Although Medieval Britons weren’t exactly the cleanest
lot by modern standards (though contrary to popular belief, despite some well-known exceptions,
they did, in general, bathe in some form or another relatively regularly), the idea of
them just dropping trou and dumping half a pound of fecal matter into the street below
isn’t exactly a fair or representative image. In fact, while Medieval Britons weren’t
yet aware of how festering feces contributed to disease epidemics, they did know that it
smelled really, really bad and, eventually, there was even some thought that said stinky
fumes caused the spread of disease; thus, they made efforts to ensure the offending
odors were kept as far away from their homes as possible. Now, to be clear, generalizing about what
a large and diverse group of people did over a millennium time span is extremely dodgy
business, and we’re not saying that some Medieval Britons didn’t sometimes toss their
solid waste out the window. (After-all, laws against doing just that,
which we’ll talk about shortly, didn’t come from nowhere; and there certainly are
many documented accounts of people doing this in said massive time-span, though you’ll
note that many of said documented instances describe liquid, rather than solid waste.) We’re simply saying that the documented
evidence at hand seems to indicate it was nowhere near as commonplace in Britain as
pop culture would have you believe. To begin with, particularly in the age when
one-story buildings were the norm, tossing your own stink out the window meant you’d
have to smell it any time you chose to open said window- not a recipe for a good time
in the summer, particularly, but also just a recipe for a crappy time whenever you chose
to step out your door… There your poop would be, staring you in the
face, perhaps kept company by your neighbors’ latest expulsion. Needless to say, even without laws against
such a thing, it’s not surprising that defecating out the window doesn’t seem to have been
most people’s go-to location to dump their latest dump. That said, as multi-storied abodes began to
pop up, residents of some of the higher homes occasionally do seem to have not been quite
so discerning about keeping things fresh for the residents beneath them. Presumably, this played a role in laws being
passed against tossing one’s own excrement out the window. On that note, in most major cities in England,
fines could and would be levied against citizens who created a stink – either metaphorically
or literally – that inconvenienced their neighbours. For example, in the early 14th century, tossing
anything out your window into the streets of London, whether human waste or just any
sort of garbage, could see you fined 40p, which is difficult to translate to modern
values accurately, but is (very) roughly equivalent to £108 or $142. And one couldn’t just hope that nobody would
notice if you tried tossing your waste out the window. Ultimately muckrakers and surveyors of the
pavement were employed to make sure the thoroughfares stayed relatively clean, including disposing
of any waste found in the streets (particularly needed owing to the thousands of horses and
other animals tromping around major cities). Needless to say, while you could have mostly
gotten away with emptying a chamber pot full of urine out your window (so long as neighbors
weren’t complaining, there would be little stopping you), doing the same with solid waste
would have likely meant you were going to get caught, even if you were a bit clever
about the whole thing. On that latter point, the 14th century London
Assize of Nuisance (recording various disputes between individuals and their neighbors) tells
of a Londoner called Alice Wade getting into trouble for rigging a pipe to her indoor latrine
that washed her bodily expulsions into a nearby gutter that in turn was used to, essentially,
flush a nearby latrine. Seems reasonable enough- her solid and liquid
waste goes into the gutter which in turn drains into a place people do their necessaries in
anyway; no need for her to have to manually carry her waste out of the home like a plebeian. This woman was a problem solver. Unfortunately for her, things didn’t quite
go as planned on the solid-waste side of things. To wit: whereas of old in the par. of St. Michael
Queenhithe, a gutter running under certain of the houses was provided to receive the
rainwater and other water draining from the houses, gutters and street, so that the flow
might cleanse the privy on the Hithe, Alice Wade has made a wooden pipe connecting the
seat of the privy in her solar with the gutter, which is frequently stopped up by the filth
therefrom, and the neighbours under whose houses the gutter runs are greatly inconvenienced
by the stench. Judgment that she remove the pipe within 40
days etc. (And now, let us all pause and reflect on
the fact that some seven centuries after the fact, we just had good reason to dig up and
discuss the record of a woman’s ingenious defecating habits, with this stinky knowledge
very likely being the only thing history will ever remember about the unique individual
that was Alice Wade…) In any event, in cases where a perpetrator
could not be found, fines would be levied against all homes immediately surrounding
smelly waste lying in the streets. As you can imagine, people didn’t often
take kindly to being fined for someone else’s laziness and there’s at least one recorded
example of a man being kicked half to death by his neighbours for throwing smoked fish
skin out of his window onto the street; we can only imagine what they’d have done if
he’d added his own fishy excrement to the tossed out mix. Thus, with the ever-present threat of mob
justice and harsh fines, sticking your butt out of a window and squeezing out a stink-bomb
onto the masses below, as freeing as it might have felt, just wasn’t worth it, particularly
when Britons had better (at least in terms of the “out of sight, out of mind” factor)
means of waste disposal at their, well, disposal. So where did all the poop from populated regions
go in an age before massive sewer systems and ubiquitous indoor plumbing? In short, rivers and fields. In houses where they had no indoor plumbing
to speak of, Britons would usually do their business in a bucket or chamber pot, which
would either be dumped directly into a river, or a gutter designed to transport said waste
to the river- the hope being that when the rain fell, it would wash the poop away to
its new, underwater home; out of sight, out of mind. In more affluent homes that had rudimentary
plumbing, the two p’s would make their way to either a private or communal cesspit, often
buried underground to reduce the smell. These cesspits, or gongs as they were known
(from the Old English “gang”, meaning “to go”), were designed such that the
