work that is convincing, first of all, because it shows such a complete mastery of the evidence. In addition, because the book is well organized and clearly written, it communicates Suttor's knowledge and command of the material very effectively. Using a distinctly multidisciplinary approach, he effectively integrates economic history with the results of archaeology, historical geography, and landscape history. The appendices, meanwhile, augment the text in important ways: particularly fascinating in this regard is his chart of navigability (619-20) showing, in a single diagram, such things as the width and depth of the channel, the placement of tow paths, the location of islands and obstacles, and much more, along the entire trajectory of the middle Meuse. In the end, this is an account that should be read by anyone concerned with medieval economic or environmental history or with pre-modern urban development in general as well as by experts in the Mosan region in particular.