Middle Ages – 11th and 12th centuries CE

© Bob Denton, 2016
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The real technological advance of the period in water management terms was a growth in the use of watermills. At the end of the first millennium CE there were only one hundred watermills in Britain, all owned by local lords and bishops. But the 1086 Domesday Book lists 5,624 watermills, one tidal mill – though no windmills – primarily used for grinding wheat.

In 1098, in Burgundy, the Citeaux Abbey was founded and became the HQ for the Cistercian Order. The monks specialised in working the land and created many advances in agriculture, metallurgy and hydraulic engineering – and they were proficient wine-makers. Significantly, they spread ‘the gospel’ of waterwheel technologies.

Cistercian waterwheel in Aragon
Image source: en.wikipedia.org

Historian Alain Erlande-Brandenburg comments on the Order’s technological inventiveness: ‘They placed importance on metal, both the extraction of the ore and its subsequent processing. At the abbey of Fontenay the forge is not outside, as one might expect, but inside the monastic enclosure: metalworking was thus part of the activity of the monks and not of the lay brothers.’

In Limousin, France, the Obazin Abbey, founded in 1150 by Saint Étienne, followed the Roman example and built a 1.7km aqueduct known as the ‘canal of the monks’. Its course takes it through rock-hewn channels and over cantilevered arches, dropping at 5 metres per kilometre and ending in an artificial waterfall. Bernadetee Barriere (1996) describes it as bringing ‘water into the abbey, so that all normal needs of hygiene and cleanliness could be satisfied […] it passes through inaccessible places where the Saint broke through the rocks […] one of these rocks, not having yielded after long and expensive efforts, finally crumbled of its own accord after prayers…’

In the 12th c at Canterbury the cathedral and monastery had lead-piping plumbing serving baths and latrines, and they used settlement tanks to purify water. By the 13th c the Priory of the Canons Regular at Trim in Ireland were using glazed-clay closets in a set of four arrangement.

Yet, at this time, St Francis of Assisi still maintained that dirtiness was next to godliness, and considered bathing as a penance.

Incas – 1000

The Inca Empire extended across parts of today’s Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Columbia, Ecuador and Peru. The city-state of Cuzco was its capital or rather the centre of its Tawantinsuyu  (four parts together). Its modern-day fame is based on its agriculture and architecture, but it lasted for just over a century.

Inca sacred valley, Pisac
Image source: ancientwatertechnologies.com
Inca terracing, near Pisac
Image source: ancientwatertechnologies.com

The Incas, the name for the civilization’s leaders, built culverts at springs, irrigation channels and fountains. They developed techniques to harness rainwater, groundwater and natural springs for their purposes.

Their engineering techniques included polished dry-stone walls, bridges, roads and water systems. Its road system has been estimated as 23,000km (13,000m). Some claim many of the roads were built before the Incas, given their short reign.

Inca aqueduct
Image source: ancientwatertechnologies.com

Their agriculture was advanced with irrigated their crops, drainage systems and terracing to retain the water. They developed techniques of crop fertilisation and soil cultivation

Inca fountain
Image source: ancientwatertechnologies.com

The water supply to Machu Picchu travelled around half a mile (750m) to reach the city.

Machu Picchu
Image source: Wikimedia commons

Edmund Ironside, 1016

Edmund Ironside, aka Edmund II, was the son of King Æthelred the Unready. He became King of the English for six months in 1016, and King of Wessex for seven months of the same year. He gained his epithet for defending his realm from Cnut and the Danes while a warrior prince, though Cnut did succeed him to the throne.

He may have had ironsides but his buttocks were of softer tissue if Henry of Huntingdon’s account of his death is to be believed. He says he was stabbed in the backside many times when he was in a privy in Oxfordshire,

‘having occasion to retire to the house for receiving the calls of nature, the son of the ealdorman Eadric, by his father’s contrivance, concealed himself in the pit, and stabbed the king twice from beneath with a sharp dagger, and, leaving the weapon fixed in his bowels, made his escape.’ [Foster p.195]

Other accounts relocate his death, some by crossbow, some that he died as the result of battle wounds.

