The importance of medieval water works

Water is one of the most important resources for any civilisation. Without it nothing can live, grow, or stay healthy. When looking at historical geopolitical maps we can draw a clear correlation between i) the presence of fresh water and ii) the chance of a community or people appearing near by. At moments when water is not widely available, or the original source of water can no longer sustain the growth in population, human ingenuity comes into play. That’s when we start to see the development of Aqueducts (to bring the water from far away sources) and wells (to bring it to the surface from underground springs or streams), as well as solutions to carry it into our houses, and out again once used. The medieval water works are certainly not the golden age of water infrastructure, but accomplishments in medieval water technology should not be dismissed.

A really short history of pre-medieval water works and infrastructure

  • 6350 BC Jezreel Valley, Jordan: The first known water well is dug.
  • 3000 BC Skara Brae, Scotland: The first signs of fresh and waste water systems indoors.
  • 2350 BC Indus Valley, Pakistan: Private and public baths, sewage systems, drains, reservoirs – a pretty sophisticated water management system.
  • 1800 BC Knossos, Greece: Water management, heated water system, storm sewage.
  • 600 BC Rome, Italy: The Cloaca Maxima, a large-scale urban sewage and waste water system.
  • 300 BC Alexandria, Egypt: Pressurised piping for fire fighting.
  • 5 BC – 400 AD, Roman Empire: Empire-wide water works covering the whole range of supply and disposal of water, using a variety of means including lead pipes and, of course, the mighty Roman Aqueducts.

“Since a city requires a large amount of water not only for drinking, but also for washing, for gardens, tanners and fullers, and drains, and — this is very important — in case of sudden outbreak of fire, the best should be reserved for drinking, and the remainder distributed according to need.”
On the Art of Building (1452), Leon Battista Alberti

Roman aqueducts and other remnants of infrastructure

With the gradual fall of the Roman empire (Western Roman Empire 400-500 AD) a large amount of the remaining Roman infrastructure fell into disuse and disrepair. However, as bigger settlements began to rise in both central Europe and the British Isles, this abandoned infrastructure was sometimes reused and repaired. A great example of this is the re-use of some of the biggest Roman aqueducts, which changed the strategic face value of a location and allowed settlements to exist in places where there was no other sufficient access to fresh water.

Medieval Water works | Roman aqueduct

There are also written records of Norman nobles re-using Roman baths as houses or palaces, or as part of their estate. Sadly, in many cases, the Roman infrastructure was seen as a great resource for building materials and old buildings were dismantled to create new ones. Many of the remaining infrastructure came back into use, and inspired the architects of the Renaissance, during the 1400s and 1500s.

Water mills and medieval industry

Diverting a river was quite a task, but in some cases it was of paramount importance. The awesome power of running water was something that medieval engineers learned to respect and fear, as well as leverage for their own uses. In a world before steam power, water was invaluable as a (more or less) continuous power which could turn the great wheels of various mills. Water-powered mills were used to process a variety of raw materials – most commonly grains into flour, but their use only began there. Mills were paramount to the development of many industries.

Type of Mill Earliest Date Location Description
Malt Mill 770 AD France Grain mill used for the milling of flour and, later, malt for distilleries
Fulling Mill 1080 AD France Removing oils from wool for the production of cloth
Tanning Mill 1130 AD France Also know as a Bark Mill; creating fine powder out of tree bark and vegetables to be used in the tanning process
Ironworks Mill 1200 AD England Used to power a variety of machinery from hydraulic hammers, to sharpeners and bellows
Hemp Mill 1200 AD France Rope making needed for ship-building. Allowed the creation of longer, more robust rope, which allowed the construction of much bigger ships fit for ocean sailing
Paper Mill 1250 AD Spain Manufacturing of paper from wood
Sawmill 1300 AD France Sawing of wood to lumber with great precision
Ore Crushing 1350 AD Germany Used to crush big chunks of rock into smaller pieces in preparation for smelting, thus increasing ore output significantly


French watermill diverting river. On the right a weir and a lock used to regulate water influx.

A French water mill diverting the river. On the right, a weir and a lock used to regulate water influx.


Fishing ponds

A side effect of river diversions was the creation of weirs and ponds. As the water flowed away from the mill it cascaded to create ponds. These ponds became, in many villages, an extra source of food since fish got trapped in them. As with the meadows and other grounds owned by the local Lord of the Manor, villagers had to acquire rights in order to fish in them.

Canals, locks and weirs

Canals appear very early in history for irrigation purposes (Mesopotamia 4000 BC) and saw extensive use during antiquity. Famously, the Ancient Suez Canal and lock was built by Greek engineers in 200 BC, in order to allow the transportation of goods in and out of the Red Sea. During the medieval era, canals were used initially as a means to irrigate the land – either to bring water in for crops, or to drain water from marshy or boggy land to create fertile, agricultural fields. During the 1100s, canals began to be used again as a form of inland transportation, in order to transport heavy loads that could not be moved by carts. In many cases during the initial stages of canal building, oxen or horses were used to draw along a kind of barge-train – this allowed the animals to transport far heavier loads than they were usually capable of. In later years, canals became of paramount importance in the transportation of goods in inland Europe and the British Isles, where navigable rivers were not present.


