The collections

Hygiene and pollution in the Middle Ages

If access to running water andhygiene body were a major preoccupation of the Roman world of Antiquity, it was quite different in Middle Ages. Likewise, if the word pollution There was little in the medieval vocabulary, as surprising as it seems, it would have been appropriate ... Urban representations of the Middle Ages, iconographies, masterpieces, engravings, tapestries and sculptures show us streets with shiny cobblestones lined with houses well aligned. The reality of the time is very different.

The nuisances of the street

The archives abound in orders, trials, deliberations, investigations on a gloomy finding. The toponyms (names of streets and alleys) evoke '' foul sewers '' whose names: rue Cave, Trous Punais, La Sale, Foireuse, Basse-fesse, du Bourbier, are indicative of roads filled with dirt of all kinds ... What about rue Creuse, l'Alevasse, Bougerue, Pipi, rue des Aysances, de la Triperie? Or these charming little names given to certain streets and alleys of our towns: Merderons, Merdereaux (used for runoff) Merderouille, Merdaric, Merderel, impasse du Merdron, du Cloaque or Fosse-du -Poull.yon which allude to presence of filth? There is in Lourdes a Place Marcadal (muddy district) and nauseating ditches mentioned in 1412. The writings of the time used very varied expressions when it came to evoking excrement, pestilence, smelly. As for the filthy vocabulary exchanged during the frequent street disputes or dubious jokes, it was of a "Rabelésienne verdure" as if a whole part of the population were having an anal fixation!

Also mentioned are the nuisances caused by construction sites, overflowing workshops on the roadways, private workers' work, rubble, filthy potting soil, fiens, puddles and broths generated by rainwater. The street represents a real danger for those who use it because the mud, dirt, runoff, carts, horses, pigs, poultry, oxen stray dogs and itinerant merchants do not facilitate traffic.

Men, women of the Middle Ages and animals daily release organic matter on the roadway: excrement, blood from numerous bleeds, guts and viscera near slaughterhouses or fishmongers. The winding and congested streets retain the rubbish in piles massed in front of the carriage doors. The receptacles of this pollution are certainly the roadways but also the public squares, the canals, the innumerable ditches which cross the urban territory, the streams, the rivers, the ponds and the rivers.

In antiquity, the Egyptian, Assyrian and Greco-Roman civilizations bequeathed us solid curved paved ways to facilitate the flow of water, but the secondary roads poorly protected by dirt and pebble coverings did not resist. at the time.

In addition, the laxity of city officials, individual selfishness and lack of conscience worsen the situation. Only major events (preparation for a procession or a royal entrance) oblige the municipalities to take rapid hygiene measures. Before King Charles VIII entered the city of Pont-Audemer in Normandy in 1487, sixty days of maneuvering were needed to "carry out the mud and other dirt from the streets and markets".

The cities bustle with inquiries following complaints that multiplied during the 15th century.

The trades incriminated are those of metallurgy, textile dyeing, skin (tanners, parchment makers) food (butchers, fishmongers). The working-class districts of the lower town are more threatened than those of the notables in the upper town, favored by the slope and by more complete sewer circuits. For the wealthy, “doing one's aysements and defilements” at home is a sign of ease in the same way as owning a well, a stable or a private room. But the conduits buried in the beautiful neighborhoods open out in the open below near the cattle market before reaching the populous neighborhood!

The periods of political instability, passage of soldiers, and epidemics contributed to weaken the possibilities of human self-defense. During the Hundred Years War, paving or development costs were considered secondary.

Animal and human pollution

Human organic pollution results from an overload of residues from necessities (the word is medieval): "we release our waters" "'we defecate or more poetically we do" our drain and dirt "our emptying, we spit casually n 'matter or in the Middle Ages, to the chagrin of passers-by. Everyone meets their needs from the pavement, in the channel called according to the places `` esseau, essiau gazilhant, garillans '' at the feet of the facades of the houses, or in the central gutter, in the dead ends in the courtyards of the buildings, passages or traboules Lyonnais frequent at that time, under the covered market, on the square and under the gate of the churches! Piss pots, dirty water and rubbish are emptied through the windows, despite the edict of 1342 which prohibits the practice (the habit is said to be second nature).

Most of the time, farmyard animals and herds of pigs wander in the restricted space of the streets, among passers-by, between stalls, in search of food, causing accidents and bad smells. Their owners argue that they are useful for supplies and serve as municipal “garbage collectors”. Butchers and pork butchers from all ages work in the heart of the city, their stalls facing the street, they slaughter and cut up on the pavement in the absence of specific equipment. The "escorcheries" or "pipes" have left us with memories: La rue massacre in Rouen, le bourc-aux-tripes, les bouiauxls. Hundreds of animals killed on the spot flood the pavement with liters of blood, putrefied guts, bloody skins, stagnating and attracting insects, worms and rats before reaching the central gutter, to the sight and smell of residents. The same goes for the fishmongers, the tripe makers and the ciergiers who make the grease flow on the pavement.

