CHSTM, University of Manchester: Lunchtime Seminar: Culverting Divine Power: Drainage Systems, Water, and the Monastic Imagination, c.1350-1550, 6th December, 1pm

Culverting Divine Power: Drainage Systems, Water, and the Monastic Imagination, c.1350-1550 ‘, Alex Hibberts (Durham University)

Why doesn’t the sea flood the earth? What holds back the waves from drowning the land? To us, these questions may seem trivial and irrelevant, but they were matters of great concern to the late medieval mind. Following patristic exegesis, embodied in authoritative texts such as Augustine of Hippo’s The Literal Meaning of Genesis (415), medieval contemporaries possessed a variety of theories explaining water-land differentiation, including a stasis established by God at Creation and subsequently upheld by natural law.  

Within this framework of thought, I will examine the intersection between theory and practice at three houses of English Augustinian canons. These institutions constructed complex drainage systems for a variety of purposes, including marshland reclamation, to construct ponds for fish breeding, and protect against marine transgression. Removing bodies of water was not only pragmatic but was arguably akin to an act of creation, transforming wetlands into ‘useful’ and productive landscapes. However, unlike the Creator, these monastic communities did not possess the divine power to keep water permanently at bay. Instead, culverts, channels, and rills required constant repair and modification to keep wetlands dry. This medieval monastic experience can challenge our binary definitions of water and land, encouraging appreciation of liminal wetlands as buffer zones to counteract rising sea levels, rather than relying on expensive and rigid flood defences. 

Registration: This Seminar will be held virtually on Zoom. Please email – for the Zoom link

Details of seminar programme can be found here.


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