The medieval sense of smell, stench, and sanitation

In Les cinq sens de la ville du Moyen Âge à nos jours, ed. Ulrike Krampl, Robert Beck and Emmanuelle Retaillaud-Bajac (Tours: Presses Universitaires François-Rabelais, 2013), 301-313.

Although linking smell and sanitation has been previously discussed by scholars as an early modern development, this article argues that controlling smells from human and animal wastes was a primary motivator for medieval urban sanitation regulation as well. Using northern European legislative and court records from 1350 to 1600, the article shows that medieval urban residents were concerned about odoriferous waste and actively sought to control its handling and disposal. The stench of waste was an obvious threat to the public within the context of the prevailing theories about miasmatic disease transmission; and thus exposure to it needed to be limited. In this way, the development of early sanitation measures can be directly linked to the medieval sense of smell and interpretation of odors. Smell thus has a large role to play in the urban environmental history of the medieval city.

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