Energyscapes: a seventeenth-century city



The energy provided by wind and water was essential to all members of local communities in the past. Everyone had an interest and a shared responsibility to ensure that watermills and windmills were maintained. This image is an early prospect of the City of Exeter, published in 1617 in the sixth volume of Civitates orbis terrarum by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg. It depicts the network of watermills located beyond the city walls, in celebration perhaps of the technical control of nature achieved by altering the flow of the water through the landscape. In other words it represents an early ‘energyscape’ bringing power and sustenance to the early modern city. Images like this are important for inviting us to ponder today the long history of renewable energy sources in the landscape, and to consider how concerns about energy security faced communities in the past just as they do today.

The residents of Exeter were reliant upon the watermills for grinding their grain into flour and malt, and for carrying out industrial processes. Such was their necessity in sustaining everyday life, the occasions when the mills stopped turning became part of the collective memory of the city. In 1633 Robert Sherwood, an 86 year old Exeter merchant, recalled when the mills stopped grinding for four days, which was caused: ‘by a flood, which broke the banks and destroyed the weirs across the river’. He went on to say how this breach in the city’s mill banks had happened in the time of the last great sickness and ‘visitation’ of plague in Exeter. Documentary evidence also reveals how local people worked together to mend the weirs and mill banks to harness the power of the water once more. But it is not hard to imagine the spectre of flood, plague and hunger (as the residents of the city could not grind their grain to make bread) summoned a grave sense of apocalyptic foreboding within the community. The silencing of the mills, even for just a few days, caused serious disruption to everyday life, yet it was also a time of community solidarity and action in restoring power to the city.


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