Medieval Sanitation

I am interested in how medieval Europeans dealt with sanitation problems in the growing urban areas. My primary focus has been waste handling and disposal choices and their effects on streets, empty plots, and waterbodies in the cities and towns.

I have discussed medieval environmental history as a discipline and my own work in the field in two podcasts: 2013, Umeå Group for Premodern Studies and 2009, Environmental History Resources.

Medieval cities -
Not as dirty as we think.
Muck and filth cleaned up.
     (my dissertation haiku posted on Dissertation Haiku)


"Modernity and medieval muck"

forthcoming in Nature + Culture, fall 2014

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.

"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. Online book description

Abstract: 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.

"City sanitation regulations in the Coventry mayor's proclamation of 1421"

Arcadia: Online Explorations in European Environmental History, 2012. Online

"The Metamorphosis of Ajax, jakes, and early modern urban sanitation"

Early English Studies, 2010, online. Go to the pdf.

Abstract: This article examines Sir John Harington’s A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called The Metamorphosis of Ajax through the lens of urban environmental history, examining the everyday context of Harington’s discourse. It argues that although Harington may have used the work for the political and social commentary discussed by other scholars, he also puts forward a vision of a new physical urban sanitation system to address concerns about disease transmission from exposure to waste. His proposal includes both individually-owned improved flushed privies and government-sponsored sewage systems, a hitherto overlooked element of his program.

“What to do with waste? The challenges of waste disposal in two late medieval towns”

in Living cities: An anthology in urban environmental history, ed. Matthias Legnér and Sven Lilja (Stockholm: Forskningsrådet Formas, 2010), 34–55. article in pdf format Buy the book.

Abstract: Living in an urban setting comes with a price. Waste disposal in these crowded settings often becomes a problem. In the late medieval towns of York and Coventry, the town councils recognised and attempted to address their waste dilemmas for the betterment of the urban population at large. Individual inhabitants sometimes saw disposal in rivers and streets as a convenient solution to their own problems. But the local government had to take into account all of the users of the rivers and streets. Rivers and streets had to be seen as two parts of the same environmental issue because waste disposal in upstream gutters caused downstream river blockage. The town councils therefore developed legal and physical solutions to waste disposal. The councils forbade certain disposal practices and mandated others. They created urban services and appointed officers to monitor citizen behaviour. The evidence from the urban records reveals that when individuals violated common waste disposal norms, the issue was addressed by the civic authorities.

“Local government responses to urban river pollution in late medieval England”

Water History 2.1 (2010), 35-52. Download final article text. Article on journal website.

Abstract: This article examines the local responses to medieval urban river pollution in three leading English towns—Coventry, Norwich, and York—during the late fourteenth through sixteenth centuries. The case studies reveal the extent to which local governments became involved in river upkeep. Interventions by the town governments were twofold: (1) preventative actions in the form of regulations and regulatory enforcement and (2) responsive actions to physically remove materials that had already accumulated in the rivers. Previous histories have not treated pollution regulations and regular river upkeep activities such as scouring and dredging as part of the same toolbox for responding to urban river pollution, yet these two seemingly separate activities were indeed connected during the medieval period. Both legislative action and scouring projects were responses to filth and waste accumulation in urban waterways. By overlooking the connection between pollution legislation and river cleansing, historians have underappreciated the extent of involvement by local town governments in controlling and responding to pollution in the riverine landscape.

“‘All good rule of the Citee’: Sanitation and civic government in England, 1400-1600”

Journal of Urban History 36.3 (2010), 300-315. Download final article text. Article on journal webpage.

Abstract: This article examines how providing one basic city service—sanitation—influenced civic governmental structures from 1400 to 1600 in two of England’s largest provincial cities, Norwich and Coventry, and how those changes meshed with concepts of good rule. Although sanitation services were neither the most costly nor the highest profile activity of city councils, they can be a window into the evolution of governmental structures during the early phase of city rule. The period witnessed an increasing reliance on a myriad of officials to provide services, but this transition was not straightforward. City councils grappled with how to allocate responsibility for sanitation duties among civic officials, and the assignment of responsibility shifted often over the period. In general, the trend was to allocate responsibility closer and closer to the physical problem— that is, movement from the mayor as overseer to local inspectors.

“Cooperative sanitation: Managing streets and gutters in late medieval England and Scandinavia"

Technology and Culture 49.3 (2008), 547-567. Download article in pdf format. Article on journal webpage. This article was awarded the European Society for Environmental History publication prize in 2009.

