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

The Second Enterprise and the Bastard Children of Rome (5)

Chandra Mukerji University of California, USA

Another collaboration was needed for the second enterprise – one that was never celebrated in the terms described above. The problem was the increasing participation of peasant women in the labour force, and the cultural impossibility of associating them with Rome (ACM, 13–14; Adgé, 1992; Memoire, n.d.).

The engineering became particularly difficult in the hills near the Mediterranean coast, and different classical principles had to be employed in the work. There were fewer structures to serve as monuments to the enterprise so the resulting canal did not look quite as Roman. Neither did many of the workers. Women labourers might have been praised and hired by educated gen- tlemen (ACM, 22–27; Letter, 1669), but this did not make them the cultural equivalent of Roman soldiers. No wonder their participation was not cele- brated in ceremonies or even noted significantly in histories of the canal. The practical problem was that workers needed to thread the canal through the mountains. Mathematicians could measure inclines, but not over long distances and in complex terrain. So, they could not plan the canal’s route, although they could verify the inclines of the waterway as it was being constructed. Peasant women from the mountains, on the other hand, had experience building water systems in rugged country, and could see how to thread the waterway around hills and valleys without formal measures. Peasant laborers and academic sur- veyors together had the knowledge to route the canal following contours, and control the inclines to keep water moving (Mukerji, forthcoming). But educated gentlemen and peasant women were not likely interlocutors, much less collab- orators. They were separated by differences of social rank, gender, and lan- guage. Mountain women were particularly suspect characters, often described as aggressive and wild (Froidour, 1892; Soulet, 2004: 73–4). Chillingly, women laborers who worked on the canal were listed in account books as ‘femelles,’ a term applied only to animals, not humans (ACM, 931, 1071, 1072; Gabolde, 1985b: 235–7).

There was also a language barrier. Educated gentlemen spoke French; local peasants spoke Occitan. But Riquet was an Occitan speaker, and he subcon- tracted much of the work to regional entrepreneurs who also spoke the local language. With these possibilities for mediation and their common understand- ing of engineering, mathematically trained elites and peasant laborers were able to cut the canal through the hills (Mukerji, forthcoming).

There were two reasons to keep the canal as high as possible. One was that the Canal du Midi needed to be kept off the valley floor where the Aude River routinely flooded and spread dangerous currents that could undermine the canal walls from the outside. Secondly, Riquet wanted to route the canal more directly to the sea, avoiding Narbonne, but to do this, he had to take it through the mountains and penetrate a hill at Malpas. He just wanted to keep the canal as high as possible, so it would reach the mountain near its narrow top, reducing the length of the tunnel. He knew Malpas had been pierced by the Visigoths for draining Montady, so Riquet was sure it was possible to build a tunnel there. But to keep the canal high, it had to follow the complex contours of a rugged landscape (Conseil D’Architecture, 1992: 136; Mukerji, forthcoming). Peasants from the Pyrenees were the ones who had the experience to do this type of work.

Women labourers also built the eight-step staircase lock at Fonseranes. This structure was a set of linked locks that descended in a step-wise progres- sion down a long hill. It was not the first of its kind. A similar staircase system had been used in the middle of the century near Paris on the Canal de Briare. But the change in elevation was significantly greater on the Canal du Midi, and so the locks had to be deeper, and the staircase steeper. Controlling all the forces on the walls so that they did not collapse was a severe problem in itself, but this was not the main difficulty. The trick was keeping the volume of water constant through all the locks, while keeping them both deep and wide enough for shipping. This was not easy because the hill was not a perfect incline plane, so the locks could not be exactly the same shape, but they had to be close to that to hold the same vessels.

Surprisingly, the staircase at Fonseranes was one of the few lock systems on the canal that was built effectively without redesign even though it was by far the most complicated to construct. Because of its efficacy and beauty, the Fonseranes staircase was celebrated as one of the great monuments along the canal. It was represented as a great formal accomplishment, but it was a tri- umph of tacit knowledge. The lock system had been sub-contracted to two brothers who were illiterate, and was built by a labour force mainly of women labourers, using indigenous knowledge. None of them had formal training for the job, but they accomplished the task quickly and created a sturdy structure that functioned well (ACM, 1098).

The engineering was not easy. The locks had to contain equal volumes of water, and were built on a hill that was not a perfect incline plane. They could not simply be made taller and shorter to fit the hillside, since that would change the volume of water the lock could hold. Too little water, and boats would get stuck on the bottom of the lock. Too much water, and it would overflow. By this point in the construction, formal elevation studies had been tried and failed with smaller sets of locks. So, the staircase was built without them. The lock staircase was built ‘intuitively,’ and then purified of its provenance. The women who built it and the brothers who oversaw the work on the lock system all dis- appeared from history (ACM, 1098; Adgé, 1992; Rolt, 1973: 96).


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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