Hygiene in British Medieval Towns 1100-1500

Submitted by :Henk 't Jong

 

Hygiene in British Medieval Towns 1100-1500

 

In the time of the Domesday enquiry (ca 1086) London had less than 18.000 inhabitants, Winchester ca 6.000, Norwich 4.400, York 4.100, Lincoln 3.500, Thetford 2.700, Bristol, 2.300, Gloucester 2.100. All others had less than 2000 inhabitants [1]. Or no more than a very small village. London had less inhabitants than the village I was born and grew up in (20.000) and Winchester, then, what could have been called, Britain's royal capital, was smaller than another village I lived in for awhile (7000). This is not very big and in principle everybody in a town of ca 10000 has at least seen everybody else several times during a year. It is figured that London grew to ca 40.000 in 1340 and by 1377, after three plague periods, had still around that same amount of inhabitants [2]. York by then had become Britain's second city; ca 15.000, Bristol ca 13.000, Norwich 10.000, the rest all much less. In other words: the English cities were not really big places before 1500. Even London, including the suburbs (the inhabitants of which were included in the 40.000 figure) like Westminster, Lambeth, Southwark, Smithfield, Shoreditch and the quarters around the several gates without, was no more than a present day small provincial town in size.

 

That isn't to say that cities of this size couldn't be unsanitary. Edward III, in October 1332 ordered the citizens of York to clean their streets, and once clean, to keep them so [3]. It does not say what filth was lying about, but I suppose it was mostly manure, as there's not much else that's coming out of medieval households that is able to be thrown out on the streets. His fastidious grandson Richard II was the king responsible for the first 'urban sanitary act' in 1388. Before this the cities and towns were responsible for their own hygiene, now there was a centrally legislated act to force them into line.

 

Archeologists have been digging in city centers all over Britain for over 40 years now and, as could be expected, cesspits are rich providers of finds. This means that people had cesspits and something above it to retire to and do the business in. Even Romano British cities had these already, as did Saxon homesteads and Norman castles, villages and cities. No human being anywhere likes to be around his own visible waste deposits and has always buried them out of sight in sometimes very deep pits. Archeological evidence shows that even in 13th c city houses sophisticated drainage systems were present and the larger houses were provided with their own, sometimes indoor, stone lined cesspits, together with the garderobes above them. In 14th c towns and cities it was perfectly common to have garderobes and privies with 3 m deep pits under them either indoors or in the yard at the back. On the continent large houses had their own cess-cellars by the late 13th c, examples of which had reached Britain at least by ca 1400, as lots of stone burgher's houses in 15th c. cities show.

 

Even poor houses, those at least with a yard, had cesspits built against the fence dividing them from their neighbors, as complaints, starting in the 12th c, about leaking cesspits prove [4]. Their presence and continual rebuilding (from wicker- and wood- to stone lined) near boundaries is even used today as proof that sometimes these boundaries in cities date back to the 10th or even the 9th c . In London, according to a survey of 1607-14 nearly every house had a privy, even on first or second floors, and that's after the city had grown to ca 80.000 inhabitants within, plus ca 20.000 without the walls, by the late 16th century (more than 200 %). In all other urban areas of Britain (apart from London and Exeter) the populations had shrunk to shadows of their former selves, with sometimes 50 % and a decline in the area that was built upon as well [5].

 

Conditions in some parts of these cities were however not too good. Especially in the period after 1400 and in the poorer quarters hygiene left something to be desired. Because of unsupervised building and the filling in of open ground and yards there sometimes occurred lack of space to have a good cesspit. Also the fact of too many people living in too small an area plus the non too regular 'night cartage of filth' [6] had stench, overflowing of pits and general unhealthiness as a consequence. This was not a regular occurrence, though, and only in the larger cities could such poorer quarters be found.

