Did People in the Middle Ages Really Throw Fecal Matter Out of Their Windows?

Aaron H. asks: Before sewer systems, did people in England really toss their poop into the streets?

poop-cupcakeAlthough Medieval Britons weren’t exactly the cleanest lot by modern standards (though contrary to popular belief, despite some well-known exceptions, they did, in general, bathe in some form or another relatively regularly), the idea of them just dropping trou and dumping half a pound of fecal matter into the street below isn’t exactly a fair or representative image. In fact, while Medieval Britons weren’t yet aware of how festering feces contributed to disease epidemics, they did know that it smelled really, really bad and, eventually, there was even some thought that said stinky fumes caused the spread of disease; thus, they made efforts to ensure the offending odors were kept as far away from their homes as possible.

Now, to be clear, generalizing about what a large and diverse group of people did over a millennium time span is extremely dodgy business, and we’re not saying that some Medieval Britons didn’t sometimes toss their solid waste out the window. (After-all, laws against doing just that, which we’ll talk about shortly, didn’t come from nowhere; and there certainly are many documented accounts of people doing this in said massive time-span, though you’ll note that many of said documented instances describe liquid, rather than solid waste.) We’re simply saying that the documented evidence at hand seems to indicate it was nowhere near as commonplace in Britain as pop culture would have you believe.

To begin with, particularly in the age when one-story buildings were the norm, tossing your own stink out the window meant you’d have to smell it any time you chose to open said window- not a recipe for a good time in the summer, particularly, but also just a recipe for a crappy time whenever you chose to step out your door… There your poop would be, staring you in the face, perhaps kept company by your neighbors’ latest expulsion.  Needless to say, even without laws against such a thing, it’s not surprising that defecating out the window doesn’t seem to have been most people’s go-to location to dump their latest dump.

That said, as multi-storied abodes began to pop up, residents of some of the higher homes occasionally do seem to have not been quite so discerning about keeping things fresh for the residents beneath them. Presumably, this played a role in laws being passed against tossing one’s own excrement out the window.

On that note, in most major cities in England, fines could and would be levied against citizens who created a stink – either metaphorically or literally – that inconvenienced their neighbours. For example, in the early 14th century, tossing anything out your window into the streets of London, whether human waste or just any sort of garbage, could see you fined 40p, which is difficult to translate to modern values accurately, but is (very) roughly equivalent to £108 or $142.

And one couldn’t just hope that nobody would notice if you tried tossing your waste out the window. Ultimately muckrakers and surveyors of the pavement were employed to make sure the thoroughfares stayed relatively clean, including disposing of any waste found in the streets (particularly needed owing to the thousands of horses and other animals tromping around major cities). Needless to say, while you could have mostly gotten away with emptying a chamber pot full of urine out your window (so long as neighbors weren’t complaining, there would be little stopping you), doing the same with solid waste would have likely meant you were going to get caught, even if you were a bit clever about the whole thing.

On that latter point, the 14th century London Assize of Nuisance (recording various disputes between individuals and their neighbors) tells of a Londoner called Alice Wade getting into trouble for rigging a pipe to her indoor latrine that washed her bodily expulsions into a nearby gutter that in turn was used to, essentially, flush a nearby latrine. Seems reasonable enough- her solid and liquid waste goes into the gutter which in turn drains into a place people do their necessaries in anyway; no need for her to have to manually carry her waste out of the home like a plebeian.

This woman was a problem solver.

Unfortunately for her, things didn’t quite go as planned on the solid-waste side of things. To wit:

whereas of old in the par. of St. Michael Queenhithe, a gutter running under certain of the houses was provided to receive the rainwater and other water draining from the houses, gutters and street, so that the flow might cleanse the privy on the Hithe, Alice Wade has made a wooden pipe connecting the seat of the privy in her solar with the gutter, which is frequently stopped up by the filth therefrom, and the neighbours under whose houses the gutter runs are greatly inconvenienced by the stench. Judgment that she remove the pipe within 40 days etc.

(And now, let us all pause and reflect on the fact that some seven centuries after the fact, we just had good reason to dig up and discuss the record of a woman’s ingenious defecating habits, with this stinky knowledge very likely being the only thing history will ever remember about the unique individual that was Alice Wade…)

In any event, in cases where a perpetrator could not be found, fines would be levied against all homes immediately surrounding smelly waste lying in the streets. As you can imagine, people didn’t often take kindly to being fined for someone else’s laziness and there’s at least one recorded example of a man being kicked half to death by his neighbours for throwing smoked fish skin out of his window onto the street; we can only imagine what they’d have done if he’d added his own fishy excrement to the tossed out mix.

