An Abso in 14th Century Britian
By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine
Today we are urged to report fly-tipping and other nuisances – just as our forebears did 700 years ago. Their complaints survive in a rare medieval document, the Assize of Nuisance, which sheds new light on an age-old problem.
Alice Wade, who lived in 14th Century London, could not countenance the smell of her own poo.
In an era when many of her fellow citizens relieved themselves in chamber pots and surreptitiously tipped the stinking contents out the window, she had a toilet in its own small room.
But 700 years ago, a toilet was a hole cut in a wooden platform over a cesspool. The smells that emanated were most foul.
So she rigged up a wooden pipe that connected her toilet to a rainwater gutter that flushed a nearby public latrine.
The solids from her toilet blocked the gutter, and her neighbours were “greatly inconvenienced by the stench”. The city authorities ordered that she remove the pipe within 40 days.
This is case 214 in the Assize of Nuisance, a list of grievances made against irksome neighbours in London from 1301-1431. The complaints were recorded in abbreviated Latin, the language for official proceedings at the time, says Elizabeth Scudder of London Metropolitan Archives, where this 700-year-old document is stored.
Few documents survive from this era, but other British cities would have had similar records, says Scudder. “There is a very early record concerning nuisances dating from the late 12th Century relating to Northampton.”
More than 700 years later, complaints against neighbours still persist, but they usually relate to noise, fly-tipping or anti-social behaviour, and many local councils have dedicated helplines to process grievances.
Back in medieval times, many complaints concerned misdirected, leaking or otherwise noisome privies, as medieval cities had no infrastructure to cope with the disposal of human waste. In the main, it was dumped into rivers and tributaries, or trodden into the ground.
These records show that people were coming up with ingenious ways to get rid of their waste, often giving their neighbours cause to complain.
“These were just some of the many attempts made to overcome the problems created by so many people living in close proximity with each other,” says historian Dan Snow, presenter of BBC Two’s Filthy Cities, which provides fresh interpretations of the Assize document. “The fact that they all too often failed to deal with those problems was because the sheer scale of that challenge overwhelmed their resources.”
At the time, cleanliness was a luxury few could afford. London, a city of some 100,000 people living in close proximity, had just eight public latrines, and only the well-to-do had private privies.
Although there were rules and regulations governing the disposal of filth, these were largely ignored.
“In 1309, a charge of 40p was levied on anyone found dumping rubbish outside their house, or anyone else’s,” says Snow. “The trouble was, wealthy landowners seemed quite happy to pay the fine when they got caught. And the City authorities were probably quite glad of the money.”
Nowadays, illegally dumping rubbish is a criminal offence that carries a fine of up to £50,000 and a prison sentence of up to five years.
When the bubonic plague, or Black Death, decimated London’s population in 1349, city officials were forced to act. They believed the vapours, or miasma, given off by the filth choking the streets and waterways contributed to the spread of this deadly disease.
Stricter laws were passed to clean up the waterways. In 1357, it was forbidden to throw waste into the Thames or other waterway under threat of imprisonment and fines. And officials added these new professions to the city payroll:
- muckrakers, the first street cleaners, who collected filth and took it by cart or boat beyond the city walls
- surveyors of the pavement, the first bin men, who kept thoroughfares clear by removing all nuisances of filth
- gong farmers, or early drain cleaners, who cleared out cesspits, latrines and privies
“They could earn in 11 nights work what a skilled labourer would take six months to earn,” says Snow. Many supplemented their income by selling human waste to farmers for fertiliser.
Some of the earliest built toilets in Britain are in the Tower of London, says Lucy Worsely, curator of Historic Royal Palaces. These are in the White Tower, built soon after the Norman conquest.
“The toilets, called garderobe, are all on the side away from the city so the subjugated Londoners wouldn’t see the conquering Norman poo dribbling down the side of the walls.
“The name garderobe – which translates as guarding one’s robes – is thought to come from hanging your clothes in the toilet shaft, as the ammonia from the urine would kill the fleas.”
And the word “loo” dates from medieval times, says Worsley, presenter of BBC Four’s If Walls Could Talk, a history of our homes to be broadcast on 13 April.
“Ordinary people would use a chamber pot, and when they wanted to empty it, they would open a window and shout out ‘gardez l’eau’ – watch out for the water. Gardez l’eau became loo.”