A whiff of medieval city stank
November 26, 2016 10:58 AM   Subscribe

Historian Mike Dash explains just how awful medieval cities smelled.
posted by Foci for Analysis (52 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm recalling that issue of The Sandman where Hob Gadling, who's secretly been alive from Shakespeare's time into the present, has been dragged by his modern-day girlfriend to a Renaissance Faire and offers this critique:

"I mean, that's the thing about the past that people forget. All the shit. Animal shit. People shit. Cow shit. Horse shit. You waded through the stuff. You should spray 'em all with shit as they come through the gates."
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 11:11 AM on November 26, 2016 [26 favorites]


There are tours of Edinburgh which are nearly entirely focused on how completely disgusting the city (nicknamed "Auld Reekie") was before late 18th century improvements were made. Basically -- the sewage system consisted of dumping it all in the street and waiting for the rain to wash it down the hill to the inlet- and outlet-free lake called the Nor Loch. (It is perhaps notable that while the castle was, of necessity, right smack up against the medieval city so that it could protect it, the palace, where the royal family generally actually lived, was located half a mile or so away from it.)
posted by kyrademon at 11:15 AM on November 26, 2016 [7 favorites]


This reminds me of Kate Beaton's medieval peasants comics, which I bring up at every opportunity to remind my students that historically life has been pretty awful. I will add this article to my arsenal.
posted by lilac girl at 11:24 AM on November 26, 2016 [19 favorites]


South Portland, Maine used to have a fish rendering plant that often had trouble with it's stench-abatement system. Westbrook, Maine's paper plant used to be a lot more active. Certain summer days with the doors and windows open were, shall we say, an experience.
posted by theora55 at 11:34 AM on November 26, 2016 [6 favorites]


Previous Mike Dash on Metafilter, if anyone feels like falling down the (well informed, well written, smart, esoteric) historical wormhole:

King, magician, general … slave: Eunus and the First Servile War against Rome (22 July 2016).
Mysterious Lifeboat in the Middle of Nowhere (22 February 2011).
A Fortean in the Archives (31 October 2010).

I'm sure there are other Dash FPPs out there. We all need to keep populating the Mike Dash tag. The man's a treasure.
posted by Sonny Jim at 11:36 AM on November 26, 2016 [11 favorites]


Can you imagine the tartar buildup?
posted by Countess Elena at 11:44 AM on November 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


All the talk of tanners and cat carcasses and miasma kinda makes me want to fire up Dwarf Fortress again.
posted by glonous keming at 11:52 AM on November 26, 2016 [11 favorites]


*lights match*
posted by jonmc at 11:54 AM on November 26, 2016 [4 favorites]


not safe for lunch
posted by bukvich at 11:59 AM on November 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


I can only imagine how terrible it was. Ive been to New Delhi and I'm sure it was worse than that, lol...
posted by jorgemontenegro at 12:02 PM on November 26, 2016


if you've ever smelled any modern interpretations of ancient perfume or incense recipes, they're equally overwhelming. powerful scents were needed to cover up these powerful stinks.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:04 PM on November 26, 2016 [8 favorites]


also i'm assuming that the churchyard (church-yardes) stench was from rotting bodies in graves and is not some sort of protestant discourse on the church itself
posted by poffin boffin at 12:18 PM on November 26, 2016 [6 favorites]


Fez basically still functions like a medieval city. My experiences there twice were not good, but I'd go again, now knowing what to look for. I don't remember the stench as unbearable, except from at the tanneries.
The way I've learnt it, medieval cities weren't that bad. Things really went below during the 19th century. And this makes sense to me: in a society were there is some balance between urban and rural life, there will be a demand for organic waste. Waste would not be lying about in a medieval city, because it would have been sold to farmers right outside the perimeter. This model of waste removal breaks when the most of organic waste is human and the risks of disease becomes too great. Thus the history of disgusting waste management is focused on London and Rome, the only pre-modern cities to become too big for their night-men.
When modernity kicked in globally, so did cholera, and waste-management became all-important. Unfortunately rarely based on facts. The stench of the city is typical of the modern city of the 19th century and it is still deadly.
posted by mumimor at 12:19 PM on November 26, 2016 [19 favorites]


Parts of reddit are faire and cleare without vapours and mists... lightsome and open.

