Medieval Waste Disposal Myths Debunked

Contrary to the popular image of medieval Britons as unsanitary, historical records reveal a more nuanced reality. While they may not have understood the link between waste and disease, they were aware of the unpleasant odors and took measures to manage waste, albeit not always effectively.

In major medieval cities like London, the management of human waste was a significant concern. The population of medieval London, estimated at around 100,000, produced approximately 5,000 kilograms of human waste daily, comparable to the weight of an adult Asian elephant. Despite common misconceptions, medieval folks did not indiscriminately dispose of waste everywhere. The Roman sewer system in London, which emptied into the River Thames, had fallen into disuse by the medieval period, leading to less efficient waste management practices​​.

Cesspits were another method of waste disposal, often seen as a luxury due to their high construction costs – about twice the yearly wages of an unskilled laborer. These pits, though a step towards better sanitation, were not foolproof. They were prone to leakage, contaminating the soil and nearby wells, and emanating strong odors. This was a significant issue as the miasma theory prevalent at the time linked disease with bad smells​​.

Despite suboptimal disposal methods, medieval people valued cleanliness and privacy in bathroom matters. Public latrines were available, and it was common for people to have designated places for waste disposal. In town, public latrines were often used, and there is evidence of at least 13 public latrines in medieval London. The quality of privacy in these facilities was comparable to modern standards, indicating a sense of decorum and sanitation in public facilities​​.

While some people might have disposed of waste from their windows, especially at night for convenience or safety, this practice was not the norm. Laws were enacted to regulate waste disposal, such as the 1357 Proclamation in London forbidding waste dumping into waterways. These regulations highlight the efforts made to manage sanitation and public health, even in the absence of a modern understanding of hygiene and disease transmission​​.

“Gardyloo!” – A Warning Call

When emptying chamber pots, especially in urban areas, the common practice was to warn passersby with a yell of “Gardyloo!” This term, derived from the French “garde à l’eau,” literally means “beware of the water,” a humorous understatement for something decidedly less pleasant.

The Scale of Medieval Urban Waste

In medieval cities, the quantity of human waste was significant. For instance, a city with 10,000 inhabitants could produce 900,000 liters of excrement and three million liters of urine annually. This volume of waste, in the absence of modern sewage systems, posed a substantial challenge to urban sanitation and public health​​.

Ancient Waste Management Practices

In ancient cities like Rome, waste management involved flushing waste from latrines into a central sewage system, eventually leading to a river or stream. However, it was not uncommon for waste to be discarded directly into the streets, as satirized by Roman writers.

The Role of Gong Farmers

In Tudor England, a unique profession existed known as the “gong farmer.” These individuals were responsible for removing human excrement from privies and cesspits. The term “gong” referred to both the privy and its contents. Due to the nature of their work, which was deemed unclean and unsightly, gong farmers were restricted to working at night, earning them the alternative name “nightmen.” Their job was to collect the waste, known as “night soil,” and transport it outside the city or town boundaries for disposal​​.

Despite being well-compensated for their time, the job of a gong farmer was considered one of the worst in the Tudor period. These workers often found themselves knee-deep, or deeper, in human waste. They were restricted to specific living areas and could suffer from asphyxiation due to the noxious fumes. Their work hours were strictly nocturnal, typically from 9:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m., to minimize public exposure to their activities​​.

Gong farmers often employed young boys to assist with the physically demanding aspects of the job. These helpers were responsible for lifting full buckets of waste from the pits and working in the confined spaces of the cesspits. This practice not only highlights the challenging nature of the work but also the communal aspect of this essential public service​​.

The collected solid waste was typically removed using large barrels or pipes, which were then loaded onto horse-drawn carts. As private latrines became more common in individual residences, these were often strategically built with access points to facilitate easier waste removal without bringing the barrels through living spaces. Historical records from London’s privies during the 17th and 18th centuries provide insights into the types of waste encountered, including tragic finds like the corpses of unwanted infants​​.

Once collected, the human waste had to be disposed of properly. This was often achieved by spreading it on common land or transporting it to laystalls located on the outskirts of towns. In London, much of the waste from cesspits was taken to dumps along the River Thames, like the Dung Wharf. This waste was then transported by barge to be used as fertilizer in fields or market gardens. Some of these waste dumps grew to significant sizes, illustrating the scale of waste management efforts in medieval cities​​.

Economic Status in Waste Disposal Practices

Debating whether waste disposal practices varied significantly among different social and economic classes in medieval times is intriguing. The argument could be made that wealthier individuals had better access to private facilities and services to manage waste effectively, while the poorer population might have resorted to more rudimentary methods, including potentially disposing of waste from windows.

Urban Planning on Medieval Sanitation

This debate explores how the design and planning of medieval cities influenced sanitation practices. Some argue that congested urban layouts contributed to improper waste disposal, including the throwing of waste from windows, while others might contend that even in densely populated areas, systematic methods like cesspits were used.

Public Health and Sanitation Regulations

A discussion on the effectiveness of medieval public health policies and their enforcement is relevant. Did stringent regulations and penalties deter people from improper waste disposal, or were such practices still prevalent despite these rules? This debate can consider how laws influence people’s behavior concerning waste disposal.

Technological Limitations

The debate here focuses on whether the lack of advanced technology and infrastructure in the Middle Ages justified the rudimentary methods of waste disposal, including throwing waste from windows, or if there were feasible alternatives that could have been employed.

Health Impact Of The Medieval Waste Management

  • Improper disposal of fecal matter, such as throwing it out of windows, could lead to the spread of numerous diseases. Fecal waste can contain pathogens like bacteria, viruses, and parasites, which cause illnesses ranging from diarrhea to more serious conditions like cholera and dysentery. When waste is not managed properly, these pathogens can contaminate water sources, food supplies, and general living areas, leading to outbreaks of disease.
  • Unmanaged fecal waste contributes to the contamination of the environment, particularly water bodies. When fecal matter is indiscriminately disposed of, it can pollute rivers, streams, and groundwater, affecting both human populations and ecosystems. This contamination can disrupt the natural balance, harm wildlife, and make water sources unsafe for consumption and use.
  • The inappropriate management of human waste can also contribute to the development of antimicrobial resistance. Pathogens present in fecal matter can evolve to become resistant to standard treatments, making infections harder to treat. This is especially concerning in crowded, unsanitary conditions where the likelihood of disease transmission is higher.
  • Living in areas with poor waste management can significantly impact public hygiene and the overall quality of life. The unpleasant odors, unsightly conditions, and the constant threat of disease can affect mental well-being, social interactions, and the quality of day-to-day living.
  • Inadequate fecal waste management poses substantial challenges for public health authorities, especially in densely populated urban areas. Controlling the spread of diseases, ensuring clean living environments, and educating the public about sanitary practices become more complex and demanding in such conditions.
The common portrayal of medieval Britons as indiscriminately dirty is a simplification of a more complex reality. Despite the challenges of their time, medieval people employed various methods to manage sanitation and public health. These historical insights offer a more accurate and nuanced understanding of daily life in medieval Britain, challenging long-held stereotypes and misconceptions.