Edmund Ironside, squatting – Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Safety razors, 1045

By the year 1045, the Church enforced the practice of shaving facial hair to distinguish its members from their Islamic and Jewish counterparts. The blades were double-edged and required caution since they could cut deep and nick the throats of men, the legs and underarms of women.

1066 and later

Shaving may have played a role in William of Normandy’s defeat of Harold at Hastings. Harold’s spies approached William’s force and reported back. They saw many of the men were clean-shaven and had their hair trimmed short and to the Saxons eyes these appeared to be monks. Their estimate of fighting men was therefore wildly inaccurate.

Domesday Book
Image source: historyoflaw.co.uk

Having conquered, William set about inventorying his new territory, or rather assessing all the taxable property for his Domesday Book. This was completed in 1086 and identified six thousand water and animal-powered mills, spread across three thousand different locations.

Image source: pinterest.com

English soap-making

Soap making, in England, began in the 11th century in Bristol, Coventry and York. The people of Britain were the first to try oils such as palm, coconut, linseed and cottonseed in soaps. The results were more successful and softer than the previous beef tallow recipes.

Technically soap is the term for a salt of a fatty acid. But it is of course better known as a cleansing and lubricating product produced from such a substance. Domestically soap is used for bathing and washing. In industry it is used as a catalyst, emulsifier, lubricant, surfactant and thickener.

When soap is based on potassium or sodium it is considered a toilet soap, calcium and magnesium are used to create metallic soaps and Lithium is used for lubricants and thickeners.

Japanese ‘stirgil’

Chūgi sticks
Image source: hyperboreanhealth.com/throw-away-your-toilet-paper-for-good/

In Japan a chūgi was a special wooden stick used for cleaning the anus after defecation. Its name means “wooden skewer”, coming from the kanji for skewer and tree. These were apparently scraped from left to right across the ‘soiled area’.

They’re narrow thin sticks of wood, maybe 200 mm long, approximately 10 to 20 mm wide and a few millimetres thick. They look disturbingly like chopsticks – the mind boggles.

Chūgi seem to have been depicted in scroll paintings since the 12th century CE, but they must have been in use for some time prior to that point.

Nara period wooden scrapers aka chūgi
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Cahokia, 1100

Monk’s Mound
Image source: theguardian.com

Some 400 years before Columbus discovered America, there was a little-known city there, Cahokia, which had a similar population to that of contemporaneous London. Located in today’s southern Illinois, a few miles the other side of the Mississippi from St Louis, the city was created in this fertile floodplains by a Native American civilization.

This reached between the Atlantic and the Mississippi, it subsumed the Natchez, the Pensacola, the Choctaw and the Ofo. It was then the most complex urban area north of Mexico. It was named for the Cahokia tribe, a branch of the Illiniwek people; in the locale where early French settlers arrived in the 17th century.

Mississippian civilization, Cahokia at its centre
Image source: Wikipedia.org

A mass burial site has allowed investigators to establish that a third of its population was from outside Cahokia, No-one has established from where they came, though a somewhat similar civilization emerged in the south-west (today’s new Mexico), the Chaco Canyon society.

Chaco culture ceramic bowl, New Mexico
Image source: Wikipedia.org

There appears to be one burial area that is mostly of young women, leading to the conjecture of ritual human sacrifice. Another pit had mostly males that had been clubbed to death.

Cahokia site illustration
Image source: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

They farmed (beans, squash and maize), stored their harvests, hunted and traded, the women wove mats and fabrics, and made pottery. The city was urban-planned and is estimated as having 10,000-30,000 inhabitants at its peak in 1050-1100 CE. A wooden palisade, two miles in circumference, surrounded the city. Its residents lived outside the palisade in single-room homes, using wooden walls covered with mats, and a thatched roof. These were linked by paths and courtyards, a major east-west road through the site and there were several plazas.

Map of Cahokia area
Image source: American Antiquity, Vol. 74,
No. 3 (Jul., 2009), pp. 467-483

Biomarkers for ilex has been found in beaker vessels in Cahokia from 1050-1250, and this suggest a ritual Black Drink, a high-in-caffeine ilex drink may have been used here in quantities.

Cahokia is a US National Historic Landmark and has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1982, the city area, 72 surving mounds and the inevitable museum. There are some 250,000 annual visitors to the site, nearby St Louis Gateway Arch records four million!