Other parts of reddit are stinking and corrupted with ill vapours, as being neere to draughts, sinckes, dunghills, gutters, chanels, kitchings, church-yardes and standing waters.
posted by Bee'sWing at 12:26 PM on November 26, 2016 [49 favorites]


Anyone remember this from Perfume?

"In eighteenth-century France... there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulfur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease. The rivers stank, the marketplaces stank, the churches stank, it stank beneath the bridges and in the palaces. The peasant stank as did the priest, the apprentice as did his master's wife, the whole of the aristocracy stank, even the king himself stank, stank like a rank lion, and the queen like an old goat, summer and winter. For in the eighteenth century there was nothing to hinder bacteria busy at decomposition, and so there was no human activity, either constructive or destructive, no manifestation of germinating or decaying life that was not accompanied by stench."

Patrick Süskind goes on for another two paragraphs about the eight hundred years of corpses and reeking fish and rotting fruit and the smell of childbirth in a hot fish vendor's stall until you practically need to step out for fresh air. I read this when I was in high school and never forgot it.
posted by olopua at 12:30 PM on November 26, 2016 [52 favorites]


More Mike Dash on Reddit, all over the map, really.
posted by BWA at 12:35 PM on November 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


*lights match*


NOOOOOOOOOO*slow motion explosion*
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:37 PM on November 26, 2016 [6 favorites]


if you've ever smelled any modern interpretations of ancient perfume or incense recipes, they're equally overwhelming. powerful scents were needed to cover up these powerful stinks.

what you are saying is that if someone uses weaponized perfumes like opium, kouros or obsession, they are in fact a tannery or cemetery? yes i buy this
posted by Foci for Analysis at 12:51 PM on November 26, 2016 [4 favorites]


Further evidence that the old world spent 1/8 of it's GDP on deodorant.

Weaponized cologne #38: 'Canoe'.
posted by clavdivs at 12:57 PM on November 26, 2016


Hygiene was an important part of Modernist propaganda. They painted the old times as disgusting and smelly in order to forward their own ideas of enlightenment. And again, the early modernity of the late 18th and all of the 19th century were probably very disgusting because the connection to the land was gradually lost while there was not yet a modern system of waste removal.
But Vikings and Muslims were known for their personal cleanliness, and during medieval times common bathhouses were a big thing. There was a decline between 1400 and 1900, but there are plenty of paintings from that era documenting how people would bathe in rivers and in the ocean, and bleach their clothes in the sun during summer.
And again, waste would not lie about in the street if there were farms near enough who could use it. This includes scraps and peels from food. Meat would be used snout to tail and if there were leftovers, there were dogs, cats and rats to deal with them.
posted by mumimor at 1:12 PM on November 26, 2016 [10 favorites]


I think early modern European cities reached a tipping point, where the density became so high that earlier methods of waste management (gong farmers, shine collectors and the like) were soon unworkable, and the cesspits underneath buildings could not be cleared fast enough.

Similarly, before the construction of cemeteries like Highgate and Père Lachaise, London and Paris actually ran out of places to put bodies. The old graveyards were actually overflowing with half-decomposed corpses, and the smell would have been astonishing. This was one of the main reasons diseases spread by fecal-oral transmission were originally blamed on "miasmas". The presence of rot and decay was so evident, the relationship was just assumed.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:45 PM on November 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


Parts of reddit are faire and cleare without vapours and mists... lightsome and open.

Other parts of reddit are stinking and corrupted with ill vapours, as being neere to draughts, sinckes, dunghills, gutters, chanels, kitchings, church-yardes and standing waters.


