Water, Public Hygiene and Fire Control in Medieval Towns: Facing Collective Goods Problems while Ensuring the Quality of Life

Water, Public Hygiene and Fire Control in Medieval Towns: Facing Collective Goods Problems while Ensuring the Quality of Life

By Ulf Christian Ewert

Historical Social Research, Vol. 32 (2007)

Abstract: Clean water, neat streets and fire prevention determined the quality of life also in medieval towns. While ensuring an environment worth living citizens were faced with collective goods problems. As a result of the environmentally harmful urban way of life common-pool resources like waters and streets were over-exploited, polluted and degraded. This urban tragedy of the commons was even more complicated, as public hygiene and fire prevention, both necessary to cope with pollution and fire hazard, were public goods and their realisation caused a public goods dilemma. Due to coordination efforts – municipal administration, transfer of property rights, enhancement of voluntary cooperations and regulations – common-pool resources like water and infrastructure could be provided, but municipal authorities barely succeeded in enforcing polluters to internalise the social costs of their behaviour and managing the supply of public preventive goods. Differently from the suggestion made in the concept of Environmental Kuznets Curve emergence of environmental externalities and treatment of communal risks were not only related to economic development, but also to population growth.

Introduction: The provision of citizens with clean water, streets and lanes that are kept neat and the protection of the community from fire hazard were vital components of the quality of life that could be enjoyed in medieval towns. Fresh water was of course used as drinking water, but was also needed for brewing and slaughter. It has been in particular a factor of production necessary to crafts such as the dyeing or the tannery and was exploited for grain-grinding by water milling. Enforcement and maintenance of public hygiene were of importance, because the spread of plague and other infectious diseases which put at risk the population as a whole was obviously promoted by the urban dwellers’ practice of using streets and waters for the disposal of excrements, animal carcasses and all other sorts of waste. Finally, as a fire presumably was the highest risk for the physical basis of urban settlements, and damages due to town fires were extremely costly to repair, the omnipresent hazard coming from the use of open fire. had to be handled in order to guarantee urban dwellers a minimum quality of life at least.

Why common waters in towns managed quite intensively were rather early in medieval history, but public hygiene and fire prevention even in the later Middle Ages were often not ensured sufficiently? How did communities cope with the polluting and endangering behaviour of inhabitants? Who was in charge of it, and what made people become aware of the communal risks they produced by a way of life that in every aspect was environmentally harmful? Discussing these questions, concepts dealing with economic characteristics of goods, with social dilemmata and environmental economics will be used. Yet, before stepping into analysis, two points have to be mentioned briefly, the historical development of urban communities during the Middle Ages and the role goods, in a wider theoretical meaning of the word, played for civic life.

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