Abstract: This article investigates the workings of sanitation technologies in late medieval English and Scandinavian cities through both written and archeological evidence. It defines the roles of city corporations and individuals in the areas of street maintenance and waste management between the years 1350 and 1550. It argues that although the urban environment was managed through seemingly simple technologies, such as latrines and guttered cobblestone streets, the technologies required a conjunction of city-provided services and individual behavior management to make them work as intended. The late medieval city governments under investigation therefore crafted social relations to create functional sanitation systems. Because responsibility for sanitation was allocated both to individuals and to the city government, the waste-handling and sanitation strategies of the late medieval city were possibly not as ineffective as they appear on the surface.

"Private need, public order: Urban sanitation in late medieval England and Scandinavia"

PhD Dissertation, University of Virginia, 2008, directed by W. B. Carlson. Available from Digital Dissertations.

Abstract: This study investigates the workings of late medieval sanitation technologies, particularly how solutions to sanitation issues were constructed as a relationship between the city government and urban inhabitants. It argues that medieval sanitation developed through the reciprocal interaction between physical conditions and complex social systems. The available technologies and environmental demands prompted the development of certain social arrangements at the city level such as the growth of specialist sanitation jobs, collection of taxes and direct participation of residents. At the same time, social arrangements enabled some technological choices such as the provision of ward dung carts and river cleansing operations. In other words, some forms of city governmental organization resulted from the demands of material conditions of urban life and, likewise, physical sanitation technologies depended on governmental structures to be effective. The dissertation defines the roles of city corporations and individuals in several sanitation issues, primarily street maintenance, waste management, and river cleansing from roughly 1350 to 1600 in England and Scandinavia. A transnational perspective is employed to identify broader trends that characterize sanitation in northern late medieval cities. The written evidence relies heavily, although not exclusively, on the city council records from the Swedish city of Stockholm and English cities of Coventry, Norwich, and York. In addition to the written sources, the evidence includes archeological finds from a wider array of cities in Scandinavia (the areas which today are Denmark, Norway, and Sweden) and England.

Norsk sammendrag: Avhandlingen min undersøker utviklingen av en sanitær infrastruktur, spesielt for avfallshåndtering og gaterenhold in senmiddelalderens England og Skandinavia. Hovedspørsmalene jeg undersøker er: Hvordon påvirket fysiske sanitære behov administrative funksjoner og strukturer i middelalderbyer? Hvilken innflytelse hadde byregjeringens politikk på utviklingen av middelalderske sanitasjonsystemer? For en norskspråklig artikkel om forskningen min, se "Avføring og statsbygging".

“Medieval latrines and the law"

Medium Aevum Quotidianum 53 (2006), 5-16. See the MAQ home page for more information about the journal.

Abstract: This article analyzes two types of latrine regulation in far northern Europe during the medieval period: latrine placement and waste disposal. It shows that latrines in the later fourteenth through mid-sixteenth centuries were very much within the public sphere. Public regulation of latrine placement and waste disposal was required to control individual behavior for the larger public good. Making this private matter into a public concern was integral to good city government in the eyes of elite citizens.

Conference Papers

"The medieval sense of smell, stench and sanitation," The Five Senses of the City, Tours, France, 2011.

“Top down or bottom up? Waste disposal concerns in sixteenth century Nottingham,” International Congress on Medieval Studies, 2010.

“‘The foule corrupcion that cometh of theym’: The environment and urban livestock in late medieval England,” American Society for Environmental History, 2008.

“‘All good rule of the Citee’: Sanitation and civic government in England, 1400-1600,” Civil Society and Public Services in Early Modern Europe, 2007.

“Simple versus Complex: Overcoming notions of medieval waste handling ineffectiveness,” International Committee for the History of Technology, 2007.

“Water in the cultural landscape of two late medieval towns,” American Society for Environmental History, 2006.

“Controlling technology by controlling users in order to control the environment in medieval Coventry,” Society for the History of Technology, 2005.

Public Project Dissemination

Interviewed for podcasts on Environmental History Resources, 2008 and Umeå Group for Premodern Studies, 2013.

Interviewed for magazine article "Urban Livestock: A Tender Issue", New West Magazine, Feb 11, 2008. Read it online.

A feature article about my research and its inclusion of Scandinavian archeology appeared in Norwegian in the online magazine in June 2007. Read it online.

Related Publications on Sanitation

"Decoupling Water and Sanitation," a review of Maggie Black and Ben Fawcett, The Last Taboo: Opening the Door on the Global Sanitation Crisis (London: Earthscan, 2008). Available on H-Net

"Putting Dirt in Its Place," a review of Ben Campkin and Rosie Cox, eds., Dirt: New Geographies of Cleanliness and Contamination (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007) for H-Net Reviews (June 2008). Available on H-Net

“Pigs and hogs” in Encyclopedia of American Environmental History, ed. Kathy Brosnan (New York: Facts on File, 2010).