You must employ a torch-boy who knows the way to the best subreddits and have him light your way at night, as there is no lighting in the street nor any sign, and if you seek direction in the crowd at r/all, you will get brag and abuse and perhaps even be robbed for your trouble.
posted by Countess Elena at 1:51 PM on November 26, 2016 [22 favorites]


sulphurous smell of burning coal
I know he does say that he's including early modern cities in this, but it's worth noting that there would be plenty of medieval cities where you would not smell coal at all; certainly in Britain it wasn't used domestically before the 1400s, and its use was banned in some cities at some times simply because of the smell. Smoke from wood or charcoal would be ubiquitous though.

we would notice the smells generated by small scale industry, which was mixed up indiscriminately with living spaces
Very definitely not indiscriminately. Stinky industries were kept together; for example, the Shambles in York was where the butchers were. And yes, people did live there, but it was acknowledged as somewhere you'd try and avoid living if you could afford it. You don't find rich people's houses cheek by jowl these areas. Also in York, there is evidence that the tanners were originally on the edge of town, and as the town expanded they were then banished to the other side of the river because of the smell.

Last, but not least, of course, there were the smells of the human population itself, with its unwashed, decaying or diseased bodies.
Again, depends when in the period you're talking about. Bathing only went out of fashion after the Black Death - it had been communal, and when people made the very accurate observation that people who went for a bath were liable to come home with plague, it very much went out of fashion. The smell of diseased or decaying bodies is also likely less of an issue than might be thought; not for any positive reason, but because of the fear and stigma of leprosy. Anything that caused you to be decaying would most likely be labelled as leprosy, and you were out on your ear.

And as mentioned upthread, you'd want to take the stench of 14th century London over the stench of 19th century London any day. The medieval period was positively fragrant compared to the industrial revolution.
posted by Vortisaur at 1:59 PM on November 26, 2016 [12 favorites]


Of course, while Medieval cities might have been cleaner than those in the 18th and 19th centuries, human waste was still a problem.

For instance, the mixed Anglo-Saxon and Viking residents of 10th-century Jorvik (modern-day York), a large and prosperous settlement for its time, were absolutely ridden with intestinal parasites.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:05 PM on November 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


I have myself handled a Jorvikian turd. It was impressive.

Famously the London sewerage system came about after the Great Stink of 1858, when a combination of circumstances rendered Parliament untenable due to the immense pong of decomposing dung. Being Victorians, they did it properly, with engineer Joseph Bazalgette's system still in use today. His great-great grandson, Peter Bazalgette, is a TV exec, now chair of ITV, whose production companies spawned inter alia Big Brother and Deal Or No Deal, which has led some to say that while his forebear piped shit out of people's homes, he has reversed the flow.
posted by Devonian at 3:40 PM on November 26, 2016 [53 favorites]


I have myself handled a Jorvikian turd.

what even goes on in british museums
posted by poffin boffin at 3:45 PM on November 26, 2016 [25 favorites]


"I have myself handled a Jorvikian turd."

Pics, plz.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:51 PM on November 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


Alas, I was too busy, y'know, passing the turd (it was at a lecture at the Museum of Scotland about Vikings, and the speaker dispatched his specimen into the audience) to take a pic. I know, always keep a log, right?

However, it was similar to, albeit somewhat smaller than, the Lloyds Bank Coprolite,of similar provenance, presented here for your viewing pleasure.
posted by Devonian at 4:02 PM on November 26, 2016 [27 favorites]


PALEOSCATOLOGIST
posted by poffin boffin at 4:10 PM on November 26, 2016 [8 favorites]


IT BROKE AND NOW THEY'RE RECONSTRUCTING THE DOODOO
posted by poffin boffin at 4:10 PM on November 26, 2016 [8 favorites]


"the Lloyds Bank Coprolite,of similar provenance, presented here for your viewing pleasure."

I approve of your shit.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:22 PM on November 26, 2016


It's good shit, man.

The lecturer had been involved in the excavation which produced his particular example, and gave a graphic description of what it's actually like digging the stuff up.

