UPDATE: Ladies, Gentlemen and potato weevils, An Answer from the North is now free on Amazon
*Huns, Hoydens, Dragons, butterflies and Purple Unicorns, put your hands together for the erudite, the extraordinary, the one and only…. Alma Boykin!”
It Ain’t what We Don’t Know . . . – Alma Boykin
It’s what we know that ain’t so. Because everyone knows that. “We’ve always known that. We’ve never found [thing] mentioned in old books, and never found bits of [thing] laying around the ruins, so [thing] didn’t exist back then.” That is, in a nutshell, the history of a great deal of ancient and medieval technology, prior to the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. The trouble is, we’re only just now learning what we didn’t know, and discovering that even now, we still might not know it!
[Caution! Simplifications and generalizations ahead!]
For the past three weeks or so I’ve been reading about medieval and Roman technology and water supply systems, as part of the research for Fountains of Mercy and Circuits and Crises. If you need to understand how a pure gravity-flow water supply system works, how to build one, how to tunnel without modern tools and GPS, and what options you have as far as water sources, the Romans are the place to start. Yeah, the Persians and eventually the Chinese developed systems, especially for irrigation and transportation (Chinese). The water-sweep (shaduf), ground-water tap (quanat) and water-lift wheel (noria) appeared in Persia and Northern Africa as early as 800 BC(E), along with some pretty decent (as in 60 km long) aqueducts in Assyria under Sennacherib (great civil engineer, bad judgment in picking enemies). The Greeks also had aqueducts, notably in Asia Minor. But the Romans really got things organized and applied what other people had thought of, but on a grand scale.
Later people knew about the Roman water systems. It is rather hard to miss things like the Pont du Gard in France, or the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, the still-functioning aqueducts in Rome and other Italian cities, and the baths and bridges north of the Alps. Over the years a number of the systems stopped functioning because of lack of maintenance, wonton destruction, or due to earthquakes: the last functioning Roman bath in Germany only fell into disuse after an earthquake in 1356 disrupted the hot springs that fed the baths. Once the water stopped flowing, people reused bits, or changed the plumbing to match their current needs and repair abilities. But everyone knew that yes, the Romans had been great engineers. During the Renaissance and Romantic eras writers and artists sighed over the Glory That Was Rome and castigated the people who came after for not measuring up to the Roman standard.
But for all that, according to what I learned as a kid and in college, the Romans never advanced any farther because they had no machines, or very, very few, and those were just toys. Instead they relied on slave labor and animal power. Rome stalled out, grew decadent, and starved, or would have if the barbarians had not gotten there first. Or they wasted away from lead poisoning from those water pipes and couldn’t fight off the barbarians. Either way, Rome fell.
Also according to what I learned growing up, the Dark Ages were smelly, dirty, and superstitious because monks thought bathing was sinful. People used perfume to cover their BO because everyone knew that washing made you sick (and a sinner), and people ate half-rotten food (covered with spices) because they were primitives who didn’t know any better ways to preserve things. Then along came the water wheel, and water mill, and windmill, and the cam and trip-hammer, and gears and the screw and pulleys and clocks and SCIENCE! And G-d created Thomas Edison, Marconi, and Henry Ford, and it was Very Good and we moderns are so much more enlightened and wiser than those superstitious monks and imperialist Romans.*
Except those monks had running water and flush toilets. And the Romans had water wheels (three different kinds in four mountings) and water towers, and filtration systems, and knew that water should be boiled to make it safe. And they mass-produced bricks and red tableware (until the Gauls undercut them with cheap knock-offs that sold like gangbusters north of the Alps). And Roman iron technology and distribution systems made hay meadows and the invention of the iron-shod plow possible. Roman commercial bakeries used kneading machines to process grain from water-powered mills. Roman laundries used waterpower to pound and scrub the cloth. And they invented some pretty darn complex surveying and measuring tools, as we are just now (as in, the last fifteen years) discovering. Oh, and those monks with the toilets? Their drains, wash basins and baths sometimes ran into fishponds to use for growing fish for fast days, or for doing laundry, and the monasteries helped provide the municipal water systems for some towns. In Italy and France, a few water supply systems continued in use from Roman times straight through to the 21st century.
We moderns didn’t know that we didn’t know. When all you have are bits of literary sources that were saved (two works on architecture and water system management), Gibbon, and the remains of aqueducts, all you know is that Rome had aqueducts and the Medievals didn’t. Thus, since everyone knows that Rome was the pinnacle and the Dark Ages the nadir, and that Roman stuff was so good, obviously the Medievals actively rejected Rome. And the Moors brought their water systems to Iberia, because either the Romans didn’t, or the smelly Christians had torn up all the Roman stuff to use the lead in their churches. And so people forgot about Roman stuff, and had to reinvent everything, so that it was only by the late 1700s or even mid 1800s that civilization had returned to the Roman levels. Because that’s what we had from the text sources and from later European commentators.
Then archaeology happened, and a touch of anthropology, and people really digging deep into archives, looking at monastic papers. And more than just the monastic chronicles and saints’ lives, but other day-to-day stuff that had been skipped over. Things like bills for plumbing work, and plaints about frozen pipes, and Brother James accidently dropped his scapular in the privy and clogged the outflow. And law suits over pipe and aqueduct right-of-way. At the same time, archaeologists began digging into things that had been skipped before, or that had been mis-interpreted, or simply unavailable for various reasons and found that, wow, Romans had gristmills. Lots of them, all over the place, using side-mounted wheels, as well as the more familiar overshot and undershot wheels. And more underground aqueducts than previously thought, and better agricultural practices than people had guessed. Roman livestock was larger and healthier than medieval stock, for example, or so the bones and sales records suggest. Romans raised deer in commercial deer farms to sell as venison. And they ran out of fuel in the Mediterranean because they’d pretty much deforested the basin, leading to a shift in where pottery and metal work were done.
All of a sudden we’re discovering that what we knew wasn’t true. Which raises all sorts of interesting questions about why Romans did or didn’t do certain things, how they could have slavery and mechanized manufacturing side-by-side, and why didn’t more places have running water? Turns out that some of those Moorish water systems in Iberia were Roman. And that Medieval people boiled their water, or brewed with it, because they knew that drinking from cisterns or from downstream of town tended to make your tummy very unhappy. Just like the Romans did. No one saved Roman engineering manuals, so we don’t have them, but given the standardization of certain practices from Iberia and Britain to Galicia in Asia Minor, the odds are pretty good that they had “Aqueducts and Plumbing for Dummies” or “Building Mills the Roman Way.”
In the 1950s we didn’t know because we couldn’t know. Archaeological technology had not reached the stage where we could identify the remains of the wooden workings of mills or of wooden pipelines. The monastic archives had not been opened, and people had not sifted through all the minutia to find the tiny bits of daily life that reveal big things about medieval water and sewage systems. Now, we can know, and it knocks over some long-held and cherished ideas about the past and the people who lived them. We’d say that the Romans wasted water because their systems ran 24/7. They’d say, “Of course we’re running constantly. How else can we keep pressures under control and the mains flushed and open? Blowing the pipes apart is what’s wasteful.”
What else might we know that ain’t so?
*Setting aside the eeeevil environmental damage started by the Romans and then capped off by modern environmental sinners. In which case the Romans were the snakes in the garden, offering Eve a flush toilet and a hot bath.