Friday, August 30, 2013

The water highways of Gaul

Imagine a Frank riding about the countryside his people have just begun to rule. He sees a series of arches in the distance, stretching from a mountain towards a town. If he knows nothing of Roman life, he might wonder what sort of strange temple is made like a long bridge. If he is familiar with Roman ways (and many Franks were), however, he might know exactly what it is. To a modern visitor, it might look like a highway, and so it is in a way, a highway for water: an aqueduct.

The Gaul the Franks took over was, and would long remain, a very Roman place. One had to go into cities to see the amphitheaters and temples which can still be found in some places. But the aqueducts could be seen from far off and were numerous enough that a traveler had a good chance of seeing some even without ever entering a city.

I'd known of a few aqueducts - those at Nimes, Lyons. But it turns out that numerous major cities had them: Frejus, Marseille, Aix, Arles, Beziers, Narbonne, Vienne, Valence, Geneva, Toulouse, Cahors, Bordeaux, Perigueux, Poitiers, Limoges, Rodez, Clermont-Ferrand, Bourges, Angers, Vichy, Sens, Meaux, Paris, Rouen, Bayeux, Le Mans, Rennes, Metz, Reims, Boulogne-sur-Mer, Soissons, Besancon...

What is more, there were also aqueducts at far lesser-known places: Sauvebonne, Antibes, Fos-Sur-Mer, Maillane, Saint-Julien-de-Peyrolas, Balaruc-les-Bains, Rennes-les-Bains, Arles-sur-Tech, Vaison, Die, La Batie-Montsaleon, La Buissse, Uriage, Albens, Servoz, Jussy, Vieu, Briord, Lectoure, Saint-Paul-les-Dax, Saintes, Fouras, Fouqueure, Mont de Jouer, Evaux, Saint-Sulpice-le-Gueretois, MOntoncelle, Herbet, Le Mont-Dore, Saint-Paulien, Sainte-Solange, La Grange-saint-Jean, Saint-Just-sur-Auron, Drevant, Beaulieu, Thesee, Suevres, Luynes, Contre, Blere, Courcay, Chiesseaux, Brizay..... and many more.

With all these aqueducts - by one count, well over a hundred throughout Gaul - it would have been hard for anyone who did get around the region not to see at least a few.

Survival-wise, aqueducts had a few strikes against them. Since towns typically taxed their use, people were already doing what many do with the electric grid today: tapping in illegally. Then, as order began to disintegrate (well before the "barbarians" took over), some simply fell into disrepair (they required regular upkeep). They were also tempting targets for scavengers. Supposedly Lugdunum (now Lyon) had to leave its original site on the top of a hill after either thieves or barbarian invaders took all the (valuable) lead used for pipes - recalling the cases where whole banks of public lights have gone dark after thieves stole the copper wiring.

The theft of lead piping had other implications, these for historians. Valuable information has been gleaned from those in Rome itself:
Prof. Rodolfo Lanciani, of Rome, has made a special study of these Roman lead pipes, and by means of the inscriptions, in raised letters, ordinarily found upon them, and evidently produced by engraved rollers used in rolling the lead plates out of which the pipes were made, has made some curious discoveries. He has located by means of them the residences of 80 or 90 distinguished citizens. He also finds that there were female plumbers in ancient Rome as well as female householders; but whether a female plumber in ancient times was any more reliable than the male plumber of modern times, the records so far discovered do not say. 
The Cornell Civil Engineer, Volumes 1-4 "Frontinus, and his II. Books on the Water-Supply of the City of Rome 15-54
There is also the question of how necessary aqueducts - which often fed the Roman baths - were to a city's survival. A nineteenth century visitor to the original site of Lyons claimed that it contained "several springs of excellent water", making the damaged aqueducts potentially less essential than one might think.

Nor were all aqueducts built by the Romans. The one at Ansignan may have been built before their rule, by the Volks Tectosages. Nor were all above ground; some were underwater conduits.

Aqueducs also played an important role in sieges. Supposedly the bridge mill was invented when Rome was besieged in the sixth century and the Goths shut off the aqueducts - prompting the Byzantine commander within the city, Belisarius, to invent the bridge mill to use the water of the river to grind grain. Gregory de Tours tells how a Burgundian king, besieged in Vienne, unwisely expelled all the poor - including the man in charge of the aqueduct, who proceeded to tell his attacker how to enter the city through that conduit.

How long into the Middle Ages did these wonders of engineering last? Many no doubt decayed early on; for others we have no clear data. But by one account, some survived in Vienne until 883; that at Luynes was still being repaired in the same century. In the nineteenth century, efforts were made to restore that at Besancon; several others were still in sufficiently usable state for similar initiatives to be attempted.

It seems then that at least some of the aqueducts still would have functioned, and even for some time, under the Franks. Even those which had fallen into disuse would have remained prominent in the landscape, one more reminder of how Roman early medieval France was.


Adrien Blanchet, Recherches sur les aqueducs et cloaques de la Gaule romaine

Belgrand, Eugène, 1810-1878, Les eaux. Introduction. Les aqueducs romains (1875)

C. Germain de Montauzan, Les aqueducs antiques de Lyon : étude comparée d'archéologie romaine : thèse présentée à la Faculté des lettres de l'Université de Paris

Herschel, "Frontinus, and his II books", The Cornell Civil Engineer, Volumes 1-4 II:15

Burton, "Antiquities of Rome", Galignani's magazine and Paris monthly review, Volume 5, 1823, 247

Thomas Mermet, Histoire de la ville de Vienne: Dauphiné, Volume 2

Gregorius Turonensis, Saint Gregory (Bishop of Tours), Joseph Guadet, Nicolas-Rodolphe Taranne, Histoire ecclésiastique des Francs, Volume 1

Friday, August 23, 2013

The meat of the matter / The matter of meat

Researching early medieval food presents one huge obstacle: there are virtually no period sources on the subject (late medieval food has a number of cookbooks to its credit, not to mention scattered accounts, medical texts, etc).  So, aside from picking through histories, hagiographies, church canons, legal codes, etc. for the precious shards of information, one inevitably turns to archaeology, both in general and in its more specialized forms.

