10 Truly Disgusting Facts About Life In Medieval England

Everyone Was Infested With Lice

It might not be too surprising, after all of this, to find out that the people of the Middle Ages had a little bit of a problem with lice. Pretty well everyone in medieval England struggled with lice and fleas, from the rich to the poor.

It was a regular part of some people’s days to gather around with their friends and family to pick lice off each other’s bodies. That was especially true for people who had to travel. Some crusaders left letters behind praising the laundry women who’d come with them, saying that not only would they wash their clothes, but they were as “good as apes for picking fleas.”[9]

The problem got worse the poorer you were, though, and it wasn’t restricted to England. When an English pilgrim named Margery Kempe traveled into a town of German peasants, she wrote home with disgust that the poor people of Germany would spend their evenings stripped naked, sitting in a circle and picking vermin off one another.

The River Thames Was Full Of Rotting Meat

Few places stank worse than the River Thames. During the Middle Ages, it was considered normal practice for butchers to gather up all their unused, rotten meat, bundle it up, drag it out to the bridge, and dump it in the river.

Dumping rotten animal parts into the river was so common that one bridge had earned itself the nickname “Butcher’s Bridge,” and it was the most disgusting place in the whole country. The bridge was famous for being covered in dried blood and pieces of animal entrails that had spilled out of the butchers’ carts.[10]

It took until 1369 before anyone made a law against it, but it didn’t do much good. Even after dumping meat into the Thames became a crime, people kept writing letters complaining about it. “No one, by reason of such corruption of filth” one local protested, “could hardly venture to abide his house there.”

It was pretty disgusting—but it didn’t really stop there. It took nearly 500 years before anyone managed to stop people from dumping every piece of waste they had into the River Thames. It took until the 19th century before anyone put an end to the River Thames’s stench. But for 500 years, London’s great river was one of the smelliest places on Earth.

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