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Bassano (del Grappa), Italy
Bassano, Italy

by Robert Laures [1]
Presented to the Mid-America Conference on History, 17-19 September 1992, The University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas.

Until recently, a popular past time for historians, sociologists, pundits, and other politically-correct persons has been to bash the Middle Ages and those cursed to have lived in them. After all, from the Renaissance onward, the human condition had experienced a rebirth of spirit, intellect, and innovative genius unknown since Rome’s fall. Recent scholarship has demonstrated that medieval man was as innovative, curious, intellectually alive. He was driven to create an environment as clean and healthy as their technology, priorities, and civilization permitted.

That medieval Italians were environmentally conscious a took pains to protect their environment is underscored by the words of one of their greatest critics, Georgius Agricola (George Bauer), who rejects the validity of the argument:

of the detractors [of mining] that the fields are devastated by mining operations, for which reason formerly Italians were warned by law that no one should dig the earth for metals and so injure their very fertile fields, their vine yards, and their olive groves. Also they argue that the woods and groves are cut down, for there is a need for an endless amount of wood for timbers, machines, and the smelting of metals. And when the woods and groves are felled, then are exterminated the beasts and birds, very many of which furnish a pleasant and agreeable food for man. Further, when the ores are washed, the water which has been used poisons the brooks and streams, and either destroys the fish or drives them away. Therefore the inhabitants of these regions, on account of the devastation of their fields,woods, groves, brooks and rivers, find great difficulty in procuring the necessaries of life, and by reason of the destruction of the timber they are forced to greater expense in erecting buildings.

This statement is important for two reasons: first, medieval Italians clearly understood that economic activities and industrial production were interdependent and produced a significant impact upon the environment; and, second, the law was used to regulate those activities to protect the community’s environment, resource base, and quality of life.

The medieval conception of pollution was by the nature of the science and technology of the era far more subjective than equivalent modern descriptions. For example, current federal, state, and municipal legislation regulating odors emanating from tanneries and abattoirs enforce measurable tolerance levels far more severe than those that would be expected of a society lacking adequate refrigeration and containment technologies. Indeed, some of the medical lore of the era indicated that the confined air of the town was more healthful than the open air of the fields and forests.

Medieval Italian water and land pollution standards tend to reflect modern norms because the effects of pollutants were more perceptible to the regulators and had a more immediate impact upon the physical and financial well-being of the town’s citizens. Discoloration and bad taste in water were clearly understood concepts; polluted water made people sick and dirty water reduced the quality of products employing water in their manufacture. And, land rendered unusable or simply less useful because of industrial or agricultural pollutants frequently reflected negatively upon a town’s economic survival. As a result, local standards were established to maintain levels of water and land quality that were tolerable and measureable within the context of medieval science and technology. A philosophical rationale for regulating the environment was also available. The earth was conceived of as a “planned abode” and man as the modifier of his environment.

St. Bernard, in his description of the cloister at Clairvaux, clearly indicates that the land was given meaning through the imposition of human directed “order” and that the human changes rendered nature more useful and beautiful. In his De natura locoroum, Albert the Great argues that the stifling, dense air and the trees of the forest constitute an unhealthy environment for men, but that men can control the effect of the climate by cutting down these forests; and earlier, he advised his readers that the proper siting of dwellings, use of clothing, and the taking of medications in the proper places will maintain their health. Philo the Jew, writing during Christ’s lifetime, asserted man’s dominance over and responsibility for the environment with these words:
So the Creator made man all things, as a sort of driver and pilot, to drive and steer the things on earth, and charged him with the care of animals and plants.” Man’s mandate to control and direct the environment was amplified in the writings of successive Christian writers and was most explicitly expressed in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, who insisted that man is God’s partner in the full development of the earthly Eden and that his use of the “practical knowledge of the powers of nature” to complete the earth has divine approval.

Given the mandate to control the environment, one must ask — Did medieval Italians exercise this mandate? The answer is an unequivocal affirmative. How was this mandate routinely carried out? I submit that an examination of the Italian municipal codes will provide at least an informed insight into decisions regarding the manner and scope of the implementation of local environmental policies. Temporal and spatial limitations will restrict this consideration to several significant examples of environmental policies and their implementation.

