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22.05.24 Coomans, Community, Urban Health and Environment in the Late Medieval Low Countries

22.05.24 Coomans, Community, Urban Health and Environment in the Late Medieval Low Countries

Janna Coomans’s new book explores the precociously urban environment in the Low Countries in the 14th-16th centuries through the framework of public health, especially in relation to what contemporary sources referred to as the “common good.” The common good forms a touchstone in her book, actively used by people at all levels of the political spectrum--from urban aldermen to neighborhood collectives. Coomans shows how the common good was shaped by Galenic medical concepts, which revered fresh air, clean water, and peaceful behavior and deplored stench, putrefaction, and violent or sinful action. In turn, the common good became an ethos by which to determine who and what belonged in a city and shaped efforts to prohibit and remove matter, animals, and people which did not belong.

Coomans frames her discussion of urban environment and sanitation as part of a tradition of correcting several assumptions that commonly appear in academic and popular texts. She shows that the plague, emerging in 1348, did not cause town and city governments to try to monitor and control sanitation. Further, the plague did not trigger innovations in sanitation control that led to a linear progression of improvement over the centuries. In a chapter devoted to plague, she explores methods of preventing epidemic disease and controlling the spread of epidemic. While not trying to pinpoint exactly when urban sanitation efforts began, she notes repeatedly that during periods of plague, governing groups turned to sanitation methods that had appeared in written sources as early as the late twelfth century and may have been in practice before they appeared in documents.

This leads to a second assumption she joins other scholars in refuting. Her sources reveal that sanitation initiatives were not primarily top-down, imposed by officials on neighborhoods or individuals. Coomans shows that top-down enforcement of sanitation rules might have increased during times of plague, but the efforts of aldermen, ward captains, and other officials were only part of a complex continuum of figures involved in keeping a city clean for the common good. And more importantly for Coomans, the impetus for sanitation efforts could come from the bottom up, like neighborhood collectives or criminal court litigants, who pushed city officials to act. Throughout the book, Coomans consciously engages with the theoretical concept of “biopolitics” to show that regulation and enforcement of sanitation measures did not require centralized government or a modern nation state.

Three main locations--Ghent, Leiden, and Deventer--form the core of Coomans’s study, though she includes evidence from other towns and cities to flesh out a picture of continuity and change over the whole of the Low Countries. Ghent’s population was similar to that of Paris during much of this time, and it was an important northern European trade city. Leiden and Deventer were smaller, but due to their rich records they prove useful comparisons to the much larger city of Ghent. Coomans uses civil and criminal court records, town ordinances, building regulations, and aldermen’s records among other written sources. To this diverse array of urban documents, she frequently adds archeological studies to better understand changing uses of space.

Coomans organizes the book around four main programs, directly evoking Richard Hoffman’s approach to human action in the environment. First, she explores urban infrastructure--such as streets, canals, gates, bridges, harbors, and markets--to understand how contemporaries determined appropriate use and responsibility for maintenance. Here she emphasizes balance and flow--the movement of people, goods, water, air, and waste products to create a dynamic balance in an urban space. When things could not flow, due to alleys blocked with waste material or unmaintained buildings, the city health or common good could suffer. One of the most serious ways cities could suffer was by fire. Coomans shows how fear of fire, and its obvious negative impact on the common good, empowered urban aldermen in many towns and cities to employ officials to inspect and remove property (even private property), fine inhabitants, and require inhabitants to keep tools, like buckets and ladders, to fight fires in their vicinity. On a larger scale, fire prevention caused city governments to make systematic changes to the urban environment by requiring many buildings and walls be made of stone and prohibiting new thatched roofs. Archaeological records show a physical shift in city infrastructure and records reveal subsidies for poor inhabitants to improve their physical structures as well as a shift to fines being collected in “stones for the walls.”

The second program appears in two separate chapters on clean water and healthy food. Coomans’s analysis shows that keeping water clean, especially in these cities and towns that had quite a lot of water, involved every figure on the spectrum of political actors. Neighborhoods, often organized and overseen by ward captains, maintained gutters and canals. Inhabitants were responsible for water infrastructure directly outside of or between houses. Coomans highlights that public and private spaces overlapped in regard to clean water. This overlap appeared most clearly in Ghent’s coninc der ribauden and his conincxkinderen--officials employed by aldermen to clean and guard public spaces, like markets and gates. They also inspected properties that could affect those public spaces, which gave them the ability to enter private property and fine inhabitants who threatened the common good. For Coomans, theconinc der ribauden embodied the concept of an adaptable city government that could face diverse dangers and problems with minimal urban centralization and bureaucracy.

Coomans uses market regulation to address the program of healthy food. Markets were key spaces in every town and city that Coomans studied. The four most important in most places were the cloth, meat, fish, and bread markets. City officials, members of guilds, inhabitants, and visitors all had a stake in who and what could enter the market. The market reflected not just the common good, but also the reputation of the whole city. The smell, appearance, weight, and provenance of foodstuffs were inspected by officials and could determine where, or if, they could be sold. For example, animals often had to be brought alive to the meat market, so that officials could see they were not sick or in heat, which made them ineligible for sale in the market. Records of fines show that many resisted market criteria imposed by officials, making markets into contested public spaces. In fact, Coomans shows that food that did not meet the criteria for the markets often had to be donated to hospitals, suggesting exceptionally high standards for the market and a rigid protection of the common good and reputation.

Thirdly, Coomans investigates the program of waste disposal. Although waste disposal appears in every chapter, she particularly uses records of litigation between neighbors, city building regulations, and archeology to reveal how people managed human, animal, and industrial wastes. Her findings reveal surprising detail. Using a data set built from selections from criminal case records over a span of more than a hundred years, she reveals how households and neighbors negotiated cesspits, covered sewers, stored or removed wastewater and trash, and managed animals. The top-down records show a diverse array of methods, with some city regulations responding to disputes.

Coomans’s fourth program highlights moral or spiritual efforts to maintain and improve the common good. This section returns to ideas of determining which materials, people, and animals belong in a town or city, where they can go in the city, and who decides. Inhabitants who could not work due to health problems, from blindness to leprosy, were moved to certain areas of the city. In contrast, vagrants, animals like dogs and pigs, and prostitutes could be pushed out of the city entirely. In this chapter, Coomans’s information about bathhouses brings her analysis back to water and its uses in an urban environment, adding a spiritual/moral component to “health” in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries.

Coomans’s study of spiritual/moral health is somewhat limited. She includes evidence from the history of medicine, but little from the history of pastoral care, which was also concerned with moral health. This gap, combined with her choice to exclude almost all religious institutions from her study, can create a blind spot for some readers. The reader gets glimpses of moral health concerns. In addition to the control of bathhouses, Coomans mentions the extensive prosecution of adulterers in Kampen in the fifteenth century. But Coomans provides no systematic sense of the changes that the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter Reformation may have sparked in urban sanitation. A stronger sense of political and religious context would have helped build a fuller picture, especially for readers not as familiar with the history of the Low Countries.

Overall, Coomans has an attention to detail and a grounding in theoretical analyses of urban environments. She supports her main arguments with evidence from many sources of urban government and with archeological evidence. She reveals medieval and early modern urban communities actively pursuing the common good through waste removal, healthy water and food, and moral behavior. Her evidence shows that these efforts did not originate in response to plague and did not require top-down enforcement from a centralized bureaucracy, refuting claims made in other academic and popular literature.