Policing the Urban Environment in Premodern Europe, edited by Carole Rawcliffe, Claire Weeda


Amsterdam University Press
Publication Date 10th June 2019
Pre order your copy

Policing the Urban Environment Book Cover

A new book on Policing the Urban Environment in Premodern Europe is about to be published; edited by one of our founding members Professor Carole Rawcliffe, Professor Emerita of Medieval History at the University of East Anglia, and Claire Weeda, Assistant Professor at the History Department of Leiden University.
Tapping into a combination of court documents, urban statutes, material artefacts, health guides and treatises, Policing the Urban Environment in Premodern Europe offers a unique perspective on how premodern public authorities tried to create a clean, healthy environment. Overturning many preconceptions about medieval dirt and squalor, it presents the most outstanding recent scholarship on how public health norms were enforced in the judicial, religious and socio-cultural sphere before the advent of modern medicine and the nation-state, crossing geographical and linguistic boundaries and engaging with factors such as spiritual purity, civic pride and good neighbourliness.

Chapter Topics

Chapter 1: Cleanliness, Civility, and the City in Medieval Ideals and Scripts by Claire Weeda

Latin and vernacular urban panegyrics, describing the ideal city and its residents, mushroomed in the twelfth century. Painting a utopian view of the city that mirrors the heavenly Jerusalem, they rhetorically conveyed ideals of urbanity for aspiring members of the body politic to emulate. This chapter explores the ways in which the cityscape constructed in these texts, and residents’ behaviour (as influenced by conduct manuals and regimes of health), appear embedded in a natural environment reflected through the lens of Galenic medicine. Evoking the benefits of cleanliness and beauty, these concepts of health and hygiene accorded closely with issues of social status. The disciplined quest for moderation and balance offered spiritual and physical health, as well as enhanced personal repute.

Chapter 2: The View from the Street: The Records of Hundred and Leet Courts as a Source for Sanitary Policing in Late Medieval English Towns by Carole Rawcliffe

Late medieval English Leet Court records are an underused resource for the study of public health. Yet, as this chapter reveals, they offer a remarkable, often unique, insight into ‘grassroots’ responses to insanitary nuisances and the enforcement at neighbourhood level of regulations concerning the urban environment. They functioned at the very bottom of the judicial hierarchy, serving as a useful vehicle for the implementation of bylaws and similar directives, as well as the dissemination of whatever basic information (such as the need to avoid contaminated air during epidemics) the ruling elite wanted ‘ordinary’ people to have. In turn, they gave local communities an opportunity to complain about hazards that required official action and to protest should the response prove inadequate.

Chapter 3: Urban Viarii and the Prosecution of Public Health Offenders in Late Medieval Italy by Guy Geltner

Roads officials (viarii) were integral to many Italian cities’ strategies for combatting disease and promoting health. Yet their significance for the history of environmental policing remains largely unrecognised. This chapter begins by mapping the contours of the office in the peninsula’s centre and north between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. It then explores the activities of viarii in that period and region through recourse to the records of Lucca and Bologna. An examination of the Bolognese archival series throws new light on the resources that urban regimes dedicated to communal wellbeing, as well as the strategies required to implement their policies. These records offer a ‘bottom-up’ perspective on environmental health and the tensions underlying the exercise of premodern bio-power.

Chapter 4: Food Offenders: Public Health and the Marketplace in the Late Medieval Low Countries by Janna Coomans

In the Low Countries, market squares were the site of numerous threats to public health and efforts to contain them, notably by the officials who inspected, guarded, and protected these spaces. This chapter explores the ways in which urban authorities and other corporate bodies attempted to police markets, and improve levels of sanitation, environmental health, and food safety. It utilizes archival material from several Netherlandish cities, including financial records and public decrees, bylaws, and the statutes of trade and craft guilds (which furnish important evidence about the ways in which medical theories informed attitudes to food standards). An analysis of registered fines and information about the punishment of offenders highlights the tensions that existed between customers, vendors, guilds, and magistrates.

