How Dirty and Stinky Were Medieval Cities?

August 23, 2020

People in the Middle Ages were aware that a putrid urban environment was unhealthy, and according to Norwegian researchers they confronted the problem.

Lively communities for trade emerged in the Middle Ages and populations grew dense. This created opportunities as well as problems.

One of those worries was sanitation, specifically the treatment of human and animal waste.

A historian and professor at the University of Stavanger, Dolly Jørgensen, has researched waste disposal in Scandinavian and Northern European Medieval cities. She points out that in a medieval city with a population of 10,000, people typically produced 900,000 litres of excrement and nearly three million litres of urine annually. This was before such cities had underground sewage systems.

Added to that were the copious amounts of dung from livestock kept in the cities, from pigs, horses, cows and poultry.

An episode of the 2011 BBC TV documentary Filthy Cities describes the streets of London in the 1300s.

They were ankle-deep in a putrid mix of wet mud, rotten fish, garbage, entrails, and animal dung. People dumped their own buckets of faeces and urine into the street or simply sloshed it out the window.

Is this a true depiction of medieval cities?

Frequent epidemics

The medieval period in Norway began in the late Viking Age, lasting from around the year 1050 until the 1500s. This is when the first Norwegian cities that exist today were founded.

At the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Axel Christophersen leads a research project on health and hygiene in Trondheim in the Middle Ages. He is a professor in historical archaeology.

Our medieval ancestors were plagued with diphtheria, measles, tuberculosis, leprosy, typhus, anthrax, smallpox, salmonella and other maladies.

They could also be poisoned by the ergot fungus Claviceps purpurea, which grew on cereals such as rye and triggered hallucinations – or made you «downright crazy», according to Christophersen.

The worst of such diseases was of course the Black Death, which began ravaging Norway in 1349, and struck again in later outbreaks up until the 1600s.

In their research project, Christophersen and colleagues investigate how citizens in medieval cities related to dreadful diseases.

«It was thought that they had no knowledge of how to deal with them. But research, partly in England, shows this to be wrong,» says Christophersen.

«The goal is to study how health evolves from being a private affair, as it was, to becoming a public responsibility,» says the researcher.

Dolly Jørgensen is among those who have discovered that medieval townspeople took steps in this direction. Hygiene was an important aspect of society.

took steps in this direction. Hygiene was an important aspect of society.

Butchery by-products

Dung or excrement was not the only filth that piled up in medieval cities. The waste products of various trades were equally pervasive.

Tanneries and textile production were messy businesses.

Worst were the slaughterhouses.

Intestines and heads had to be thrown somewhere. The intestines were cleaned of dung. Blood and water with fur or hair had to rinsed away. Complaints about butchers are found in older written sources from England.

Dolly Jørgensen has rereferred to them in her articles.

To name one: In 1371 the city council in York forbid butchers from discarding waste products in the river near a monastery.

So, the butchers started throwing intestinal and bloody waste near their walls and gates and at another spot in the River Ouse.

The friars complained again that the people of the city and country who used to attend their church «are withdrawing themselves because of the stench and the horrible sights.» The monks also feared that «sickness and manifold other harm» would result from this pollution.

The King decreed against the throwing of waste in the vicinity of the monks. Butchers solved that by dumping animal remnants in a graveyard. Bones were scattered around and attracted hungry dogs and birds.

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