You are in no doubt about what you're doing. A treat for all the senses. Long, as they say, on the nose.
posted by Devonian at 4:29 PM on November 26, 2016 [7 favorites]


Devonian, you've brought new meaning to "infodump."
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:38 PM on November 26, 2016 [13 favorites]


When I took the tour of Ford's Theatre not too long ago, the park ranger/docent took some time describing the miasmic nature of 1860s Washington, D.C. to the mostly-grade-school-age crowd, in particular the City Canal that doubled as an open-air sewer and dumping place for dead animals; the Lincolns would often escape to a cottage some distance from the White House to escape the stench during the worst of the summer. New York City was even worse; if you had the money and were conscientious enough, you might have a deceased nag hauled to Dead Horse Bay, otherwise you just left it to rot in the gutter. An effective Sanitation Department represented a huge quality-of-life improvement almost overnight.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:18 PM on November 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


Well, it's like they say about London: up until the end of the Medieval period, Fleet Street was an open sewer. Then the presses moved in and things really went downhill.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 5:26 PM on November 26, 2016 [9 favorites]


I have myself handled a Jorvikian turd.

Did anyone else do the Yorvik Viking Museum tour, which boasted in its signage that it offered the sights and smells(!) of Viking Yorvik? There was a whole bit where the ride whooshed you through a Viking latrine. It was so gross but also the best thing ever.
posted by mochapickle at 6:16 PM on November 26, 2016 [6 favorites]


Please do not take me to Funkytown.




I'll see myself out.
posted by datawrangler at 6:24 PM on November 26, 2016 [5 favorites]


One of the minor subplots of Clavell's novel Shogun, was the Japanese aversion to the filthy English hero of the story. The first thing they do is bathe him. Which he is horrified of as bathing causes diseases in his mind. As the story continues he comes to really appreciate being clean. Now he dreads going back to England with all the filthy people...
posted by njohnson23 at 6:35 PM on November 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


really though did people just have stronger immune systems or did women in the medieval world walk around with yeast infections/bv for most of their lives

between having sex with guys who maybe rinsed their junk once a year at their annual bath to buttwiping with communal sponges on sticks to midwives who slathered their hands with old lard before helping them give birth i assume they either had indestructible adamantium vajeepers or constant horrible infections
posted by poffin boffin at 8:44 PM on November 26, 2016 [12 favorites]


I kind of suspect the latter. I can't cite it but I remember reading a quote from a primary source about a village woman who knew how to treat the "wicked smell" that might repel a lady's husband. I can't find it because it had a medieval spelling that looked kind of metal, though I can't remember it ("wykkyd smelle" or something). We also have ancient Egyptian medical papyri that suggest treatments for vaginal infection, although that was many thousands of years earlier, and the Egyptians were cleaner. They were fond of baths, and they didn't wear nearly as many clothes.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:51 PM on November 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


One of the minor subplots of Clavell's novel Shogun, was the Japanese aversion to the filthy English hero of the story.

Clavell got most things very wrong and I would caution against taking anything he writes in Shogun as fact. Tudor era Brits changed their underwear religiously if they could afford it and would rub themselves down with cleaning clothes, and Ruth Goodman reports experimentally that a Tudor hygiene regime isn't as smelly or filthy as popular history would tell you. On the Japanese side, I'm just back from three weeks there and you can see reconstructed Edo era latrines at the Hakone checkpoint or the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which is wonderful for this stuff but very much smell-free. As happened in Europe, manure was highly needed as fertilizer and the contents of latrines were carried off regularly to the fields.

(Of course, public baths were mostly accessible to the urban population, and the great majority of people in Edo era Japan were peasants without fancy bathing houses which is also something to keep in mind. The Japanese also had some habits unpleasant to our modern Western eyes such as the practice in the Heian era of just laying human and animal corpses by the roadside, riverbanks or even the city streets to rot.)

Dirty Old London is a very good book about how that city got sanitation in the 19th century, by the way.
posted by sukeban at 9:34 PM on November 26, 2016 [6 favorites]


...new meaning to "infodump."
As the original article states, however, most of the stuff always resided in the cloud.
posted by Namlit at 12:52 AM on November 27, 2016 [4 favorites]


Historian Mike Dash explains just how awful medieval cities smelled.

