09.12.17, Kosso and Scott, eds., The Nature and Function of Water

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Paolo Squatriti

The Medieval Review 09.12.17

Kosso, Cynthia and Anne Scott. The Nature and Function of Water, Baths, Bathing and Hygiene from Antiquity through the Renaissance . Technology and Change in History, 11. Leiden: Brill, 2009. Pp. viii, 540. ISBN: 978 90 04 17357 6.

Reviewed by:
Paolo Squatriti
University of Michigan

Almost exactly three years ago (in October 2006) the editors of this volume organized a conference about "The Nature and Function of Water" at Northern Arizona University. The Nature and Function of Water, Baths, Bathing and Hygiene from Antiquity through the Renaissance is one outcome of that scholarly congress, as well as another sign of contemporary interest in water, inside and outside of academia (the editors note the existence of a "burgeoning field of water studies" [4] for the inside part). The volume assembles twenty-five essays presented at the Arizonan conference.

This collection, like most of the edited volumes that have come to dominate academic publishing, is weakly structured and dispersive or, as the editors put it, "interdisciplinary" (4). Heterogeneity is an almost inherent aspect of this kind of book, magnified in this case by the "amorphous" (431) quality of the element, as well as the intellectual topic, at its center. This particular collection's amorphousness is exacerbated by its stupendous chronological range, from the Hittites to the Enlightenment, and geographical purview, from Mesopotamia to the Valley of Mexico. There are also huge differences in the methodologies the twenty-seven contributors to The Nature and Function of Water used to tackle their questions, and inevitable unevenness in the contributions' success. The editors' specialities, Middle English literature and Greek archaeology, seem to have given the book two chronological centers of gravity, pre-Roman antiquity and the late Middle Ages, with just a few chapters about events 500-1300 and (surprisingly) only three dedicated to Roman developments. Such chronological clustering has methodological ramifications: archaeological data prevails in chapters about antiquity and literary analysis in those about the Middle Ages, so discussion of "real" and "imaginary" waters tends to divide along chronological lines (though there are imaginative treatments of ancient water symbolism and a fine discussion of drinking water in Ypres, circa 1200-1400).

Given so much diversity, and given the intended audience of this Review, it makes sense to focus here only on those nine chapters in The Nature and Function of Water that deal with medieval matters in a sustained way.

For western medievalists one of the most educational contributions to the volume is McDonough's short study of bodily purifications in late antique Babylonia. Water's cleansing powers were interpreted differently by religious leaders in the Sasanian empire. The Zoroastrian clergy, horrified by the soiling of water in the environment cased by Jewish, Christian and Gnostic purification rituals, sought to restrict the polluting activities. However, Sasanian rulers found tensions around water use politically expedient, a means of emancipating themselves from Magian control. Like McDonough, Cuffel too finds that bathing in the Islamic world was not just a simple matter of removing dirt. Her chapter on the Islamic polemics surrounding female collective bathing reveals divisions within the early umma as it accommodated cultural practices of Romanised regions in the House of Islam. Cuffel's study encompasses a long dure, for despite early legal scholars' fulminations, the question of whether the communal bath was sexually promiscuous still preoccupied Ottoman writers and may explain early modern European men's obsessions with the hammam. Thus water was anything but stupid, as Connell calls it in his treatment of western baptism (466, 468), leaning heavily on Peter Cramer's 1993 Baptism and Change in the Early Middle Ages. On the contrary, Connell observes, water was much more than a neutral, inert, material thing and people could invest it with the most astonishing capacities and qualities, from spiritual rebirth to the discernment of judicial truth.

Shapeless and mutable, contradictorily life-giving and murderous, water was an especially malleable symbol, channeled in many directions by creative people. Urban's "Magical Fountains in Middle English Romance" does what medieval texts did, namely exploit water to make a non-aqueous point. Urban wishes to rehabilitate the romance genre in Middle English studies, and analyses supernatural fountains in three romances to achieve her goal. The fountains, it turns out, stand for an ordered, idealized but natural world, and for human control over a powerful element. Their skilled deployment in the romances proves the unsuspected excellence of this vernacular English genre. Urban's is the only study in The Nature and Function of Water to mention another study within the same covers, no doubt because Scott's discussion of "aqueous moments" in "four well-known medieval works" of literature is close in spirit, as well as sources, to Urban's own. Scott finds that in the end water is a feeble theme in medieval literature, making Beowulf's swamp, Yvain's fountain, Pearl's river, and the expected flood in Chaucer's Miller's Tale exceptional. In these compositions, nevertheless, water is a vehicle for fathoming deep truths. Such truths were visible much earlier to Bede, when he contemplated the hydrological cycle, whence all water derived. Bede got interested in tides when he studied computus and, according to Ferrand, he made several amendments to Isidore of Seville's version of the hydrological cycle on the basis of empirical observation of water's movement to and from the North Sea. Ferrand admits we do not know what the hydrology around Jarrow was like in the 700s, so it is hard to be sure whether Bede was minutely scrutinizing it. But whether or not Bede was a proto-Renaissance scientist (or holdover from ancient empiricism), Ferrand usefully shows how a postclassical writer conjugated his confidence in God's oversight of nature with his probing of nature's workings.

Medieval water was not just a wet substance, then, but was also a manifestation of something else. This is the point of Stephenson's chapter about "aquatic culture" in fourth century Iberian villas, too. Much of Stephenson's essay is about the marble statues in the dining room of the villa at El Ruedo near Córdoba, but the late antique taste for the display of water inside and outside of elite residences suggests an apparently intensified interest in communicating (refinement, power, maybe classicism) through water. The symbolic potential of water is elucidated by another contributor also in an utterly different context, high medieval England. Canterbury clergy, aware that Becket's blood was finite and that in Latin Christendom no blood should compete with that of Jesus, diluted with water the martyr's blood gathered from the cathedral's floor. The hybrid liquid was available to pilgrims in phials whose popularity in Britain is archaeologically attested. Jordan's careful study of these phenomena proves once more how much meaning water could convey to medieval Europeans. In England Becket was thought a protector of any who rode boats, and his efficacy was enhanced by his presence in ampullae filled with water from Canterbury. Hydraulic semiotics are thus an important theme in the medieval components to The Nature and Function of Water.

Written and archaeological evidence are similarly combined in Trio's analysis of how Ypres dealt with water supply difficulties so as to create and sustain economic and demographic vitality. Trio stays more stolidly away from water ideology and semiotics, but his is a signal contribution to medieval "water studies." Trio shows how population growth and industrialization, normally the enemies of water purity, inspired the construction of a complex, integrated, and reliable system of waste-water removal and fresh-water supply in this large Flemish settlement (with an extensive underground web of pipes leading from the moat-reservoirs outside the city). Trio relies on legal evidence, but can muster some recent excavations to provide a satisfying overview of a thirteenth and fourteenth century urban hydraulic system.

Collections of papers like this one seldom provide coherent cover-to-cover reading experiences. If there really are specialists in historical "water studies" somewhere, they too will read The Nature and Function of Water selectively, seeking information on some pet issue like boat design, wells, river cults, or fountain metaphors, or seeking data on a particular site and time. They would therefore have been grateful for a complete, thematic index, whereas the one provided in this expensive book is driven by place and personal names. Likewise if they sought an up-to-date bibliographical guide, "water studies" experts would have to flip through all 531 pages of the text, scouring the notes, for no bibliography is supplied. Ordinary medievalists for once are lucky: they can overlook two thirds of The Nature and Function of Water, which simplifies consultation. In what remains they will discover an admittedly variegated but rewarding body of work.

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Author Biography

Paolo Squatriti

University of Michigan