I've been doing this for a while, but it only recently occurred to me that the ways in which meat was butchered provide some very useful hints on how it was cooked. There's no lack of animal bones in archaeological finds, so this should be a promising avenue. And in fact it is; but unfortunately most accounts of such finds don't say much about the details of butchery, either because for much of the period this would have been very simplistic or because in many cases the scholars in question simply don't feel competent to comment on these in any depth.

The one big exception is for Gallo-Roman butchery. This may well be because the Romans (including the ones in Gaul we now call "Gallo-Romans") had professional butchers and so a scholar has more to, as it were, sink her or his teeth into in this area. It's also true that cities tend to offer more concentrated finds and cities played a bigger part in Gallo-Roman life than in Frankish life. At the same time, such information is not in the least uninteresting for the early medieval period, if only because the Gallo-Roman culture survived in the south for at least two centuries, but also because to the degree that any sophisticated techniques were known (as by the rare household butchers mentioned in later texts) these probably were based on those surviving from the professional Roman butchers.

Better yet, such studies sometimes highlight the difference between urban and rural butchery. The latter was probably not too different from what the Germans were doing before contact with the Romans and so gives at least tentative insight into what was going on in the more Frankish regions. In a nutshell, butchers in the cities tended to be professionals who served a large, varied clientele that ate meat as individuals or in small family groups and so the meat was cut up into smaller and more varied pieces, while in the country non-specialized personnel prepared larger cuts of meat - or just whole animals - for groups which often ate collectively and so could take care of dividing up the animal while eating, not before cooking. Also, the Romans largely used cleavers whereas the preferred instrument in the countryside (and among the Germans) was the knife; in practice, as Roman influence spread, use of these can be found in varying combinations.

Butchering is a complex craft and one probably has to be a trained butcher oneself to understand all the nuances of cuts laid out in one of these papers. But to simplify somewhat, a few things can be said about the more professional Roman butchering. Spines might be removed entirely (today they are often sliced in half), after evisceration and removal of the ribs (which sometimes were cut separately and sometimes left attached to a portion of the spine). Doing this left a lot of meat free for what today would be steaks; in French terms, filets, contre-filets, rumsteaks, etc. It is not clear however that anyone thought to cook or select these separately until the late medieval period (where one first reads of "slices"- lesches - of meat and then, in England, of actual "steykes").  Nothing of the sort is mentioned either in the two great Roman culinary sources (pseudo-Apicius and Anthimus) nor in literature - which certainly does not prove definitively that the concept did not exist, but reduces the likelihood. Since a lot of cuts (including the ribs) were often deboned, a fair amount of boneless meat seems to have been available to the urban consumer, but given the popularity of boiling what we consider filet mignon may have ended up in a stewpot rather than on a grill (even if the Romans also made ample use of those).

The body was often cut (even later) into front and hind 'quarters', which could in fact include collars, ribs, etc as well; in the countryside such quartering may have been the main butchering operation. There was also some difference between animals, if only because cattle, for instance, were too big to be treated in the same way as sheep or pigs. Most seems to be known in the documentation about pigs, the preferred food of the well-off, and just about everything on them was used - even the blood served for blood sausage. It is unclear if cattle viscera were kept or used but it seems clear that those of pigs were (for tripe, etc).

The brains and tongues of all the major animals were eaten, as shown by opening of skulls and complex cuts around the jaws. Anthimus mentions kidneys (disapprovingly) and probably other offal, whose removal would not leave such marks, was eaten as well.

In the cities, long bones were often cut up into smaller pieces, either by the butcher or the homemaker, to be used in stews and soups. Vertebrae are sometimes found cut up and probably were used in soup as well. It should be noted too that marrow was long popular and domestic bones are sometimes found shattered to retrieve it.

In general, the smaller cuts seem to have been intended for boiling of some sort, even if some animals were roasted on spits and ribs may have been grilled or even baked in the small ovens found in some Roman kitchens (which typically centered around a grill set on a larger workspace). Some smaller animals, however, (like sheep) may also have been sold whole to be roasted (as in today's mechouis).

Remains from the countryside tend to be far less segmented and in fact sometimes represent whole animals. Again, any division, or simple removal of the meat, could then have occurred after broiling or boiling.

Those are some of the highlights of what can be deduced from signs of butchery on surviving bones. For a closer look:

Leguilloux, Martine, "Note sur la découpe de boucherie en Provence romaine ", Revue archéologique de Narbonnaise, v24 1991

It's... alive?


So sometime back I started this blog as a place to put posts that didn't make it onto a mailing list. I soon left that list and so.... sleepy time here at the blog. Except that, I see people have been viewing it just the same. Which works out nicely, because now I have a whole other series of items to post.

For a while now I've been working on two books. One is on early medieval food in France; the other is on the history of French bread from the Gauls to the start of the twentieth century. Along the way, I'm finding all kinds of stuff that may or may not fit into the finished products. Not to mention that the "finished" part is still some ways off for both.

Where then would be a good place to share some of these finds in the meanwhile. Oh, I dunno, how about...a  BLOG?

Works for me. Maybe it'll work for you.