Andrew Brown (Ph.D. English, Yale University, 2019) is JHI's Digital Humanities Network Postdoctoral Fellow. Andrew’s fellowship research project uses text mining and mapping tools in order to track how the inhabitants of the early modern Atlantic world developed a new conception of water as a crucial form of infrastructure. His presentation explored mapping water and waste in early modern London (c. 1500-1700). Andrew provided most of the content for this post.
People in early modern London were obsessed with filth: that is, with waste and sewage in all its forms, especially in relation to water. The question of how to manage the dangers of unruly or excessive water was taken up by poets, bureaucrats, and ordinary people alike. One especially pointed example is found in the 1653 poem “The Character of Holland” by the author and Member of Parliament Andrew Marvell:
To make a Bank was a great Plot of State;
Invent a Shov’l and be a Magistrate.
Hence some small Dyke-grave unperceiv’d invades
The Pow’r, and grows as ’twere a King of Spades.
But for less envy some Joynt States endures,
Who look like a Commission of the Sewers.
For these Half-anders, half wet, and half dry,
Nor bear strict service, nor pure Liberty.
Here, Marvell compares the leaders of England’s Dutch colonial rivals to London’s own “Commission of the Sewers”—implying that their petty efforts to keep back the rising sea with dikes and other engineering projects made them more like sanitation workers than rulers of a nation.
Andrew’s presentation used Marvell’s poem as a jumping-off point to consider the historical origins of “the sewer” as a concept, especially as part of a new idea of “urban infrastructure” that emerged in this period. And more broadly, it engaged with the arguments of Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement (2016) to ask whether early modern literature might be especially good at capturing the ways that people experienced the threat of floods, contamination, and other kinds of damage linked to water—issues that continue to concern us today.
The talk began with a brief history of London, demonstrating how the city’s explosive population growth (a fourfold expansion over the course of the 1500s) led to new concerns about the storing and disposing of human waste. As existing structures were carved up haphazardly into tenements, neighbors increasingly came into conflict with one another, especially over matters like shared toilets (known in the period as “privies” or “jakes”) and cesspits.
In spaces like these, it’s easy to imagine how the boundaries of your home—and the boundaries of your private space, or even of your own body—could be imagined as permeable ones, where water could flow freely across borders. Several maps of early modern London also demonstrated how the city tended to be visually depicted as a massive drainage basin into the Thames river, with points of water access like stairs, gates, and wharves acting as essential resources that allowed people to travel and transport goods around the city.
In order to explore how ordinary people experienced these new urban tensions, Andrew shared his work on an archive of documents known as the London Viewers’ Reports. The surviving reports, which cover the years 1508 to 1558, are based on the labour of four skilled tradesmen from the city, who were asked to “view” a property dispute between London households and to provide a judgment on how it should be resolved. They would report to the Lord Mayor of London and to the Aldermen, and a formulaic statement to this effect appears as a header on most of the documents. About 415 of these reports survive, most measuring about a paragraph long. While the reports from the later period, when Marvell or William Shakespeare were writing, have unfortunately been lost, we have evidence that the “Sworn Viewers” survived as an official body until at least the late-seventeenth century.
Andrew showcased how his research has benefited from the digital humanities methods of text analysis and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) mapping. With the open-source text analysis software Voyant Tools, he tracked where and how the surviving reports use language relating to water, sanitation, and sewers, and showed that these concerns appear in a large majority of these documents. These findings also demonstrated that issues of water and waste were often associated with intensely emotional experiences, whether of anger between neighbours or despair at damaged property. Finally, a map demonstration created with the software ArcGIS Pro illuminated which London parishes (or neighbourhoods) were home to the most reports and showed how other researchers might begin to identify patterns or “hotspots” for the growing concerns about sanitation in the period.
The Fellows discussed a number of topics after Andrew's presentation was finished, including the crossover of the bureaucratic language used by the Viewers referencing water into the literary language; the possibilities and constraints of translating historical sensory information into data points; and the relationship between sewage and epidemiology and challenges for modern engineers to come up with waste solutions for mega cities. We also talked about 16th century references to "sea sand" and a "desert" that existed in South East England, caused by coastline erosion and over-intensive farming near the coast. Rounding out the lunch was an anecdote about Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and the Cloaca Maxima in Rome (one of the world's earliest sewage systems) as well as a comment about how the language of sewers factored into the colonization efforts of imperial powers.