One source suggests that there was some external threat to the civilization that necessitated the city being rebuilt four times between 1175 and 1275 – might that not have been due to flooding? The city was abandoned for no apparent reason by 1350, though some conjecture they had exhausted local resources. No oral history or folklore is extant, suggesting that something bad may have led to its demise and subsequent amnesia.

Hernando de Soto was the first European to arrive in the area in 1540. Cahokia was the first real city in north America, until the Northeast’s population exploded in the late 18th century.

This urban center of the Mississippi culture had organized leadership, commerce and a penchant for mound-building. Some 120 have been found within its area of control, with the Mississippians digging up, hauling and stacking millions of cubic feet over a few decades, with only woven baskets to transport the earth.

Monk’s Mound, the largest at 100 feet tall and spread across 14 acres, it dominates the site and was therefore conjectured as a base for the resident spiritual leader and a centre for spiritual meetings and ceremonies. In the 1800s Trappist monks tended its terraces, giving it its name.

Misssissipian tools
Image source: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

The civilization’s villages were located near to water and food sources along trading routes, but Cahokia itself was prone to flooding being at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Historians believe that its growth was not based on economic requirements and so conclude it as a place of pilgrimage.

Its mystery deepens because there is no mention I can find of irrigation and drainage schemes, of water engineering or how they dealt with toilets and sewage. Yet, they must had solutions for all of this.

Norwich well 12th C

While a new shopping centre was being built in Norwich in 2004, the builders discovered a 12th or 13th century well. Archaeologists found it contained seventeen skeletons, six adults and eleven children. There were no signs of disease or physical damage to their bones. DNA testing showed they were from the same family, further investigation revealed they were Jewish.  Of course persecution of the Jews was a regrettable Europe-wide phenomenon of those times.

Bones from the Norwich well
Image source: www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-13855238

12th century filth

Thomas à Becket
Image source: epicworldhistory.blogspot.com

In 1170 Thomas à Becket, who frustrated Henry VIII, was murdered in his cathedral. When monks came to lay him out they approved of the fact that he wore a hairshirt as a penance, and were delighted that his underclothes were ‘seething with lice’(source: Bill Bryson, At Home).

St Godric walked from England to the Holy Land, proudly never washing. It was the plague (bubonic and pneumonic) that appears to have started the trend towards washing among Christians, because it was believed that bathing opened the pores and made you more susceptible to disease, while dirt sealed the pores!

As a result, using perfumes became widely popular. Oils from flowers, mixed with herbs and spices created all sorts of pleasant smells that both males and females preferred. Royals, nobles and rich merchants often bathed with scented soaps, so that their skin would take on the fragrance as it may not be a few days or longer until they would bathe again.

In 1183 the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Germany, Frederick I, Barbarossa (aka Kaiser Rotbart – both meaning red beard). At the Great Hall of Erfurt Castle Frederick was followed towards his place of easement by so many courtiers and the floor collapsed. A number of the courtiers and knights were pitched twelve metres down into a cesspit. Some choked to death, but Frederick survived (source: steemit.com).

During the Third Crusade, in 1191, King Richard I captured Cyprus and built the Saranda Kolones castle, named for its many columns. It lasted thirty years before an earthquake destroyed it. But it still reveals this latrine which yielded useful remnants of poo in its pit for researchers given the very specific thirty years of deposits. They discovered the hygiene here was poor with evidence of roundworms and whipworms.

Saranda Kolones pit toilet
Image source: Anastasiou & Mitchell, International Journal of Paleopathology

Roundworm females lay 200,000 eggs per day whether a male is present or not and these can cause abdominal pain and blockages in adults, in children it can lead to anaemia and growth retardation. The whipworm is less prodigious producing 2,000 to 10,000 eggs per day but are more damaging to a child’s intestines producing diarrhoea and a prolapsed rectum. They are spread when the faeces are not disposed of effectively, through not washing hands and through not washing vegetables… Unsurprising then that 15 to 20 percent of nobles and accompanying clergy died from malnutrition and infectious disease during the crusades. Though before you feel smug about these ancestors, one in six of us have roundworm today!

© Bob Denton, 2016
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