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21.05.11 Rawcliffe/Weeda (eds.), Policing the Urban Environment in Premodern Europe

The Medieval Review

21.05.11 Rawcliffe/Weeda (eds.), Policing the Urban Environment in Premodern Europe


This excellent collection of essays addresses the enforcement of urban public health measures and sanitary regulations in premodern Europe. The authors challenge the popular stereotype of medieval urban squalor, and the assumption that scientific medicine, public health services, and policing were phenomena that only emerged with the rise of capitalism and the modern state. In scope, the chapters cover much of Latin Christendom--Italy, France, the Low Countries, England, and the Holy Roman Empire--and focus primarily on the period from the twelfth through sixteenth centuries. This breadth of coverage serves to illuminate the many commonalities in sanitary measures, while individual case studies showcase local or regional particularities. The essays themselves are in English, but the bibliographies provide a valuable guide to primary sources and urban environmental scholarship across a variety of languages.

Claire Weeda's opening chapter addresses how the concept of cleanliness permeated Italian, English, and French urban encomia. In these panegyrics, hygiene and health were linked to virtuous civility, honor, and urbanity, and were fundamental attributes of the ideal city. The following seven chapters present national or regional case studies. Carole Rawcliffe reveals how in England local hundred and leet courts provided a venue for top-down sanitary directives and bottom-up nuisance presentments against noxious neighbors. She also addresses the gap between precept and practice when it came to collecting the fines that municipal bylaws stipulated for environmental transgressions. Guy Geltner examines how infrastructure improvements contributed to the healthscaping of Italian cities. Specialist civic officials were charged with overseeing and policing public works, among them the road officials known as viarii. Using surviving viarii registers from Lucca and Bologna, Geltner demonstrates how these officers prosecuted sanitation offenders, and were key players in safeguarding the public health of their communities.

Janna Coomans' chapter on Food Offenders looks at the civic measures and guild regulations for urban markets in the Low Countries that were implemented to ensure food safety. Her analysis sheds light on the conflicts between food vendors and urban authorities, and notes the local custom of transforming standard monetary fines into "donations" of stone or bricks for the city walls. Other particularities (or peculiarities!) include the case of men who had to atone for selling illicitly butchered beef by presenting a two-pound wax cow to each of Leiden's parish churches. Complementing Coomans' focus on Leiden and Ghent's food market strictures, the chapter by Patrick Naaktgeboren expands the volume's coverage of the Low Countries by addressing Dordrecht's multifaceted environmental policies, ranging from building construction to refuse disposal to public morality (since disease could be the result of divine displeasure).

Medieval attempts to safeguard urban water supplies are mentioned in many of the essays, and form the main focus of two chapters. Catherine Dubé and Geneviève Dumas examine how Montpellier's civic authorities were aware of the threat that water pollution posed to public health, and how they sought to protect the purity of wells and fountains against the hazards of urban flooding, sewage, and waste disposal. Elma Brenner investigates how cities such as Rouen in Normandy regulated natural watercourses, ponds, and marshes, and invested in artificial hydraulic structures such as wells, piped water-systems, and sewers. In the final regional chapter, Annemarie Kinzelbach looks at how the authorities and citizens in southern German-speaking areas of the Holy Roman Empire negotiated urban environmental policies, balancing the sometimes-competing needs of public health and economic interests. The volume concludes with Luke Demaitre's statistical examination of visitatio leprosorum, documents recording the official examinations of individuals to determine if they were lepers. His database covers France, Germany, and the Netherlands from the thirteenth to early nineteenth century. This longitudinal approach reveals how the emphasis in the records shifted from fear of contagion to concern for alleviating the poverty of those afflicted. While its methodology and chronological scope are something of a departure from the other essays in the volume, Demaitre's study expands the concept of environmental policing beyond the regulation of hazardous human activities to the regulation of human bodies.

Taken together, the essays sound a number of common themes. Although anxiety about urban sanitation seems to have intensified in the late middle ages, the origins of many public health measures preceded the advent of the Black Death. Their provisions show the widespread influence of Galenic medical theories. Civic bylaws may have been imposed from above, but their environmental strictures were influenced by input from below. The most common penalties for offenders were judicial fines, but more theatrical punishments (e.g. the pillory) could also be imposed. Rather than relying solely on judicial measures to protect their urban environments, many premodern towns sponsored health-related infrastructures, such as paved streets or piped water systems. Civic administrations expanded to include tiers of secondary officials charged with protecting public health by inspecting, maintaining, cleaning, and protecting public works and public spaces. In its broader sense, "policing" the urban environment in premodern Europe was not simply an exercise in municipal authority, but a collaboration between civic officials and citizens of all social classes.