BMCR 2021.05.13

The power of urban water: studies in premodern urbanism

, , , The power of urban water: studies in premodern urbanism. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2020. Pp. viii, 272. ISBN 9783110676648 $137.99.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The Power of Urban Water is the product of an international colloquium held in Kiel in October 2018. The first in a series of workshops exploring social, environmental, and cultural connectivities in historical societies, the meeting that produced this book focused on the role of water in ancient and medieval European cities. The editors have done a good job balancing a range of perspectives and specialties; some chapters discuss the difficulties of urban archaeology, others explore the symbolic importance of water in real and imagined urban landscapes, while still others assess the ecological impact of water infrastructure on cities’ hinterlands. There is also a nice balance between the ancient and medieval periods, with eight chapters devoted to ancient case studies and seven to medieval.

In an introductory chapter, the editors explain why it is necessary to study urban water systems from both technical and sociocultural perspectives. Simply put, water is powerful not only because it is the key natural resource that makes urbanism possible, but also because its control and staging have always been central to how city-dwellers perceive power. Water touches virtually every aspect of urban life, and so must be studied in a multitude of ways. Spotlighting its diverse uses in premodern cities can answer questions about practical activities such as cooking or bathing while raising others about how the presence or absence of water generated different forms of urban agency. Studying infrastructure such as fountains or harbors allows us to conjure the sights, sounds, and smells that shaped the local cultures of particularly well-watered communities. Examining pollution or strategies for coping with hazards like floods can offer lessons for contemporary cities facing anthropogenic climate change and its associated ills. It is difficult to disagree with the main point that the editors stress in this first chapter — that the different aspects of water’s power are mutually related and cannot be fully understood in isolation from each other.

To this end, the papers in The Power of Urban Water are grouped into six thematic categories: (1) the perception of water as an urban aesthetic; (2) urban agency and water’s ritual uses; (3) water as a mental category related to memory, identity, and symbolism; (4) infrastructure, politics, and economics; (5) environmental hazards; and (6) the process of urbanization. Some of the chapters fit squarely into their categories and are obviously connected to the theme, while others feel more loosely tethered. No doubt this is due to the hazy lines between some of the themes, which makes differentiating between them difficult at times. For instance, the process of urbanization (theme #6) must by definition consider matters of infrastructure, politics, and economics (theme #4), while ritual uses of water (theme #2) are almost always connected to memory, identity, and symbolism (theme #3). This blurring of categories is exacerbated by the fact that themed papers are only placed next to each other in the first half of the book; it’s not clear to me why this arrangement was abandoned in the second half, which focuses mostly on medieval and post-medieval case studies.

The first set of chapters focuses on water features in Roman cities, with special attention to their role in shaping urban aesthetics. Patric-Alexander Kreuz’s paper (ch. 2) surveys northern Italian cities from the late Republic to the early imperial period to show how a watery landscape initially seen as troublesome (too many wetlands, swamps, and lagoons) was tamed through the construction of canals, aqueducts, and fountains. The cityscapes of Milan, Aquileia, Verona, and Iulia Concordia were defined by canals, piers, embankments, and bridges in ways that foreshadowed later Venice. At sites like Brescia and Luni, the incorporation of fountains into conspicuous architecture like gates or the local Capitolium helped craft an urban aesthetic linking mastery over water to Roman authority and identity. Nicholas Lamare’s contribution (ch. 3) builds on this by analyzing the role of fountains as both ornamentation and political statement from the imperial period through late antiquity. In drier North African cities, elaborate fountain complexes (nymphaea) were breaks in the urban landscape that were meant to be used, seen, heard, and read. Nymphaea were places of gathering, commerce, and recreation whose porticoes provided shade for visitors amid the sound of splashing water. At the same time, they were monumental structures whose inscriptions and ornamentality functioned as a metaphor for the prosperity and permanence of Roman rule. The continued use and repair of imperial fountains into late antiquity shows that this metaphor had longevity, likely because it simultaneously appealed to all the senses.

