Cultural Genealogy: Method for a Historical Sociology of Culture or Cultural Sociology of History

Roman Hydraulics in the Pyrenees (6)

Chandra Mukerji University of California, USA

Building water systems was routine in the Pyrenees. Peasants even used stair- cases of temporary dams to carry timber down shallow rivers. They put logs in the reservoirs behind the dams, and waited for the rainy season. The swollen rivers would break the dams in sequence and carry the timber downstream to deeper water and lumber mills.

Roman practices were central to their repertoire of hydraulic techniques. Contour cutting had been used by the Romans for their aqueducts. The arches they used to carry water over valleys may have been identified with Roman aque- ducts, but the conduits themselves ran mainly underground. And although the Romans sometimes tunnelled directly through mountains just as they crossed straight across valleys with arches, more often they kept them close to surface level. The keeper of Rome’s water supply in the first century AD, Sextus Julius Frontinus (1913), noted that the conduits needed frequent repair, and this was easier if the work did not entail a lot of digging. On the other hand, local estate owners often pierced aqueducts where they ran above ground to use the water for irrigation. So where it was possible, aqueduct designers kept the conduits under- ground, following contours, and meandering through the countryside to do it.

This was familiar to people in the Pyrenees who lived near former Roman colonies that had had baths. These were fed with water from springs that were carried some distance into town. The baths themselves had been abandoned, but the captures and reservoirs at the sources had other uses. Peasants built new canals, following contours to take water to their houses and towns. They also diverted river water, a practice that the Romans abhorred, and controlled it with weirs, sluices, and settling ponds to clarify the water and take it where it was needed (Froidour, 1892: 57–8; Mukerji, forthcoming; Soulet, 2004: 83–8).

Complex water systems existed across most of the mountain chain, but were found in the greatest density near the former Roman colony of Bigorre. Louis de Froidour, Colbert’s most relied upon forest surveyor, fell ill near Bigorre doing his studies of the king’s woods. Staying in this town to recuper- ate, he noted how many ways they used water there: for domestic supplies, agri- cultural uses, town defenses, gardens, mills, and, public laundries. He said that the canals were maintained and perfected mostly during the summer months, when men took the flocks to highland meadows. This left the bulk of the labour (and expertise) to women and children. Significantly, the indigenous systems built with Roman methods were centered not on baths, but rather on domestic water systems and public laundries. These design features served women, and also evoked Pyrenean gender culture in a deep way (ACM, 21–2; ACM, 21–18; Froidour, 1892: 31–2; Soulet, 2004: 83–8).

Women were associated with water sources, and fairies with laundries. Men were said to fall in love with fairies they would encounter in the woods doing their wash. Some lucky men even secretly married these magical creatures; that was the assumed source of truly happy marriages (Gratacos, 2003: 143–84; Marliave, 1996: 21, 150–70; Sahlins, 1994: 40–60). A famous intermittent.water source was also said to be run by fairies under the mountain. When they were doing their laundry, they would turn the water on, and it would flow into the valley. When they were done, they would turn off the water, and the stream would go dry (Mukerji, forthcoming).

Springs were often marked as sacred sites associated with women. A Virgin shrine was built where two rivers from the Gazost source met. The seeps in this area contained hot, warm and cold water, and were associated with the female powers of the mountains (Marliave, 1996: 13). The Virgin shrine was built on foundations of stones arranged in circles and enclosed in a walled space like pre-Christian shrines in this area. For Pyrenean peasants who inhabited this world, hydraulics made sense as women’s work, since the miraculous powers of water were already assumed to be in female hands (Gratacos, 2003: 131–83; Marliave, 1996: 21, 150, 161, 170; Sahlins, 1994: 40–60).


Primary sources:

Papers from the Archives du Canal du Midi are marked as ACM with a file and document number. Some of the documents are titled; others are not. There are a few printed sources from the archives:

Le 14 octobre 1666, l’Arrêt d’adjudication des ouvrages à faire pour le canal de communication des Mers en Languedoc est promulgué. Ce même jour, le Roi ‘fait bail et délivrance à M. de Riquet des ouvrages contenues au Devis’ préal- ablement défini sous l’autorité du Chevalier de Clerville. Reprinted in ‘Edit du Roy pour la construction d’un canal du communication des deux mers, Océane & Méditerrannée. ACM 03–10.

Claude Bazin, ‘Bail et Adjudication des Ouvrages à Faire Pour la Continuation du Canal et du Port du Cette, 20 Août 1668’, 9, section x, Archives de Canal du Midi (ACM), folder 07, item12 (07–12).

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