Water Works: The Arts of Water Management, 1500–1800

Call for Papers

Institute of Humanities, Northumbria University, 22 June 2022

At a time of environmental crisis, studying histories of the manipulation of natural resources has never been more important. While our ancestors used different terms to talk of such matters, they engaged with (or stridently disengaged from) the same questions.

This symposium, which has been generously supported by the Institute of Humanities at Northumbria University, aims to draw together expertise from across disciplines to engage with managed and mechanical water systems in the period 1500–1800. Our focus for this multidisciplinary symposium is on how humans have sought to make water work for them—for not only practical but also artistic purposes.

While water’s centrality to life has long made it a rich source for metaphor and symbolism, Thomas Willard notes that the period between 1500 and 1800 ‘saw a breakthrough in the understanding of water: what it was and how it blended with other substances to form waters of great variety’ (‘Testing the Waters’ in Classen, ed., 2015). Engineered and managed water, however, has not garnered as much attention as other varieties of water. The growing focus on the ‘blue humanities’ has tended to prioritise certain ‘natural’ waters and their human and non-human inhabitants, especially saltwater environments (Brayton, Shakespeare’s Ocean, 2012; Mentz, Shipwreck Modernity, 2015). Yet recent studies (Mukherji, Impossible Engineering, 2009; Ash, The Draining of the Fens, 2017) have shown the potential for interdisciplinary study of managed or mechanical water systems (drainage and irrigation, sewer pipes and sophisticated hydraulics, wells and fountains). This symposium builds on this growing body of early modern scholarship to explore early modern responses to managed water.

We hope that this symposium will create new dialogues with water experts across disciplines, and would welcome proposals for exploratory papers on topics including but not limited to:

  •  Regulation, water law
  •  Flood mitigation
  •  Water power
  •  Recreation and tourism
  •  Health, bathing, sanitation
  •  Waterscaping (prints, plans, designs)
  •  Water systems, hydraulics
  •  Practical and ornamental works
  •  Wasted water
  •  Creative and instructive texts
  •  Gardens, fens, canals, cities
  •  Religion and ritual
  •  Heritage and digital resources

We envisage this symposium as the first step in developing a journal special issue, and plan to build towards this further by hosting a panel (or panels) leading out of the symposium at the ASLE-UKI conference (6–8 September 2022).

Proposals for 20 minute papers should be sent to Dr Rosamund Paice by Friday 31 March 2022, 5pm GMT.

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