Dams were one of those relics of the Roman world which saw significant continued use during medieval times. Dams were constructed mainly in order to create reservoirs of water that could be used during the dry season. Secondarily, dams were used to protect areas prone to flooding from the overflow of rivers during rainy seasons. In medieval Holland, dams were used as walls that regulated the flow of water from rivers into the flatlands. In some rare cases, dams were used in order to raise the height of a flowing water source, to power a water mill. This practice gave rise to the modern hydroelectric dam.

Castle wells

A castle well was perhaps one of the most time consuming and difficult parts of castle construction, but also one of the most important ones. A castle able to withstand a siege would have needed access to fresh water for a very long period of time. However, castles were usually built at high altitudes on solid rock, in order to be defensible. This meant that castle wells were the deepest and the hardest to dig. Since there was a very real danger that the enemy could try to poison the well, they were always guarded, even during times of peace in some cases.

Interesting mentions

Wall latrines (garderobe)

Not exactly a “water work”, but during medieval times the question of how to get rid of the poop was solved by building latrines (stone seats with a hole in the middle) at the top of castle walls, allowing the excrement to fall into the surrounding moat. Even more interestingly (and disgustingly), in some cases these were used as entry points for invading armies or spies.

The great conduit of London

Like the Aqueducts of Rome, the Great conduit was a triumph of medieval engineering, It was the first known endeavour to bring fresh water from afar using lead piping. The system brought fresh water from the Tyburn springs (4km away) into two terminal points in the middle of London (Cheapside and the City).

Clean water ordinances and monetary fines

In medieval Europe, keeping drinking water clean was important. People understood the value of clean water very well and, in locations with industry, city rules were established very early on regarding where and how sewage or polluted water could enter the shared water way. Tanneries, dye-makers and other Medieval water polluting industries were always put downstream and the fines for any disobedience were extremely harsh. These kind of enormous monetary fines could reduce a wealthy freeman down to a serf in the blink of an eye.

Medieval water tools

Carrying polewater-should-yoke

Not all houses were close to a freshwater source. During medieval times, it was quite common for water to be carried from its source into the house using a carrying pole (shoulder yoke) with attached buckets. Young women and children would make this trip about once a day, in order to supply water for the rest of the family.

Water skin, bota bag and goat skins

When travelling, water skins were used in order to store water. These Medieval water skins were often made from a sheep or cow bladder that retained liquids, covered in leather. In some cases a bladder was not used, and leather was treated with some sort of resin in order to become water resistant. Water skins were valuable and costly-to-make items. Bota bags, the Mediterranean version, were often made from goat bladders and goat skin, rendered impermeable with resins.

Barrels, buckets and pots

Medieval water storage was as important as it was difficult. Liquids could be stored in significant quantities in barrels, which were made by a cooper, but were very expensive to buy. Wooden buckets (or noggins) were commonly used, but they were often not extremely water-tight, and this made storing water for long periods in them impossible. Bronze buckets had been used since Roman times, but they were not widely available. Usually though, glazed clay vessels were used; due to the fact that clay was comparatively inexpensive, it saw wide use throughout Europe during the medieval times as a means of storing liquids (in jugs and pots) for use in the house.

Chain pump

A chain pump was a device used for transporting water uphill, and was used for centuries in ancient China and Egypt, as well as in Europe during the early Renaissance in Europe’s dockyards and naval vessels. The pump consisted of a long loop of chain, mounted over two wheels at the top and bottom. As the looped chain was cranked around, either by hand or by animal-power, the upward-moving section of chain passed through a pipe and drew water up with it, which then flowed out at the top of the pump.

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Read next

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Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century (2011)

Hagen, Ann, A handbook of Anglo-Saxon food : processing and consumption (Pinner, 1992)

Kucher, Michael, ‘The Use of Water and its Regulation in Medieval Siena’, Journal of Urban History, Vol.31:4 (2005)

McNeill, John T. and Gamer, Helena M., Medieval handbooks of penance : a translation of the principal “libri poenitentiales” and selections from related documents(New York, 1965)

Squatriti, Paolo, Water and Society in Early Medieval Italy, AD 400-1000 (Cambridge, 1998)

Cornelis van Tilburg, Greek and Roman ideas about healthy drinking-water in theory and practice,

About Dimitris Romeo Havlidis

My name is Dimitris Romeo. I am a dyslexic one-eyed, web architect, developer and designer with a passion for photography, User Experience and telling stories.I spend my free time taking photos, watching tv series, cooking and watering my plants.I love lemon tarts, audiobooks, top hats, fantasy and science fiction in all its forms.

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