liquid waste would be absorbed into the surrounding soil (occasionally conveniently located near
public wells…) while the solid waste would accumulate over a period of many months. Ultimately, these then needed to be emptied
by hand- a job commonly performed by individuals known as “gong farmers”. Perhaps unsurprisingly given their profession,
gong farmers were exceptionally well-paid, sometimes earning in a day what most labourers
earned in a week, and in times of plague potentially even more. They also infrequently found valuables amongst
the waste that they were free to keep, though it’s noted that they also occasionally found
skeletons from murder victims and unwanted babies. So, yeah… The job wasn’t without its risks. Besides the obvious disease risk-factor that
accompanies hopping into a pit of poop and shoveling it out, the fumes could sometimes
cause a gong farmer to faint in the muck, or they might otherwise just fall into a gong
too deep to stand in. (As an example of how big some of these pits
could be, there is record of it taking 13 men five full nights to empty out a privy
at Newgate Gaol in 1281.) We also know that because some privies designed
with the gongs directly beneath were not emptied frequently enough, the floorboards above could
become saturated. As a result, the boards sometimes collapsed,
occasionally resulting in deaths via drowning in waste. (While technically one should float quite
easily in such a scenario, we can only imagine said individuals struggling to get their heads
above the filth after falling in may have had some suctioning effects pulling them under
in their panic… or they otherwise were simply overcome by the fumes before help could come.) Moving outside of Britain, famously Emperor
Frederick I once was rescued from such a fate in 1184 by grabbing onto a window as the floor
collapsed and hanging on for dear life until help came, though certain members of his court
standing nearby were not so lucky. Back in Britain, one Richard the Raker is
remembered in history thanks solely to sitting down on his own privy one day and having the
rotted boards brake under him, causing him to fall into the muck below and “drown in
a dreadful manner”, as recorded in the London Coroners’ Roll of 1326. Back to the gong farmers, amplifying the risks
of their profession was the fact that they worked exclusively at night, so that the smell
of harvesting and carting the poop around wouldn’t bother the day walkers of the world. We imagine having fire as the sole source
of lighting doing such work probably also created a nice little bonus danger to the
profession, though we couldn’t specifically find any documented record of a gong farmer
dying as a result of gas pockets exploding (though, for what little it’s worth, there
are some references who claim such did happen, but without citing a specific known instance). As for where the poop went after being harvested,
given the volume they were dealing with, gong farmers generally weren’t allowed to just
go and dump the barrels of muck directly into the river. Instead, they were supposed to take the waste
to designated spots away from the city or town; these spots could be anything from a
public land area to sometimes ships which would carry the waste off to a farther away
destination. Either way, this concentrated mass of waste
often ended up being used as fertiliser. Lazy gong farmers, however, do seem to have
occasionally dumped it directly into a stream or river, though the consequences for being
discovered doing this in some regions were decidedly unpleasant. For example, there is record of one gong farmer
who improperly disposed of some waste being made to stand immersed in fecal matter up
to his neck and then, dripping with said waste, was further forced to stand on public display
for a time as punishment. It should also be noted that public latrine
facilities did exist, often either emptying directly into a river, such as the ones on
London Bridge, or otherwise collecting in a cesspit that would be routinely emptied
as needed. However, as the population swelled to massive
numbers in certain cities, like London, the number of these facilities just couldn’t
keep up with demand. As we move beyond the Middle Ages, with sewage
infrastructure and technology progressing slightly, the people of British cities still
nevertheless continued to commonly dump their chamber pots into rivers. Compounding the problem was that cesspits
would occasionally overflow into the streets, with said waste often just ending up in nearby
rivers and streams anyway because of it… In London, specifically, this centuries old
habit of making human waste Poseidon’s problem finally in the 19th century bit residents
on the behind. The problem started thanks to an unnaturally
warm summer which resulted in centuries of fetid waste caking the shores of the Thames
being exposed. This then all baked in the Sun, causing a
smell so bad the government first simply attempted to re-locate themselves to a new city… but
then when that ingenious plan failed, they finally ordered the construction of a proper
sewage system to take care of the swelling populaces’ poop- a sewage system that is
still in use today, in fact, and pretty much immediately upon its creation began saving
literally thousands of lives per month. (For much more detail, in one of our most
interesting articles in my opinion, see: The Great Stink of 1858.) So to conclude, while dumping one’s fecal
matter out the window appears to be something that did at least occasionally happen in the
Middle Ages in Britain, the evidence at hand seems to indicate that this was a relatively
rare occurrence; the majority of human waste that found its way into the streets tended
to just be from things like overflowing cesspits, which the more affluent used as a part of
their rudimentary indoor plumbing systems. As for the rest of the populace of cities,
they generally pooped into containers, the contents of which they would (usually) deposit
into a nearby river or stream, or gutter system that led to such. Despite the centuries of technological innovation
made since the Middle Ages, the streets of Victorian London were likely more filthy than
those of the city in Medieval times. This was due to the widespread adoption of
horse drawn carriage which caked the streets of the city in a near-permanent sheet of horse
dung and urine, despite the efforts of countless workers in charge of keeping the streets clean. For reference here, it is estimated that approximately
1,000 tons of horse dung per day was deposited in the streets of London in the late 19th
century. The ammonia from the urine was known to discolour
shop fronts and the amount of soot in the air from factories was said to be able to
turn sheep black in a few days.