Water Technology in the Middle Ages: Cities, Monasteries, and Waterworks after the Roman Empire, by Roberta L. Magnusson, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.


Before reading Water Technology in the Middle Ages I don’t think it ever occurred to me that life as a monk during this period of history might not have been such a bad deal.  It isn’t the appeal of a quiet corner of early patriarchy, or the hard beds, or the possibility of experiencing the development of abbey ale.  It turns out that religious orders were somewhat more likely to have a reasonably good supply of drinking water, reducing those constant trips to and from the local stream. At some locations settling tanks even provided some level of filtration.  Most of the source documents for this book appear to have been surviving records of agreements between towns and religious orders and the property owners whose land provided the water source or the right-of-way for transport from source to end user.  The description of construction the property owner was agreeing to was often quite detailed. The medieval clerks and construction managers also appear to have been sufficient hoarders to have kept records of materials and labor required for the work, adding information on local labor mobilization for some projects.


Any time I read a book like this I am glad that over history, Marie Kondo is an exception rather than the rule, otherwise the entire academic enterprise of history would be screwed.


Two related frustrations I had with the work are the relatively modest number of drawings or diagrams, and the absence of photos of the ruins.  I am not an historian and it is quite possible that there are no remaining physical remnants of any of the structures discussed in the book, but if there are, photos would have been a welcome addition.  By its nature, this is a book about European communities, particularly the UK, France, Germany and Italy.  The audience might be described by a Venn diagram showing the intersection of historians of the middle ages, water resource planners and plumbing system nerds.  Enjoy.


Warren Liebold, now retired, was Director of Conservation/Technical Services for the NYC Department of Environmental Protection from 1992-2019.  Among other tasks, he was the primary designer and manager of their toilet replacement program (1993-1997) and their AMI system (2008-2019). 

I wish I’d been a monk … Warren Liebold, Europe in the Middle Ages