 

Several sources speak of city regulations which tried to come to grip with their own growth since the second half of the 13th c. Householders were made responsible for their own refuse, places where manure could be stored were pointed out, butchers were assigned places to dump their wastes or carts were provided for transporting it out of town, noisy or smelly crafts (or those who formed a fire hazard!)  were banned from built up area's, all under the threat of mostly pretty steep fines [7]. Most through going streets were paved by the 13th c. City by-laws speak of stricter supervision of fresh produce appearing on the market, of the curbing of pigs and geese in sty’s, of the carting away of street dirt by city workers, of the cleaning of moats, ditches and canals and of the general behavior in public of citizens at all times. Some cities even had public toilets by the 14th c: London (of course), Leicester, Winchester, Hull, Southampton and Exeter [8].

 

Of course, these same conditions (garderobes, privies, cesspits) can be found in manors and the few villages which have been excavated all round the country. In villages there is evidence that the human refuse was used to fertilize the land [9]. On the continent it has been proven a long time ago that the waste of city-privies was sold to farmers in the surrounding countryside as well.

 

So: no, later medieval people were relatively civilized in their handling of hygiene and sanitation. Of course, they did not know a lot of things we know, but the ones who survived childhood sicknesses, childbirth and war, as well as the occasional plague, had a good chance of living to a respectable age, because of really not too bad sanitary conditions, a healthy diet and enough exercise. And we must always keep in mind that these people were a pretty tough race, who could handle, what we now call, unhealthy circumstances, a lot better than we can, as the recent spate of research into medieval skeletons proves (see Meet the Ancestors). Most of the more common people had pretty good teeth, were by no means brittle beings, but sturdy and straight-built and of respectable length (much taller than people in the period between ca 1600-1900) and with examples of spectacular healings after serious sicknesses or wounds as proof of possessing healthy bodies. Not too many of these bodies were invalids, either, although rheumatism in places with wet living conditions, arthritis because of certain professions and growth disturbances after times of hunger occurred. But that has not much to do with hygiene...

 

Incidentally: I think the first instance of a case of throwing the contents of a chamber-pot out of a first floor window is recorded somewhere in the 16th c. Paris, France, I think. A king, one of the Henry's, complained about it. Paris was, as London, populated to overflowing and had not enough yards to put the privy in. In medieval towns such behavior would have been fined very heavily indeed, especially if it caused passers-by to be soiled by it.

 

 

Henk 't Jong

tScapreel

Dordrecht (NL)

1.3.2001

http://scapreel.club.tip.nl/

 

 

[1] Josiah Cox Russell, Medieval Regions and their Cities, Newton Abbot, 1972, p.121-130

2 Gwyn A. Williams, Medieval London; From Commune to Capital, London, 1963, p. 315-17

3 Colin Platt, The English Medieval Town, London, 1976, p. 70

4 John Schofield and Alan Vince, Medieval Towns, London, 1994, p. 68

5 Christopher Dyer, Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages; Social change in England, c. 1200-1520, Cambridge, 1989, p. 188 e.a.

6 Platt, 1976. p. 72

7 Dyer, 1989, p. 191

8 Platt, 1976, p. 69

9 a.o. Maurice Beresford and John Hurst, Wharram Percy; Deserted Medieval Village, New Haven/London, 1990, p. 41-44 etc.



[1] Josiah Cox Russell, Medieval Regions and their Cities, Newton Abbot, 1972, p.121-130

[2] Gwyn A. Williams, Medieval London; From Commune to Capital, London, 1963, p. 315-17

[3] Colin Platt, The English Medieval Town, London, 1976, p. 70

[4] John Schofield and Alan Vince, Medieval Towns, London, 1994, p. 68

[5] Christopher Dyer, Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages; Social change in England, c. 1200-1520, Cambridge, 1989, p. 188 e.a.

[6] Platt, 1976. p. 72

[7] Dyer, 1989, p. 191

[8] Platt, 1976, p. 69

[9] a.o. Maurice Beresford and John Hurst, Wharram Percy; Deserted Medieval Village, New Haven/London, 1990, p. 41-44 etc.

 

 

 

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