Trade-related environmental legislation tended to reflect the diversity of interests among the power-brokers of the Commune. Although tradesmen and artisans serving on the policy-making bodies were initially few, their numbers and representation increased as their wealth and economic power developed. Already organized by occupation and common interests into gilds, tradesmen gravitated toward political organizations like the societas populi or the popolo. The popolo served as a pressure group designed “to counterbalance the social weight of the powerful and the lawless and …to achieve for the popolani a considerable constitutional role in the comune.” Legislation arising out of this political arena reflected the diversity of the town’s political and socio-economic experience and, because it was developed within the “give and take” of the political arena, it reflected needs imperative enough to require the cooperation of diverse, competing elements of the commune.

In more specific situations, law were enacted to control the economic behavior of various classes of tradesmen. For example, the butcher gilds were regulated to insure the maximum production of the foodstuffs required by the local population at the lowest possible prices and the least significant impact upon the communal environment. One approach employed by the local elites to limit pollution within the city was the restriction of the number of places where butcher shops might be located. For example, Ferrara’s statute-makers told their butchers that anyone, who pays taxes, “could freely build a butcher shop on whatever portion of the bank of the Po they wished from the headland of the bank of the Po all the way to the other headland in the city and anywhere on the bank.

Limiting the number of butcher shops had the practical effect of reducing the volume of the waste products dumped into the town’s environment. Butcher shops in each town slaughtered and sold thousands of animals annually; the inevitable result of this activity was thousands of pounds of blood, entrails, and other waste products. There was a conscious effort to require butchers and meat sellers to practice their trade in a manner that would not be injurious to the health of the city’s inhabitants and which would leave the city’s roads and waterways free of animal by-products.

There was an additional reason for locating the butcher shops in specific areas and quarters of the city. A common problem was the disposal of animal wastes. In Bologna, Bassano, and Verona, the butchers dumped the waste into the streets until the city fathers banned the practice; then, they dumped the waste products into vacant fields until that practice was also banned and the butchers were explicitly told to take the waste products out of the city. Ferrara, like many other cities, solved the problem by locating its butcher shops along waterways and by “decreeing that butchers should have one ditch or cesspool next to their butcher shops, into which the blood of animals should be thrown, and that this pit or cesspool should be enclosed so that pigs and other animals should not have their way and fall into that ditch.” The medical lore of the age and common sense told the statute-makers that the waste problem had to be contained and dealt with, but their technology did not provide adequate answers.

The primary solutions available to them were containment or disposal into a moving body of water downstream from local drinking water sources. The economic success of the leather-workers’ gilds was loosely tied to that of the butchers. The difficulty facing the medieval commune in regard to tanners was that the tanning process itself created serious pollution within the town’s walls. The tanning process was complex and required the use of toxic chemicals including such exotic solutions as slaked lime, a chicken, pigeon, and dog dung concoction, tannic acid, and a mildly acidic concoction derived from fermenting bran. Once cleaned, leather was prepared for production through one of several chemical based processes designed to preserve the leather from decay.

The actual tanning process was generally conducted in open pits (and later in vats). The process was slow, but thorough, requiring some fifteen months before completion. The process obviously produced a large amount of chemical wastes which found their way into the commune’s waterways and sewer systems. One of the primary concerns of the statute-makers was to prevent this sort of abuse.

The only real concern reflected in the legislation was the proper disposal of the waste products generated by that trade. The Ferrarese statute-makers, almost as an afterthought, appended a statute to the end of the Fourth Book of the Code of 1287. The statute simply states “that no leather worker or any other person can nor should in any way or at any time remove the flesh or hair (from any hide) or intestines next to the cesspool of the City of Ferrara nor next to the Po on the side of the city.”

Bassano was more explicit. Leather workers were warned that they could not
strip the flesh from hides, wash hides, or place any waste in the streets or in the waters from the Bridge of the Brenta downstream to the end of the structure near the water on the bank of the Campus Marcius.” The animal wastes “should be dragged onto the Campus Marcius and down into the ditch in the middle and nowhere else.” This law is far more specific than the law of 1259 which simply states that no one should “strip the flesh from the hides or place the hides in or next to the Brenta River.” Bassanese tanners were also warned to practice their trade within the city without creating nuisances by storing hides in or about butcher shops or by greasing the hides in the streets, porticos, or meadows of the town. Again, there is a definite effort to restrict the area in which the tanners could practice their trade and dispose of their waste products, but no attempt to restrict the practice of the trade itself.

