10 Truly Disgusting Facts About Life In Medieval England

If you ever find yourself trapped in history, you might want to bring a nose plug. Everyday life, before modern sewage and sanitation, could get pretty gross. We’ve covered some examples of this before.

It didn’t get much grosser than medieval England, though. In the days of Chaucer, to walk through the streets of London was to see and experience some of the most disgusting sights and smells you can imagine. Fantasy epics tend to gloss over the following aspects of medieval life for obvious reasons.

People Piled Garbage And Feces In Front Of Their Homes

When a British family had filled their chamber pots and stuffed their house with waste and rotting food, they were expected to clean it out. Officially, they were supposed to gather up their whole mess and carry it outside the city limits. It was one of those ideas that sounded great on paper—but in practice, nobody was about to waste their time doing that when there was a perfectly good street to dump things right outside their front door.

Trash piled up in front of people’s homes, ranging from old chicken bones to emptied-out chamber pots. Legend has it that people dumped their chamber pots out their windows so often that chivalrous men were expected to let women walk on the inside of the sidewalk so that any raining feces would fall on the man’s head instead.

Nobody even tried to stop people from dumping things on the streets until the 14th century, when King Edward II introduced England’s first law against dumping poop on the road. Even then, though, his expectations were pretty low. “All filth deposited before houses [must] be removed within a week,” the law ordered, and “pigs [must] be kept from wandering in the streets.”[1]

It didn’t have much of an effect. The trash kept piling up, and people just adjusted. Wealthy people would carry perfumed cloths against their nose whenever they stepped outside to keep from throwing up, and the king started hiring professionals to clear the filth off the road.

The Sewers Flooded When It Rained

As awful as the roads smelled on an average day, they were infinitely worse after it rained. The streets of medieval England were made of dirt and cobblestone, designed to slope into a rainwater ditch in the middle of the road to prevent flooding. This would’ve been a fine design if people would’ve just stopped jamming their trash everywhere they could.

The people of medieval England would cram everything they threw out into the rainwater ditches. They’d stuff these things so full that, by the time it rained, they were totally useless. Instead of stopping floods, the clogged ditches would overflow. Then they’d dislodge the months of trash that had built up inside them, drenching it and spilling it all over the streets.

When the sky cleared up, the roads would be covered in wet trash and feces slowly drying in the sun—and stinking up the entire town.[2]

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