When the French Dominican Jean-Baptiste Labat was captured by the Spanish in the 1690s, and offered water to drink aboard ship, he informed the chaplain that ‘only invalids and chickens drink water in my country’ (Labat 1722). Perhaps this comes as no surprise. If people in past times drank plenty of wine and beer, historians generally assume, this was because the water was risky and potentially unhealthy, perhaps even fatal. But that is to project our own modern conception of water – for example, as a disease-carrying agent – into the pre-modern past. Labat’s aversion to water as a beverage, as expressed in this anecdote (and as the teller of the stories he always gets the best lines!), was due not so much to concerns about its poor quality as to biases inherited from classical culture. As a drink of the lower classes (and animals), water was often described in unflattering terms, especially when compared to what was considered the beverage par excellence – wine (Squatriti 1998). And indeed, in his account, wine is exactly what Labat goes on to request.
However, if we look at actual practices, water returns to the fore. Not only does Labat then proceed, very laboriously, to temper his wine with water, as was the usual way of drinking wine in much of pre-modern Europe; his very successful published mixtures of travelogue, memoir and natural history positively abound with references to water. Every place he visits, Labat describes the nature of the fresh-water supply, and the varied techniques used to harvest, store and access it. In Labat’s eyes a town without its own reliable supply, like Cadiz, is one that would not be able to survive a siege. He is impressed by the technology of water, in particular aqueducts, but even more by water as display. This is evident in his detailed and enthusiastic descriptions of the ornamental fountains present in many Italian towns and cities. And he gets so carried away by his instructions on how to construct a rainwater cistern, the fruit of his own experience overseeing the establishment of a Dominican monastery in the French Antilles, that he repeats them in at least two separate works (Labat 1728; Labat 1730).
Even limiting ourselves to his account of Spain and Italy (Labat 1730: in eight four-hundred-page volumes!), Labat’s knowledge and curiosity regarding water and its uses is amply evident. How the clean, clear and pure water of Tivoli’s waterfall, which he compares to Niagara Falls no less, becomes full of silt and mud when it rains, making it unhealthy, or how the bouillantes (boiling) waters of a spring on the outskirts of Viterbo remind him of the spring of that name in Guadeloupe (French Antilles). Siena’s ‘magnificent’ fountain in the main square (the Fonte Gaia) provides a ‘prodigious quantity of very good water’, whilst the numerous fountains of Rome are both delightful and necessary, since the water from the River Tiber ‘is good for nothing’. He notes the high number of itinerant water-sellers in Naples, despite the public fountains on every street, and how in Spain they are registered and taxed, like all other shopkeepers and pedlars. He praises the ‘light’ waters of Bologna and the ‘admirable’ waters of Naples, in tune with the eighteenth-century Hippocratic revival of the importance of ‘airs, waters and places’ in the pursuit of health. He describes various healing springs and the different diseases they are good for, whilst noting that local doctors were rarely much in favour, since ‘nothing disconcerts doctors more than natural remedies’. He remarks on the priest so afraid of water that he wouldn’t even wash his hands, or the doctor who quickly realised that the best remedy for disease was fresh water to drink, rest, a change of air and, most of all, plenty of patience.
We know from a wide range of other sources that communities went to great lengths to procure clean water, from elaborate public works, like aqueducts, conduits and fountains, to the construction of public and domestic rainwater cisterns, to the everyday presence of water-sellers in larger towns. If I gave drinking water rather short shrift in my recent study of food, diet and health (Gentilcore 2016), it at least means that I can now devote a research project entirely to the ‘water cultures’ of early modern Europe and the Mediterranean. It is already evident from work in progress that doctors went from being circumspect in their advice regarding drinking water, during the Renaissance, to great enthusiasts for table water as a ‘universal cure’, effective both in preventing and treating disease, during the eighteenth century.
Whatever his own personal drinking preferences might have been, the widely travelled Père Labat turns out to be a connoisseur of waters. Although his enthusiasm occasionally gets the better of him – the water-sellers of Naples were actually a necessity in a city perennially short of fresh water – Labat provides a generally reliable and entertaining introduction to the importance of water and its provision throughout the early modern world.
David Gentilcore is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Leicester. His research interests lie in the medical, dietary, social and cultural history of early- and late-modern Italy. He is the author of seven books and his most recent monograph is Food and Health in Early Modern Europe. Diet, Medicine and Society, 1450-1800 (Bloomsbury, 2015). Our blog readers interested in the history of food might also be interested in David’s books on the potato and the tomato in Italy.
Jean-Baptiste Labat, Nouveau voyage aux Isles de l’Amérique (Paris: Pierre-François Giffart, 1722), 6 vols. A heavily abridged translation by John Eaden was published as The memoirs of Père Labat, 1693-1705 (London: Frank Cass, 1970 [first ed. 1931])
Jean-Baptiste Labat, Nouvelle relation de l’Afrique occidentale (Paris: Guillaume Cavelier: 1728), 5 vols.
Jean-Baptiste Labat, Voyages du P. Labat de l’ordre des FF. Precheurs, en Espagne et en Italie (Paris: Jean-Baptiste Delespine, 1730), 8 vols.
Paolo Squatriti, Water and society in early medieval Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)
David Gentilcore, Food and health in early modern Europe (London: Bloomsbury, 2016)