The next three papers focus on ritual uses of water in ancient Greece. Nicola Chiarenza’s contribution (ch. 4) analyzes the urban sanctuary of the city of Selinous, linking archaeological data about the development of its water installations in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE to literary and iconographic sources about the ceremonial use of water in Greek public spaces. One thread that emerges is the absolute necessity of water access wherever ritual activity regularly took place. At Selinous and elsewhere, fountains and basins were built near sanctuary entrances and other gathering spaces because without access to water, rituals important for social cohesion such as sacrifice, cleansing, cooking, or watering wine could not occur. Chiarenza’s analysis of Selinous pairs well with Philipp Kobusch’s paper (ch. 5), which investigates the construction of sacred space and time through various lustral rituals at Aegean sanctuaries. Before the Roman period, there was little investment in elaborate buildings that staged water like the nymphaea discussed in chapter 3. Yet water was absolutely crucial to boundary-making at Greek sites; a ritual act like perirrhansis (in which a worshiper sprinkled themselves after dipping their hand into a basin of water upon entering a temenos, as someone might do today while entering a Catholic church) is a reminder that — then as now — space was constructed not just through the built environment but also via repeated performative acts. Moving ahead in time, Christiane Zimmermann’s study of baptismal practices in Corinth from the 1st through the 6th centuries CE (ch. 6) raises several intriguing points: that different baptismal traditions known from texts like the Epistles (such as the disputed Corinthian practice of baptizing the dead) may have been influenced by preexisting local traditions involving death, rebirth, and water; that the first generations of Corinthian Christians probably performed baptisms in the public baths; and that city’s late antique baptisteries echoed and deliberately incorporated older pieces of water infrastructure such as baths and nymphaea into their designs (perhaps because the local congregation had always used them for baptisms?). Though the religion changed, water’s power to both establish and overcome boundaries remained the same.

The following three chapters investigate water as a mental category by which space was understood and defined. Dylan Rogers’ excellent paper (ch. 7) shifts the focus to the center of Rome, presenting a range of archaeological and literary evidence to show how the city’s marshy origin was remembered through monuments associated with water in the Forum. Structures like the sanctuary of Venus Cloacina, the Lacus Curtius and Lacus Iuturnae, and the Rostrum invoked memories of water’s role in Rome’s foundation and rise, creating a “metaphysical topography” that collapsed past, present, and future for residents and visitors of the imperial city (106). Water thus became a symbol of Roman identity and power in the heart of the capital and, since Rome served as a model, across the empire. Adam Rogers disputes this last point about Rome serving as a template, however, in a paper arguing for the decentering of Roman urbanism (ch. 8). This chapter draws on postcolonial theory to push against top-down Romanocentric approaches to the control and presentation of water in the provinces. While an important and necessary approach, the paper may have been better served by spending less time on the theory and more on the evidence. Only about half is devoted to examples of local water techniques from British sites such as Verulamium (St. Albans), Lindum (Lincoln), and Londinium (curiously, the famous site of Aquae Sulis is not mentioned); more cases of uniquely British approaches would have been welcome. The final paper in this set — Margit Dahm-Kruse’s analysis of water’s symbolic function in two 13th century novels — is one of the volume’s best. Dahm-Kruse shows how medieval German poets crafted images of opulent waterworks in real and imagined Near Eastern cities to build metaphors about water’s cultural and spiritual meaning. For medieval Christian readers, the magnificent fountains and baths of Babylon could evoke a sense of wonder and longing, an Orientalist distrust of despotic luxury, or a confidence that the only truly nourishing waters were found in the Garden of Eden or the Heavenly Jerusalem. This chapter was fascinating, though held back somewhat by the decision to quote lengthy untranslated passages from the novels.

The next set of papers follow the theme of water’s relationship to urban development. Sophie Bouffier’s offering on new discoveries in the archaeology of Syracuse’s aqueducts (ch. 10) provides a helpful survey of the site’s history and the challenges of interpreting the surviving evidence. While conclusions are tentative, it seems likely that under the rule of dynasts like Gelon and Hieron II, Syracuse developed a network of aqueducts well before the Roman period. Questions about the planning, management, and maintenance of water infrastructure also inform Elisabeth Gruber’s paper (ch. 11), which investigates the socioeconomic function of water in the medieval towns of Krems and Stein on the Danube. Gruber uses administrative records to show how wide the effect of even one piece of infrastructure could be: a water mill in Krems, for example, was attached to an adjacent bathhouse as well as a fishing pond whose revenue was split between its owner and the tenant miller. Environmental, economic, and social relations also entwined at Danube bridges, which offered a mixed blessing because they facilitated the exchange of goods and information while also exposing communities to the spread of danger or disease (188-9).  Betty Arndt’s study of water supply and sanitation in medieval and post-medieval Göttingen (ch. 13, curiously out of sequence) completes this set. The multiple uses of water mills — grinding grain, pressing oil, fulling cloth, grinding lime, sawing wood, whetting stone and polishing metal — are again emphasized, as are the importance of wells and waterworks that lifted water into pipes for brewers (and thus lubricated social relations as well).