Verona, also concerned about water quality, insisted its leather workers not work or soak leather or hides “in the River Fossatum.” The next statute in the code is a curious mixture of concerns. The law begins thus: “No one should throw or cause anything to be thrown into the River Adige, or into its streams, narrows, banks, or into any sewers during the day.” It goes onto specify other locations and to ban the disposal of clearly defined industrial and craft-related waste products in the waterways of the Commune. Then, the statute-makers relent and state, “but, during the night only, is it permitted to throw this material into running water only.” Tanners, their apprentices, and equipment were also banned from the streets near the Palace of the Commune. The intent and problem of the municipal officials is clear.

The products of the leather industry were necessary to the commune; the unfortunate by-product of this necessity was both chemical and organic pollution, not to speak of the smells attendant upon a tannery’s operation. Accordingly, the tanneries themselves appear to have been kept away from the political and commercial hubs of the town whenever possible and their waste products removed from the city at places and times which that would not cause problems with the town’s drinking water. A second major source of protein in the medieval diet was fish and other marine products. To render these products salable, they had to be cleaned, dried, or salted; these processes were also regulated by the communal governments.

Bassano, Ferrara, and Verona were all inland cities located on rivers which apparently had fish populations substantial enough to support a fish market and related industial operations. The Veronese concern regarding the supply of fish and its sale within the city was typical of riverine towns; the supply was limited and intended solely for the local markets. To maintain a constant supply of fish, legislation was enacted mandating that fish nets were to have meshes “two fingers” wide, multi-hooked lines were not to be used, and no one was permitted to fish throughout the month of February. And, these rules were to be enforced by communal guards.

Concern for the safety and health of the commune’s citizens is embodied in statutes enjoining fishermen from dirtying the marketplace and from polluting the riverbank with fish intestines and other waste. The Commune of Piran, located on the Adriatic coast, had slightly different concerns. Like the inland cities, Piran insisted that fish caught in its marshes and waters be sold in the communal markets. Piran, however, exercised a more comprehensive control over its fishermen and fisheries. Fishermen were required every April to report to the Communal Palace and to elect stewards from their number who would swear to faithfully represent their interests to the podesta. The fisheries themselve were staked each year from the first of May to the end of August by the podesta and stewards; the purpose of staking the fisheries was to control access to them during the fishing season or when the fisheries were sealed and to fine those who would break the law. With carefully defined exceptions, the fisheries were not to be fished with drag nets and access to them was to be controlled from September to March. All fish that were caught were to be preserved and presented to the stewards, presumably to be taxed and sold in the market place.

The Piranese statute-makers did not wish pollution to stain the town’s shores and waters and they acted to prevent the disposal of waste materials into communal waters and denied a licence for the construction of fish oil press where it could pollute the fisheries.

The clear intent of the fishery-related legislation was similar to that regulating butchers, namely, to ensure an adequate food supply in a manner that protected communal health, safety, and local water resources. Clothiers, flax-workers, and cloth-makers of almost every stripe come under the scrutiny of the commune as well. The retting process was the most serious concern of the statute-makers. Medieval cloth manufacturers developed many variations of the retting process to utilize different water supplies, and they used just about any supply of water available, including ditches, sewers, streams, fountains. When they used the commune’s drinking water or sewers, they came into conflict with the communal authorities.

During the cleaning process, soap, stale urine, lye-water, various alkaline detergents, Fullers’ earth and sulphur were commonly used and frequently found their way into the communal waterways.

Bassano and Verona enacted legislation enjoining the cloth gilds from washing wool, wool fell, or from soaking flax in the town’s waterways. The gilds were also warned against storing unprocessed flax, ashes, old wood, or other chemicals within the town. Ferrara simply forbade its citizens to prepare flax within its jurisdiction and allowed its citizens to keep only enough flax for the family’s use; sales of flax were specifically forbidden under penalties of fines and confiscation.

Once again, communal authorities recognized a causal relationship between the byproducts of cloth production and the pollution of the town’s water resources –and they acted to limit the impact of that pollution.

In sum, the communes did express some very definite environmental concerns through their legislation. The supply of food and water was a primary concern of the communes and they sought to protect that supply through legislation forbidding gilds to engage in practices that would pollute the communal environment with their waste products and industrial processes. Conservation practices were also exhibited through an enhanced communal control over food and land resources, attempts to control the equitable distribution of food and water resources, and attempts to prevent hoarding, or unfair and unequal trade practices.


