The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Those of us obsessed with the medieval period would do very well to remember that we do not really want to have lived in that time. Its study at a distance is all good, but to have had to dwell in its squalour requires a stomach of unquenchable strength. As Ignatius Reilly cried - Filth!

Medieval Europe was a cesspool of the most profoundly unsanitary conditions that people could tolerate and somehow survive. The idea of hygiene scarcely entered their minds. Personal cleanliness was equated with devilry, and the accumulation of human and animal waste, mud, decaying vegetable matter, blood and flesh on the streets caused cities and villages to reek unto the heavens.

The onslaught of shit was so intense that cities in France and Italy had streets named after it. In Paris (and I can no longer think of it as the city of lights), there were rue des Merdons, rue Merdelet, rue Merdusson and rue Merdiere, and a rue du Pipi. There were streets with the names of animals slaughtered on them; there was a Champs-Dolet, a field of suffering and cries; l'Echorcheire, place of flailing. Runoffs from butchers polluted the houses and gardens of their neighbours. A Londoner complained that the blood from slaughtered animals had made a foul corruption and abominable sight to all dwelling near. Dog-catchers would leave the carcasses of their culls were they lay; barbers, having bled their patients, would allow the blood to escape onto the streets; butchers left the disused parts of their slaughtered stock on the streets outside their shops. Add to this the herds of cows and horses, multitudes of geese and other fowl, all allowed to roam the thoroughfares of the great cities, and it is quite obvious that if cleanliness was vaunted next to godliness, it was observed far more often in the breach.

But nothing could have been more effective in spreading filth and disease than the full chamber pot. By law, householders were to carry their excreta out onto the shallow drains outside their dwellings, but who could be bothered to do so when it meant tromping down and up several flights of stairs? Instead, they would yell three times, Look out below!, and hoping for the best, empty the pot onto the street beneath.

The urban drainage systems were singularly ineffective, and a great regression from the superb sewers built and run by the Romans centuries earlier. The narrow residential drains would converge onto bigger ones by the main streets, which would then combine into a central dumping point, a river like the Thames or the Seine. Invariably, however, the drains would be clogged up by fecal matter and decaying vegetation, and back up and overflow onto the streets and thence into residences. Beadles (drains inspectors) and rakers (who unblocked the drains) not only had the dirtiest and most thankless jobs in Christendom, they also were reviled and mistreated by the populace. [There are records of quarrelsome fisherwomen in Billingsgate assaulting rakers and being arrested for it.]

It was not that people didn't realise the gross abuse they were conducting on themselves. In a true spirit of not on my grounds an enterprising duo in England was caught piping their effluent into their neighbour's cellar. Edward III fulminated - to little avail - against the filth being thrown from the houses day and night, and - after one particularly stomach-turning trip to the stench of the Thames, thundered against dung, lay-stalls and other filth that accumulated on the riverbanks. The accretion of filth in the medieval city, indeed, drove some to murder. In 1326, a London shopkeeper attacked and killed a peddler who dropped eel skins before his shop and refused to clean up. But while many people observed the legislation to police their frontages, including the removal of animal deposits, there were some like William Cosner of Farringdon Without of whom it was said men could not pass by [his house] for the stink of horse dung and horse piss.

Edward III, as evidenced by his stance anti-dirt, was no doubt a particularly enlightened soul. In fact, he was said to have scandalised London when he bathed thrice in as many months. An English chronicler reported that when Thomas à Becket's body was stripped after assassination, vermin boiled over like water in a simmering cauldron. Personal hygiene was suspect in the eyes of the Church in view of the dogma of self-abnegation. Sundry saints enjoined the faithful to not bathe; St Agnes was said to have died never having cast water over herself. Even Catherine of Siena spent her life unwashed, and quite remarkably managed to go months without a bowel movement. A true saint, indeed.

