This essay argues for the consideration of energy and an energy-based humanities model in the study of water in the Middle Ages. It also proposes that ‘energy’, when discussed in the context of the Middle Ages, is in fact a study of ‘energies’, derived from technology, material culture, and intellectual culture in equal measure. It proposes three genres of medieval water energy as a model for the multi-valent study of the energy politics underpinning medieval society: the philosophical, the hydro-social, and the intellectual. The essay surveys approaches to medieval water history to propose a new approach, and makes an argument for the reimagination of water as an entity of energy with dimensions flowing beyond the history of science and social history dimensions of water history. Medieval thought did not conceive of water as wholly material or wholly abstract, but as a part of a larger world-system spanning the material and spiritual.
Just as medieval people drew on a tiny percentage of gravity flow through hydraulics, so too did the water of medieval intellectual culture provide motive power through the infusion of divine power, setting the world-machine in process. A new approach to medieval water studies follows Imre Szeman’s description of energy as an underpinning force within society, shaping its discourses, dialogues, norms, and political ecologies. For the Middle Ages, this model must account for a differing intellectual culture encompassing religious, philosophical, and technical models of water.