Modernity and medieval muck

Nature + Culture 9 (2014): 225-237

This article challenges the common presentation of the medieval street as a mud- and muck-filled cesspit. Using the television episode “Medieval London” of the Filthy Cities series aired by BBC Two in 2011 as a spring board, I discuss the realities of medieval waste management and modern conceptions of it. Through an examination of historical records from London, I show that the early fourteenth-century medieval street was not nearly as filthy as portrayed in Filthy Cities. Rather than being based on medieval evidence, our notion of the dirty medieval city is built on modern ideas of civility and scientific progress. Interpretations like that in Filthy Cities reflect more on our modern condition than the medieval one. The constructed dichotomy of medieval filth versus modern cleanliness obscures our contemporary waste problems and reinforces a physical and mental distance from our own waste.

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