The result of this immensity of dirt combined with general ill-health and the stress of day-to-day life was a disaster waiting to happen. And happen it did - the Black Death. The Plague consumed a third to a half of the population of Europe in three dark, terrible years. John Kelly's magisterial and superbly written The Great Mortality - An Intimate History of the Black Death traces the genesis of this pandemic; using original sources, he tells the soul-numbing tale of its spread from Italy to England, leaving in its wake pogroms and hedonism and extraordinary personal stories. All the anecdotes and facts in this post are from that brilliant book, and I adjure anybody with an interest in the dark ages to rush out and get it.


Space Bar said...

Ah Ignatius Reilly was a genius.

But wait; did you say 'pogroms and hedonism'? Hedonism? Like how?

Also this business of slopping the chamber pot over the side was not restricted to the middle ages; even until Thackeray it's been mentioned, and very likely was current until the 2nd decade of the 19th century.

And did you know - I've forgotten names and sources - that Calcutta's drainage system, having been found to be exceptional, was only afterwards replicated in London?

Space Bar said...

sorry - i meant Toole was a genius.

Fëanor said...

Hedonism? During and after the plague years. Boccaccio, who lived through the plague in 1348 wrote in the Decameron of bright and beautiful upper class girls who attend funerals in the city, and then - to cheer themselvs up - go and stay together in one of our various country estates... There we shall hear birds singing ... see fresh green hills and plains, fields of corn undulating like the sea.

He goes on to describe people who maintained that an infallible way to ward off this appalling evil was to drink heavily, enjoy life to the full ... gratify all one's cravings ... and shrug the whole thing off as one enormous joke.

And there's any number of tch-tch writings by moral arbiters who complained about the licentiousness and lack of shame among (especially) the women who had survived the ravages of the plague.

Fëanor said...

Re: Toole. True, true. Sad, his early unpublished death.

Re: Calcutta's drainage - no, I had no idea. I see that an engineering chap called Brassey had built waterworks in Calcutta, and worked with Bazalgette in the establishment of London's. But have not seen a chronology so can't say for sure if related to your statement. Would be interesting to investigate, no?

Space Bar said...

That's very interesting. In other words, Bountiful Nature in a plague-ridden world is one measure of hedonism!

And to the other, carpe diem, in fact.

Yes, that drains engineer needs to be tracked down. If only I could remember where I read it; it was some history of Empire in India, naturally; can't remember more, though.

Fëanor said...

Well, when it wasn't carpe judeam, it was carpe diem. Or carpe the family and retire to face certain death. Human nature, in fact, remains the same throughout the ages.

Hope you aren't feeling too listless today?

Space Bar said...

oh, i woke up a bit after your posts!

just to publicly note serendipity: i just started reading - yesterday, in fact - susan gregory's two medieval murder mysteries. i'm on A Plague On Both Your Houses (shouldn't that be 'upon'?).

Chockfull of rats; bubonic plague; monks and good christians unwilling to wash; one lone doctor (hero) taught by arab, who does; who, in fact, treats patients without the benefit of leeches and/or horoscopes, much to their disgust.


Fëanor said...

P. Gregory, eh? The film The Other Boleyn Girl was indifferently received in the UK, despite Scarlett Johansson's bouncing about, but the book is supposedly decent. Have you seen/read? I haven't read Gregory, but have read Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death, set a couple of centuries earlier and has a doctor like the one you mention, except a woman, and trained in Sicily by Muslims. A veritable expert in forensic pathology and the subtle art of deduction etc. What's with these Brit writers and their obsession with the dark ages?

Space Bar said...

i know! only very slightly OT, but have you read Suzanna Clarke's Dr. Strange and Mrs. Norrel? Magic and all, but much fun.

Of course, one cannot talk medieval without talking Name Of The Rose, but that's another kettle of fish.

Fëanor said...

Yup, it was pretty good, wot? Have you seen her next, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories? That's good as well. Full of whimsical and self-deprecating touches, such as a preface by a professor of magic who disses the original as a somewhat obscure book.

Fëanor said...

btw, newby query: do you have a smart way of keeping track of the comments you leave? or do you have to constantly ping the blog to see if anything's been posted on the comment trail?

Space Bar said...

comments rss. :D

and why is your word verification more squiggly than anyone else's?!

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