This is from the broken blog archives of an old net-friend; I hope he doesn’t mind me reposting it here.
Bill White’s remark about the Cistercian monks draining a swamp, in his blog post Cistercian engineers and Thomas Aquinas sent me on a little hunt, and I found some interesting things. When you hear or read of the Cistercians, what usually comes to mind are austerity, silence, white cowls hiding faces, secluded places, strict observance, etc, (Bill’s phrase ‘monk-engineers’ brings to mind Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s story of a desert monastery two millennia hence, A Canticle for Leibowitz), but
[t]he Cistercians at the beginning renounced all sources of income arising from benefices, tithes, tolls and rents, and depended for their income wholly on the land . . . [and they] developed an organized system for selling their farm produce, cattle and horses, and notably contributed to the commercial progress of the countries of western Europe.
It was as agriculturists and horse and cattle breeders that . . . the Cistercians exercised their chief influence on the progress of civilization in the later Middle Ages: they were the great farmers of those days, and many of the improvements in the various farming operations were introduced and propagated by them, and it is from this point of view that the importance of their extension in northern Europe is to be estimated.
(Source: Cistercians at wikipedia.)
The Summa cartae caritatis (Charter of Charity) XXIII, ‘Quod redditus non habemus.’ lists ‘Ecclesias, altaria, sepulturas, decimas alieni laboris vel nutrimenti, villas, villanos, terrarum census, furnorum vel molendinorum redditus et caetera his similia monasticae puritati adversantia nostri et nominis et ordinis excludit institutio.’ Exordium Cistercii. Later, the Cistercians did possess every one of these items.
By the middle of the 12th century the Cistercians had reached the cutting edge of hydro-power and agricultural technology. A typical monastery straddled an artificial stream brought in through a canal. The stream ran through the monastery shops, living quarters, and refectories, providing power for milling, wood cutting, forging, and olive crushing. It also provided running water for cooking, washing, and bathing, and finally for sewage disposal. . . .
We’re too often told that this period of history was a Dark Age. The reason is that the people who wrote Medieval political history were remote from the world of making things. The scribes of the kings wrote about armies and slaughter. They didn’t devote much time to the engineers who were really changing the world.
The running water also came into the monks’ lavatorium, through lead taps in the wall, products of their mines and smelting works.
In England, the Cistercian landholdings initially were worked by lay-brothers. Late in the thirteenth century, the monks began leasing them out (A change in land-holding, as it relates to Kirkstall Abbey in Lincolnshire). Besides its sheep, the Abbey had fishponds: ‘several parallel ponds of different sizes linked by a single channel’ (Precincts and Function Of The Monasteries).
The Field Archaeology web site has a page on Marshes and Fens, discussing the reclaiming of swamps:
If the land was not drained properly this can badly affect plant growth. As badly drained land will remain cold, delaying the germination of crops and waterlogging of soil prevents the take-up of nutrients by plants and stunts their root development. Badly drained pastureland will also have an effect on the cattle and the monks also realised that bad drainage would lead eventually to foot rot in the sheep and this disease would also spread to the cattle.
Quite a bit of labor is implied by this paragraph:
The effect on the landscape was considerable with digging ditches and dykes, building, diverting rivers and constructing canals that could bring goods to the Abbey building itself and was cheaper than road transport. A good example of this is to be found at Meaux Abbey in East Yorkshire. Here the Abbey is situated on a low island in a marshy valley and the monks modified the watercourses and constructed a canal so supplies could be brought up to the Abbey from the River Hull. Lambwath stream was diverted and later canalised into a sixteen-foot wide channel known as Forthdike. . . . The mouth of the Hull was diverted and widened to improve its outfall to the Humber, the old course being reduced to a mere drain.
As you would expect of a supra-national (understanding the anachronism in that phrase) organization, such efforts were not restricted to England: at the Real Monasterio de Nuestra Señora de Rueda, (Royal Monastery of Our Lady of the Waterwheel), on the banks of the Ebro River, near Sástago in Zaragoza province, Aragon, in Spain:
From the early founding the monks conducted important hydrological works including a dam on the Ebro and creation of a massive waterwheel or “rueda”. The waterwheel diverted some of the river flow to a Gothic aqueduct for distribution to various parts of the monastery; moreover, many of the water channels and plumbing uses are readily visible today. This series of hydrological innovations was an early example of indoor plumbing and waste disposal as well as a bonafide central heating system. In the uninhabitated muslim frontier, the monks created: the salt’s mule track, saltworks equipments, a fluvial pier, fluvial mule barge transport, an oilmill, a flour mill, a stone irrigation ditch waterwheeled [sic] . . .
At paradoxplace’s Real Monasterio de Neustra Señora de Rueda page, we learn that ‘the water wheel also survived in working order until a few decades ago.’
Water wheels could be used for other purposes than grinding grain into flour. The rotating movement of the wheel, when converted to vertical motion, would drive hammers, useful in fulling wool, tanning hides and metalworking: ‘The Cistercians pioneered the use of water-mills in iron metallurgy, and Kirkstall [Abbey] may have built the first water-driven hammer forges.’ (Source: Kirkstall > Lands > Industry.)
In the late 12th century, the Cistercian monks were at the forefront of a minor “industrial revolution”, that saw the introduction of fulling mills to Britain. The introduction of water technology revolutionised the fulling process that had hitherto relied on human power to either ‘walk’ or beat the cloth. The Cistercians at Quarr Abbey seem to have set up an early fulling mill on their grange at Haseley [on the Isle of Wight, c. 1200].
I’ll end with one other area the Cistercians developed: mining. Fountains Abbey’s lands included lead mines and smelting works. The monks and lay-brothers used lead in the ‘manufacture of piping and brewing vats, and for use in roofing and window tracery’ and for the ventilation system, and iron mines and forges, iron being used for ‘tools, fittings and horseshoes, clippers to shear sheep and everyday objects such as buckles, keys, pots and pans’, and ‘plough shares, horseshoes, arrow tips, spades, nails, ship’s anchors’ (“The contribution of the Cistercian Order to the economic development of the north was little less than revolutionary.“)