03.02.21, Magnusson, Water Technology in the Middle Ages

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Paolo Squatriti

The Medieval Review baj9928.0302.021


Magnusson, Roberta J.. Water Technology in the Middle Ages: Cities, Monasteries, and Waterworks after the Roman Empire. Series: Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. Pp. xiv, 238. ISBN: 0-8018-6626-X.

Reviewed by:
Paolo Squatriti
University of Michigan

At the end of the Middle Ages, perhaps a sixth of European towns had "complex water systems." To Magnusson, such systems are long distance channels capable of transferring clean water to various urban consumers and of conveying used water away from them. Water Technology tells the tale of these systems' rise and fall in the first half of the second millennium A.D. Magnusson relates this story in five tidy chapters, plus an epilogue roughly sketching in elements of early modern waterworks that altered the medieval situation.

Water Technology is a highly descriptive work, full of nice examples culled from narrative and administrative texts, and enriched with archaeological data. It also includes visual evidence from medieval and early modern books, prints, and paintings. Thus Magnusson shows that the best way to approach medieval water systems is to be omnivorous and interdisciplinary, as open-mindedness about sources produces the richest, fullest picture of urban waterworks. But though some of her examples come from other geographic and cultural regions, most of the evidence examined in Water Technology originated in two specific places. For Magnusson focused her review of the evidence on southern England and central Italy, in this following the lead of a great pioneer of 'comparative' medieval history, the late Robert Brentano. This method simplified research and also produced enough clarity of vision for Magnusson to identify "each stage in the development and use of water systems," to sort out what "main problems" medieval people encountered in their waterworks, and to outline "the strategies available for solving them" (xi).

Water Technology's first chapter presents high medieval methods for supplying potable water to monastic and urban communities as an innovation after a dark age of "technological discard and regression" (4). Here Magnusson investigates how people discovered and why they implemented their "complex water systems" after 1000. Then Magnusson goes through the steps medieval waterworks' builders had to take in order to create a functioning system. The acquisition of springs, lands, and easements left the deepest traces in the documentation, and description of this process occupies chapter 2. Chapter 3, the longest in the book, details the design and construction of medieval water systems, working 'downstream' from catchment techniques to the final distribution points and wastewater removal. The fourth chapter turns to the issue of how medieval communities paid for construction and maintenance of their conduits, and what administrative innovations such conduits occasioned. In the fifth and final chapter, the author surveys evidence for how water served medieval people, and how they tried to regulate abuses.

By singling out urban "complex" waterworks for analysis, Water Technology sets these methods for water procurement and disposal apart from other 'simple' water systems and from more costly and complicated water regulating systems that did not bring potable water to cities. Such a sharp focus has numerous advantages, not the least of which is clarity, as mentioned above. On the other hand, Bertrand Gille's notion of "technical ensemble" (as outlined in the "Prolégomènes" to his Histoire des techniques [Paris, 1978]) also has advantages, such as illuminating the interdependence between different sectors of a technological system. Since the old well coexisted with the new, aqueduct-fed fountain, and since mill channels, fishpond outlets, and irrigation or drainage ditches all used the same gravity flow technologies as the "complex water systems" in towns, separating out one segment of a broad technological horizon could mislead. For instance, monasteries, which, as Magnusson reveals, were leaders in the creation of the new urban systems, were deeply involved in 'rural' water technologies as well, and the possibility that techniques from one hydraulic 'sector' shaped techniques in another could have received more attention than Magnusson dedicates to it. More discussion of how the old, simple water systems interacted with the new ones would also have been welcome.

In this book, the prose is clear and accessible even in the thickest descriptions of medieval water conveyance technologies. Jargon is eschewed. This is all the more admirable as the preface mentions the book's reliance on the often jargony writings of those who model how societies adopt and spread technological innovations. Magnusson's preface further acknowledges a debt to 1980s scholarship about the "social construction of technology," the latter an antidote to treatments of technology in isolation from its social context and the cultural expectations of its users. The first chapter of Water Technology, where the use of these theoretical approaches is most obvious, is perhaps the most original and engaging in the book. Here the mechanics of people's acceptance of new technologies for doing old tasks are incisively addressed. Demographic pressure and other practical considerations (fire control, water 'quality'), but also culturally specific aspirations to honor emerge from Magnusson's analysis as major motivations of medieval communities' decisions to create new waterworks. The utility of Magnusson's application of modern models for technological acceptance to the medieval evidence may convince even medievalists who shy from representing medieval people as rational economic agents that this is a viable theoretical path to follow. It is a pity that in the other four chapters of Water Technology the same clear and fertile cross-pollination between modern theory and medieval sources is not so strongly in evidence.

The first chapter of Magnusson's book is also the place where the author postulates that Europeans took fresh directions with their water management after 1000. Thus, hydraulic history seems to follow the perceptions of the 'first European revolutionaries' and others who see a 'mutation' in European societies around 1000. Certainly Magnusson does well to stress links between medieval social systems and technological systems. Yet one wonders to what extent this image of high medieval technological inventiveness and adaptability results from new high medieval patterns of written record keeping and from the 'phantoms of remembrance' that refashioned histories in the twelfth century (on p. 123 Magnusson shows her awareness of how patterns of document survival can "skew scholarly discussions"). Water Technology's hypothesis of a technological black hole between the demise of Roman imperial government and the eleventh century remains unproven, as the early medieval evidence goes mostly untested. Early medieval water technology, urban and rural, still awaits a scholar with the zeal, descriptive flair, and comparative breadth of Magnusson. But while they wait, historians of medieval technology can relish the competent treatment of urban waterworks in Magnusson's Water Technology.

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Paolo Squatriti

University of Michigan