Chapter 5: Policing the Environment of Late Medieval Dordrecht by Patrick Naaktgeboren

An important Dutch trading centre, Dordrecht experienced considerable population growth and many environmental challenges during the later Middle Ages. Surviving administrative, financial, and legal records help us to establish the effectiveness of bylaws, and the extent to which conflicts reached the courts. We can document official policies regarding urban space, sanitation, and nuisances, while also determining the responsibilities of residents in matters of public health. Magistrates often reissued regulations concerning the construction of buildings, the disposal of rubbish and offal, and the reduction of noise, while a variety of officials monitored compliance, imposing on-the-spot fines when necessary. Since Dordrecht’s wealth derived from trade, disturbances, dirt, and the diseases, fires, and floods that suggested divine displeasure could threaten its prosperity.

Chapter 6: Muddy Waters in Medieval Montpellier by Catherine Dubé and Genevieve Dumas

Medieval Montpellier occupied an aquatic setting, which gave rise to numerous sanitary and environmental problems. Summer storms caused heavy floods; drains became blocked, filling the streets with filth; and the ditches that encircled the city often overran with stagnant water. Magistrates had to ensure that there was an adequate supply of uncontaminated water for domestic and industrial use, while keeping the hydraulic infrastructure in working order. They had also to maintain the river that conveyed merchandise to the town centre, provide for the effective disposal of dirty water, and guard against pollution. Using Montpellier’s rich civic archive, this chapter examines the strategies and regulations developed by the authorities in order to minimise the health risks arising from these issues.

Chapter 7: Regulating Water Sources in the Towns and Cities of Late Medieval Normandy, by Elma Brenner

This chapter examines the ways in which water supplies were maintained, and their cleanliness regulated, in fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Normandy, focusing particularly upon the region’s chief city, Rouen, for which rich manuscript sources survive. Concerns about the quality and availability of water had strong religious associations, which reinforced the moral and medical imperative to prevent the contamination of sources. Wealthy citizens made the provision and protection of hydraulic infrastructure a focus of their Christian charity; but the use and conservation of rivers, streams, piped water systems, sewers, ponds, and ditches, also operated in the context of late medieval ideas about health and disease, especially regarding the threat posed by toxic air and the need to avoid polluted water.

Chapter 8: Policing the Environment in Premodern Imperial Cities and Towns: A Preliminary Approach by Annemarie Kinzelbach

Recent historiographical studies of the Holy Roman Empire reveal that policy focused on defining and redefining the relationship between governors and citizens, largely through negotiating practices. Historians have applied these discoveries in limited ways when discussing public health policies in German-speaking areas, ignoring questions of compliance, resistance, or enforcement. Some lacunae result from archival losses, but survivals enable us to fill many gaps. In this chapter, relevant premodern statutes are first identified. Secondly, textual analysis uncovers implicit associations (for example, parallels between dirt and prostitution), while highlighting explicit relationships between communal health and such general issues as religion, morality, and the common good. Modifications to the statutes are also noted. Thirdly, contemporary chronicles and diaries are examined for background information.

Chapter 9: Official Objectives of the Visitatio Leprosorum: Ambiguity, Ambivalence, and Variance by Luke Demaitre

Until the eighteenth century, authorities regularly responded to reports of leprosy by ordering a formal examination, resulting in a certified judgment on the health and future of the suspect. This chapter is part of an ongoing project involving the collation of 600 certificates, recorded between 1250 and 1807, and preserved in Western European archives, set in the wider context of urban regulations, institutional statutes, and royal or imperial edicts. Contrary to prevailing stereotypes, public responses to leprosy varied quantitatively, qualitatively, regionally, and chronologically. A wide range of dynamics beyond the issue of contagion, which monopolizes retrospective discussions of Hansen’s disease, is apparent. Public order was more often the paramount concern of examiners, while separation did not necessarily equate with exclusion.

Looks like a very useful volume – don’t forget to ask your library to order one

1 thought on “Policing the Urban Environment in Premodern Europe, edited by Carole Rawcliffe, Claire Weeda

  1. Pingback: Forthcoming: “Policing the Urban Environment in Premodern Europe” Edited by Claire Weeda & Carole Rawcliffe | Premodern Healthscaping

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