Thus, with the ever-present threat of mob justice and harsh fines, sticking your butt out of a window and squeezing out a stink-bomb onto the masses below, as freeing as it might have felt, just wasn’t worth it, particularly when Britons had better (at least in terms of the “out of sight, out of mind” factor) means of waste disposal at their, well, disposal.

So where did all the poop from populated regions go in an age before massive sewer systems and ubiquitous indoor plumbing? In short, rivers and fields.

In houses where they had no indoor plumbing to speak of, Britons would usually do their business in a bucket or chamber pot, which would either be dumped directly into a river, or a gutter designed to transport said waste to the river- the hope being that when the rain fell, it would wash the poop away to its new, underwater home; out of sight, out of mind.

In more affluent homes that had rudimentary plumbing, the two p’s would make their way to either a private or communal cesspit, often buried underground to reduce the smell.

These cesspits, or gongs as they were known (from the Old English “gang”, meaning “to go”), were designed such that the liquid waste would be absorbed into the surrounding soil (occasionally conveniently located near public wells…) while the solid waste would accumulate over a period of many months. Ultimately, these then needed to be emptied by hand- a job commonly performed by individuals known as “gong farmers”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given their profession, gong farmers were exceptionally well-paid, sometimes earning in a day what most labourers earned in a week, and in times of plague potentially even more. They also infrequently found valuables amongst the waste that they were free to keep, though it’s noted that they also occasionally found skeletons from murder victims and unwanted babies. So, yeah…

The job wasn’t without its risks. Besides the obvious disease risk-factor that accompanies hopping into a pit of poop and shoveling it out, the fumes could sometimes cause a gong farmer to faint in the muck, or they might otherwise just fall into a gong too deep to stand in.  (As an example of how big some of these pits could be, there is record of it taking 13 men five full nights to empty out a privy at Newgate Gaol in 1281.)

We also know that because some privies designed with the gongs directly beneath were not emptied frequently enough, the floorboards above could become saturated. As a result, the boards sometimes collapsed, occasionally resulting in deaths via drowning in waste. (While technically one should float quite easily in such a scenario, we can only imagine said individuals struggling to get their heads above the filth after falling in may have had some suctioning effects pulling them under in their panic… or they otherwise were simply overcome by the fumes before help could come.)

Moving outside of Britain, famously Emperor Frederick I once was rescued from such a fate in 1184 by grabbing onto a window as the floor collapsed and hanging on for dear life until help came, though certain members of his court standing nearby were not so lucky. Back in Britain, one Richard the Raker is remembered in history thanks solely to sitting down on his own privy one day and having the rotted boards brake under him, causing him to fall into the muck below and “drown in a dreadful manner”, as recorded in the London Coroners’ Roll of 1326.

Back to the gong farmers, amplifying the risks of their profession was the fact that they worked exclusively at night, so that the smell of harvesting and carting the poop around wouldn’t bother the day walkers of the world.  We imagine having fire as the sole source of lighting doing such work probably also created a nice little bonus danger to the profession, though we couldn’t specifically find any documented record of a gong farmer dying as a result of gas pockets exploding (though, for what little it’s worth, there are some references who claim such did happen, but without citing a specific known instance).

As for where the poop went after being harvested, given the volume they were dealing with, gong farmers generally weren’t allowed to just go and dump the barrels of muck directly into the river. Instead, they were supposed to take the waste to designated spots away from the city or town; these spots could be anything from a public land area to sometimes ships which would carry the waste off to a farther away destination. Either way, this concentrated mass of waste often ended up being used as fertiliser.

Lazy gong farmers, however, do seem to have occasionally dumped it directly into a stream or river, though the consequences for being discovered doing this in some regions were decidedly unpleasant.  For example, there is record of one gong farmer who improperly disposed of some waste being made to stand immersed in fecal matter up to his neck and then, dripping with said waste, was further forced to stand on public display for a time as punishment.

It should also be noted that public latrine facilities did exist, often either emptying directly into a river, such as the ones on London Bridge, or otherwise collecting in a cesspit that would be routinely emptied as needed. However, as the population swelled to massive numbers in certain cities, like London, the number of these facilities just couldn’t keep up with demand.