Agricola, Georgius, De re metallica, Trans. from the first Latin edition of 1556 by Herbert C. Hoover and Lou H. Hoover, (New York: Dover Publications, 1950 [1912]), p. 8.

Bernard of Clairvaux, Life and Works of St. Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, Trans. by Samuel J. Eales, (2nd., ed.: New York: Benziger Bros, 1912), Vol. 2, pp. 461ff.

De natura locorum, Tr. II, Chap. 4, in Albert the Great (Albertus Magnus), Beati Alberti Magni, Ratisbonensis Episcopi, Ordinis Praedicatorum, opera quae hactenus haberi potuerunt….Studio et labore R.A.P.F. PetriJammy…, (Lugduni: Sumptibus Claudii Prost, Petri et Claudii Rigaud, Frat., Hieronymi de la Garde, Joan. Ant. Huguetan, Filii, 1651), Vol. 5, pp. 282-3.

Ibid., Tr. I, Chap. 13 in Vol. 5, p. 278.

Philo (Philo Judaeus), “On the Account of the World’s Creation Given by Moses,” in Philo, Vol. I. Trans. from the Greek by the Rev. G.H. Whitaker, Loeb Classical Library (London: Wm. Heinemann, 1929), pp. 84-85.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Trans. by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, (London: Burns & Oates, 1947), Pt. I, Quest. 102, Art. 3, Vol. I, p. 501.

Waley, Daniel, The Italian City Republics, World University Library (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, rpr. 1978, 1969), p. 183.

Verona, Statutes (1276) II: cccii; the same statute also informed Veronese citizens that no one could be forced to enter the Butchers’ gild, unless it was his wish, provided that those non-gild butchers produced good and legal meats and sold them legally. Bologna, Statutes, (1259) X: iii.

Bologna, Statutes, (1288) X: iii, xi; Verona, Statutes, (1276) IIII: lxxviii; Bassano, Statutes, (1259) II: lxx; IV: lviii.

Bologna, Statutes (1288) X: iii; Bassano, Statutes (1295) I: xx, this problem also persisted in Bassano and the law had to be reiterated in the revised code.

Ferrara, Statutes (1287) II: cclxxxxviiii.

The entire process is admirably described in Charles Singer, et. al., A History of Technology, Vol. II: The Mediterranean Civilization and the Middle Ages, c. 700 B.C. to c. A.D. 1500, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), pp. 152ff.

Ferrara, Statutes (1287) IV: lxxvii.

Bassano, Statutes (1295) II: xliii.

Bassano, Statutes (1295) III: xxiii.

Verona, Statutes (1276) IIII: clxxviii.

Verona, Statutes (1276) IIII: clxxviiii.

Ibid., passim.

Verona, Statutes (1276) IIII: ccxi.

Verona, Statutes (1276) IIII: lxxxvii, lxxxviii, lxxxx, & lxxxxii.

Verona, Statutes (1276) IIII: lxxxvi.

Verona, Statutes (1276) IIII: lxxxviii.

Ferrara Statutes (1287) IV: lxxvi.

Piran Statutes (1307) X: i.

Piran Statutes (1307) X: ii.

Piran Statutes (1307) X: iii.

Piran Statutes (1307) X: iiii, v.

Piran Statutes (1307) X: vi.

Piran Statutes (1307) X: vii.

Piran Statutes (1307) X: vii, viii.

Piran Statutes (1307) X: ix.

Piran Statutes (1307) X: x.

Retting is the process whereby seed capsules were removed and the fibers in the stalk were separated from the woody tissues through a fermentation process.”

[1] [The above paper] “has been made available in electronic form through the courtesy of the author. It may be copied, reproduced, and redistributed freely in its entirety provided full credit is given to the author. Distribution of portions of the text, or inclusion of all or parts in printed and published form should be performed only with the express consent of the author. The electronic distribution of this material does not preclude its later publication in other forms.” From: http://history.eserver.org/medieval-pollution.txt

If you like this paper, there is a related Book by the author:
Straws In The Wind: Medieval Urban Environmental Law–the Case Of Northern Italy” Paperback – June 14, 1996, by Ronald E Zupko (Author), Robert A Laures (Author) http://www.amazon.com/Straws-The-Wind-Environmental-Law/dp/0813329728