So, basically, Houston?
posted by Beholder at 8:53 AM on November 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


Did anyone else do the Yorvik Viking Museum tour, which boasted in its signage that it offered the sights and smells(!) of Viking Yorvik?

Yes! It definitely made an impression. In fact, reading this thread and the number of times that York came up before we even started discussing coprolites, I was thinking hmmmm I can't be the only person to have smelled the Jorvik Viking Museum in these parts.
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:33 AM on November 27, 2016


In Austin in the late 19th century, Congress Avenue, the main thoroughfare, had problematic ditches running down either side of it. They were problematic because horses and carriages would occasionally fall in and get stuck. One early attempt to fix the ditches involved filling them with refuse. The populace complained. So, they filled the city filled them instead with a material that could be found locally in abundance -- bat guano.

Nineteenth-century editorials were purple and flowery to begin with, but the editorials in Austin papers complaining about the batshit-filled ditches went even beyond that. There were also editorials in the Houston papers that talked about how smelly Austin was, which was probably more motivation to clean up than anything else.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:43 AM on November 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


I grew up just outside of Springfield, Oregon.

In order to get to our high school, kids from our neck of the woods had to go past the Kingsford charcoal plant and then the Weyerhaeuser pulp processing mill (now the "International paper" mill).

It should probably come as no surprise that fish sauce (made from fermented sardines) has never fazed me.

If you're curious and want a whiff of what a genuine paper mill smells like and a good idea of a rich putrescence, drive by 785 42nd Street, Spfld OR. Well, you'll only need to get about half a mile away.
posted by fraula at 10:33 AM on November 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


While we don't know if the person responsible for the Lloyds Bank coprolite was a Christian, or followed the old ways, I'd like to think that "God of Thunder!" was uttered at least once during its production.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:08 AM on November 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


London still has its fair selection of serious pongs. After a few days without rain during a hot summer, some of the back streets and alleyways in Soho can become almost impassable due to the reek of stale urine; near the river in Southwark and the City, when the weather and tides are right the sweet savour of sewerage still rises; and around Greenwich, again near the river, there are processing plants that insinuate sharp chemical miasmas along the waterfront.

Edinburgh can also raise a rank tang. The old Scottish and Newcastle brewery by the canal has been demolished, so it no longer clogs the nostrils with mashy emanations, but the huge North British Distillery can poop them out in impressive quantities. And festival time in the Old Town can turn parts of the Cowgate into what is basically a large outdoor midden.
posted by Devonian at 2:42 PM on November 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


In college, I had a friend who didn't have a lot of money and had a band that liked to practice really loud.

After getting evicted for the Nth time, he found a place outside of town with no neighbours - great, right?

The reason that there were no neighbours was that there was a pig refinery nearby; open mudhole with pigs. Lots and lots of pigs. Probably just under a thousand. (There was a big sheet metal building, too).

First time I visited, we had to turn the car around just in sight of the house. Couldn't go any closer because of the malodourous reek.

His band refused to practice at his rental and disbanded pretty much right away. I guess he was stuck with a lease that he couldn't afford to break, and stayed there for a while.

He said that, eventually, he stopped noticing it. However, the smell kind of seeped into him and his clothing and, well, it was disgusting and it lingered even after he had left.
posted by porpoise at 2:53 PM on November 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


Speaking of stinky cities try San Francisco. We have a combined sewer and rainfall drainage system. Many times of the year you will be standing at a corner waiting to cross the street above a storm drain enjoying the lovely stench of sewer flow.
posted by njohnson23 at 4:19 PM on November 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


"I have myself handled a Jorvikian turd."
...
"I know, always keep a log, right?

I see what you did there.
posted by faceplantingcheetah at 5:13 AM on November 28, 2016


I once visited Addis Ababa, where open water courses carry human (and cattle and donkey) effluent past groups of kids playing in the streets.
posted by Myeral at 6:19 AM on November 28, 2016


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