Two more paired papers deal with water as an environmental hazard. Christian Rohr’s contribution surveys ice jams on the Danube from the 8th through 19th centuries (ch. 12). Far more destructive than normal floods because of smashing floes and freezing temperatures, floods caused by ice jams menaced Danube cities for centuries. Their threat to bridges, buildings, and even city walls gave rise to cultures of risk management in many riverine communities in which citizens, local leaders, and emperors collaborated to mitigate or recover from natural disasters. Rainer Schreg applies a wider geographical lens to examine ways that channels, sewers, and other infrastructure had consequences not only for cities’ local hydrologies but also their distant rural hinterlands (ch. 15). Looking across Southern Germany, Schreg asserts that beginning in the High Middle Ages towns had an increasingly significant impact on distant hydrological landscapes. Demands for timber and firewood altered watersheds, sped up soil erosion, and disrupted animal habitats, while the grazing of shared herds in open field systems likely led to an increase in zoonotic diseases. These and other potential consequences are laid out in a helpful chart on the chapter’s penultimate page (260).

The final set of papers consider urbanization as a conceptual framework. Ulrich Müller’s stimulating chapter investigates the concept of “harborscapes” as multidimensional spaces where land meets water, local meets “global,” and familiar meets foreign (ch. 14). Using the cities of Haithabu, Schleswig, and Lübeck as case studies, he successfully draws on literary and archaeological evidence to show how each harbor district was physically, economically, socially, and culturally significant to its city. Spaces whose creation and maintenance required the partnership of many different stakeholders, harborscapes are at once districts and ideas that represent a paradigm of “connectivity in motion” (244). The final paper in this set is Gabriel Zeilinger’s discussion of town planning in the Rhine Valley in the 13th century (ch. 16). It’s possible that this relatively short chapter was placed at the end of the book because it revisits several points raised in earlier chapters. Here as elsewhere, “water was not only a matter of biological or economic livelihood, but also an eminently political aspect of urban development and town life” (269).

Organizational eccentricities aside, The Power of Urban Water is worth the time of anyone interested in premodern urban history, environmental history, water management, or the intersection of politics, economics, and culture. While some of the chapters are best suited to specialists in the local archaeologies under discussion, several would be useful as assigned readings at either the undergraduate or the graduate level.

Authors and titles

1. Annette Haug and Ulrich Müller, “Introduction: Urban Water”
2. Patric-Alexander Kreuz, “From Nature to Topography: Water in the Cities of Roman Northern Italy”
3. Nicholas Lamare, “Fountains and the Ancient City: Social Interactions, Practical Uses, and Pleasant Sights”
4. Nicola Chiarenza, “Water, Social Space and Architecture at Selinous: The Case of the Urban Sanctuary”
5. Philipp Kobusch, “Fountains and Basins in Greek Sanctuaries: On the Relationship Between Ritual Performance and Architecture”
6. Christiane Zimmermann, “Water in Early Christian Ritual: Baptism and Baptisteries in Corinth”
7. Dylan K. Rogers, “Aquatic Pasts & the Watery Present: Water and Memory in the Fora of Rome”
8. Adam Rogers, “Water and Decentering Urbanism in the Roman Period: Urban Materiality, Post-Humanism, and Identity”
9. Margit Dahm-Kruse, “Water and Urban Structures in the Narrative Worlds of Courtly Novels — Aesthetic and Symbolic Functions”
10. Sophie Bouffier, “Syracusan Water Networks in Antiquity”
11. Elisabeth Gruber, “Meeting Water Needs as a Major Challenge in an Urban Context: Examples from the Danube Region (1300-1600)”
12. Christian Rohr, “Ice Jams and their Impact on Urban Communities from a Long-term Perspective (Middle Ages to the 19th Century)”
13. Betty Arndt, “Medieval and Post-Medieval Urban Water Supply and Sanitation: Archaeological Evidence from Göttingen and North German Towns”
14. Ulrich Müller, “Harbourscapes: Three Examples from Early to High Medieval Northern Europe”
15. Rainer Schreg, “Human Impact on Hydrology: Direct and Indirect Consequences of Medieval Urbanisation in Southern Germany”
16. Gabriel Zeilinger, “Water as an Economic Resource and as an Environmental Challenge Within the Urbanisation Process of the Rhine Valley in the 13th Century”