As we move beyond the Middle Ages, with sewage infrastructure and technology progressing slightly, the people of British cities still nevertheless continued to commonly dump their chamber pots into rivers. Compounding the problem was that cesspits would occasionally overflow into the streets, with said waste often just ending up in nearby rivers and streams anyway because of it…

In London, specifically, this centuries old habit of making human waste Poseidon’s problem finally in the 19th century bit residents on the behind. The problem started thanks to an unnaturally warm summer which resulted in centuries of fetid waste caking the shores of the Thames being exposed. This then all baked in the Sun, causing a smell so bad the government first simply attempted to re-locate themselves to a new city… but then when that ingenious plan failed, they finally ordered the construction of a proper sewage system to take care of the swelling populaces’ poop- a sewage system that is still in use today, in fact, and pretty much immediately upon its creation began saving literally thousands of lives per month. (For much more detail, in one of our most interesting articles in my opinion, see: The Great Stink of 1858.)

So to conclude, while dumping one’s fecal matter out the window appears to be something that did at least occasionally happen in the Middle Ages in Britain, the evidence at hand seems to indicate that this was a relatively rare occurrence; the majority of human waste that found its way into the streets tended to just be from things like overflowing cesspits, which the more affluent used as a part of their rudimentary indoor plumbing systems. As for the rest of the populace of cities, they generally pooped into containers, the contents of which they would (usually) deposit into a nearby river or stream, or gutter system that led to such.

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Bonus Fact:

  • Despite the centuries of technological innovation made since the Middle Ages, the streets of Victorian London were likely more filthy than those of the city in Medieval times. This was due to the widespread adoption of horse drawn carriage which caked the streets of the city in a near-permanent sheet of horse dung and urine, despite the efforts of countless workers in charge of keeping the streets clean. For reference here, it is estimated that approximately 1,000 tons of horse dung per day was deposited in the streets of London in the late 19th century. The ammonia from the urine was known to discolour shop fronts and the amount of soot in the air from factories was said to be able to turn sheep black in a few days.
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  • How has no one used a great name like “The Gong Farmers” for their band?

  • In “A Distant Mirror” historian Barbara Tuchman described the sanitation system of 14th-century Paris. Some time before the city had installed a state-of-the-art sewage management system – they dug a trench the length of each street and sloped the streets toward it, so human and animal waste would eventually make it to the trench.

    Meanwhile, householders would dump their chamber pots on either side of their doors, resulting in sloping piles of waste bracketing the door, trailing out into the street.

  • “generalizing about what a large and diverse group of people did over a millennium time span ”
    Well maybe not a millenium actually. It seems that there was a massive mix up when we stopped using the Roman calendar and went from AD250 ish to AD1,000 and when you look at inventions and technological advancements it is hard to support the idea that everything just stopped evolving for 700 years.

    • Most people who believe that peg it at around 300 years, but, Carl Sagan used to say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. All of the arguments for such an astounding claim seems to be circumstantial. Some inconsistencies and mistakes in dating aren’t really proof that. Any historians who believed such a thing would love the acclaim they received for definitively proving we skipped hundreds of years on our calendars. I can’t see any reasons for a coverup. (And if it’s a church thing, they can’t silence all of the world’s archeologists and historians.)

  • Many years ago I visited Kathmandu. Much of the city did not have indoor plumbing. Custom was for the women to go out just before sunrise and the men just after. On a morning walk I would see the results pretty much everywhere. Then the pigs and dogs came around and picked it all up. Probably why eating pork is frowned upon in some cultures.

    I recall a guesthouse that had a little outhouse projecting off the roof and over a pig yard. If somebody went in to use it, the pigs would gather below to fight over the product. Catch it in the air if they could.

    I am not sure where the pigs and dogs went.

    Trash in New Dehli was much the same. Some guy would come out of a building and drop a pile of trash in the middle of the road. Raggedy kids would collect anything that would burn or could be sold. Cows and dogs would eat what could be eaten and so forth. I would sit and watch this happen. Pretty soon there was nothing left but some ash which became some of the dirt in the road.

  • Very interesting, but two typos you might want to fix: feint (faint) and goal (gaol).

  • Great article. Thank you. Brightened up my Monday morning – although it did put me off my breakfast

  • Not just in Ye Olde England either … our small Ky town had a local elderly resident who dumped her chamber pot off the back porch of her decrepit old house into the ravine clear up to the 1990’s … the neighbors were NOT happy. finally, after many years of wrangling, they got a grant, forced her out of the hovel, tore it down and built her a new house. She complained bitterly the whole time….

  • So, should we credit Alice Wade with inventing indoor plumbing?