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Were medieval cities really filthy?

Film and television would tell us that medieval English cities were fetid and filthy, and that’s without even providing us with the implicit aromas. But how much truth is there to the trope? Historian Claire Martin, specialises in the history of medieval England, reveals that it wasn’t nearly as bad as we might think

A woman slops here chamberpot from a window onto pedestrians in the street below in this woodcut
Published: December 8, 2021 at 12:38 pm
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It is a scene familiar from countless films. In the low light of the rising sun, a first-floor window is pushed open and a sleepy inhabitant hurls the contents of last night's chamber pot into the street, narrowing missing an unsuspecting individual walking below. But did the inhabitants of medieval towns and cities ever really consider it normal to walk through knee-deep filth while human excrement was thrown at their heads?

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Knowledge of bacteria may have been centuries away, but an empirical understanding that waste was foul and unpleasant to be around was more than enough to prompt far stricter standards of public sanitation than those often portrayed on screen. While it is true that waste water, whether personal or domestic, could be disposed of in the kennel or central drainage channel that ran down most city streets, from at least 1371 London had a law that residents walk downstairs rather than employing upstairs windows. Offenders, if caught, were subject to a 2s fine.

Overcrowding in the early 14th-century, followed by a traumatic fear of disease after the Black Death, both inspired further initiatives to keep cities clean. In York and London, householders were made legally responsible for cleaning the street outside their own front door; in Coventry, Saturday was the day when every man had to take bucket and broom to the pavement outside his home – or face a 12d. fine.

Yet on busy thoroughfares crowded with horses, such compulsory community spirit only went so far. Individuals could not be expected to tackle the onslaught alone, and so an array of publicly funded waste management schemes were put in place to help.

The first binmen

In 1372, London allocated money raised from fines on brewers to buy 12 carts and 24 horses which over the following years became the city's first organised refuse service. The happy residents of Norwich and York also enjoyed at least weekly collections, while in Coventry the carts came by on Saturdays, presumably to coordinate with the day of compulsory cleaning. Citizens were expected to keep all their rubbish inside until the carts were available, but by the early 16th-century Londoners were served by collections on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Day after day, however, towns and cities were filled with visitors not subject to local regulation and a host of horses, dogs, pigs and poultry who could not be induced to keep their waste inside until the carts arrived. This all left plenty of work for an army of scavengers and rakers, who together performed the often-thankless task of removing detritus and enforcing the rules. In Coventry, a tax of 1d per quarter paid for their services, while in London the rakers' already unpleasant job was made even worse by having to personally collect a neighbourhood levy to fund their own salary.

Even the personal hygiene of visitors and residents received due care and attention with the construction of large public conveniences. In 1367, the city of York built a latrine on a bridge over the river Ouse, known, with typical medieval directness, as 'the pyssing howes'. Meanwhile in London, part of the wealth of the famous Richard 'Dick' Whittington went towards a new 128-seat privy known as Dick Whittington's Longhouse on the banks of the Thames.

Frayed tempers and nosy neighbours

The effectiveness of all these measures is hard to judge. Legislation is always more prolific than evidence of prosecution, but it is clear that citizens cared deeply about the state of their cities. Tempers were easily frayed and the response to transgression could be immediate and violent.

In 1307, Thomas Scott was caught urinating in the street by two men who pointed out it would be more decent to use the public privies and the argument that ensued degenerated into a knife fight. Similarly, in 1322, when William, the son of a London goldsmith, relieved himself into a urinal and threw the contents onto the shoes of a passer-by, Philip de Asshendone, who intervened in the row, was killed by a head wound 'penetrating to the brain'.

Roger Styward, an eel pedlar from Hampton, met a similar fate in 1326. Caught dumping eel skins in front of two shops on London's Cordwainer Street, he was pursued by an irate shopkeeper and given such a beating in the nearby churchyard that he could only stagger a few short yards to Cheapside before dropping down dead.

From 1414, London attempted to utilise such community policing more constructively, offering a 2s 4d reward, plus 12d out of the 4s fine levied on the culprit, to anyone willing to inform on the dung-dumping habits of their neighbours. This take-home incentive, equivalent to more than £100 today, can only have encouraged a culture of accusation and snitching – but there were those who genuinely drove their neighbours to distraction and attempts at enforcement proved to be another flashpoint.

In 1343, Simon de Warfeld, who continued to throw his refuse into the street despite frequent warnings, was charged with calling his alderman by “opprobrious names”; 30 years later, another alderman, Simon de Worstede, received a similar earful from Beatrice Langbourne, who called him “a broken-down old yokel” when he arrested her for the same offence.

From east to west, Londoners found cause for complaint about their city. The streets around Aldgate and Tower Hill were frequently blocked with rubbish, as were various lanes near Dowgate, while the mountains of dung around the horse pool at Smithfield persistently upset local parishioners.

Did people really throw chamberpots from windows?

Unrepentant sinners such as the poulterer, William Emery, who littered the street with an exotic cocktail of goose, heron and horse dung, clearly got on everyone's nerves and he did little to redeem himself by casting out “horse piss that had stood under his horse a month or six weeks so that no man can pass”. The sense of outrage in these complaints, however, suggests that they were far from normal or acceptable.

Whether in York, Coventry or London, city folk had high expectations of what they would find when they stepped through their front door and walked the streets of their home. Just as today those standards were not always maintained but neither in 2021 or 1421 did they include dung-clogged pavements or aerial assault by chamber pot.

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Claire Martin is a historian specialising in the history of medieval England, whose PhD looked at the streets and transport infrastructure of medieval London. She is the author of the forthcoming book Heirs of Ambition, telling the story of the Boleyn family before they were famous

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