Stray animals, formidable scourges, promote infectious diseases. Dogs, cats (whose fate was not enviable in the Middle Ages because of their evil reputation) rats and other pests proliferate, they are with mice, fleas lice mosquitoes responsible for serious skin infections and vectors of plague. Wolves, driven by hunger in winter, roam the streets and attack the weakest.

Chemical pollution

Medieval craftsmen are formidable for the neighborhood because for lack of space they work on the roadway on which the locksmiths smelters of tallow, blacksmiths spread liquid fats of fermentation and black boiler. The stationery mills of Essonne and Troye produce a paste `` la Chiffe '' based on macerated rags and infamous glue containing alum and skin parings giving off unattractive odors. In the mines, lead is responsible for lead poisoning, as well as the silicate of the quarrymen, causing incoercible vomiting and tremors (dance of St. Gui) In the workshops of the fullers the sulfur vapors, the handling of toxic animal and vegetable substances tannic extracts, soda, urine serve as a detergent and accelerate the putrefaction of fibers. The proximity of the boilers (tanks) of the tanners, of the vats filled with tincture (madder), saltpeter and lime represent a danger.

Residual water laden with waste is discharged into rivers. Washing and dyeing fatty tissue aggravates pollution, as does leather, parchment, tanning. The atmosphere is then saturated with repulsive odors of toxic fumes of carbon oxides of soot particles released by ovens, vats or manure pits.

Hygiene in the Middle Ages

The individual and collective grime ends up harming the environment creating the infectious air coming from the badly washed bodies of dirty and used clothes for the common man, because the public ovens too rare at the time (twenty seven in Paris for 200,000 people in 1290) are not for the poor. The more fortunate wash in copper or tin basins or have boilers or water kettles for washing their hands. But public opinion in the 15th century considered filth as a natural protection, a barrier to infection! (confirmed by medical treatises) Rather than "succumbing" to the plague, we prefer to leave our body covered with scabs and vermin, say the fierce opponents of public baths.

The odors also come from unsanitary and poorly insulated housing cellars with stagnant water in the courtyards. The workman's craftsman's shopkeeper's accommodation is cramped (three to five meters) and boils down to a smelly slum. The modest houses of Chambéry or medieval Annecy (which have not stood up to centuries) are built in wood, in dried stone in cob with thatched roof or tavaillons (wooden tiles) poorly protected from the cold and the humidity prone to frequent fires due to rough heating methods.

Nowadays, walkers go into ecstasies in front of the medieval houses, admire the cantilevered floors, the assemblies of the joists, the carved timber frames, the signs, the stained glass windows and the outbuildings. They are in fact exceptional testimonies of the habitats of notable people, beautiful private “ostels” which have survived the centuries at the cost of several restorations. They in no way reflect the daily life of the people.

Noise pollution and the evolution of the urban fabric

To the cacophony of sales pitch from artisans and hawkers, to the vituperation of wagon drivers unhappy with being stranded or with a troop of horsemen, is added the din of children playing or the cries of "folastres" singer or juggler, the chime of the bells that echo from one church to another. All these noises add up in the sound boxes that are the cramped streets. The poor people are awakened all night long by the cries of the carters, the night owls and the soldiers of the watch. By day, splashed with mud breathing miasma, jostled by workers laden with materials, porters, street vendors, cripples, rowdy children, dogs and pigs, assaulted by pickpockets and sometimes run over by clumsy drivers (traffic accidents are frequent) the life of passers-by is very difficult.

City dwellers are also used to leaving construction materials, slate tiles, tools, rubble, old rags, baskets and crates across the road. Each one manufactures displays and sells on the pavement in an anarchic clutter. The wheels of the carts, the trampling of the hooves separate the cobblestones or the pebbles from the coverings, multiply the potholes and the ruts of the streets in the middle of which a central gutter collects the rainwater, the dirty water of the workshops and housewives, the urine and dung. Overcrowded neighborhoods were more numerous at the end of the Middle Ages (effect of urban growth and industrial prosperity) and were a source of conflicts and lawsuits. The street is more than ever this “sunken tree that is to be seen and dangerous at night.” Many towns, like in Vannes, do not have the chance to use the facilities of antiquity and are confronted every day with a concentration. of waste that saturated nature can no longer ingest.

Aggravating situations and awareness

Other nuisances generated by unsanitary hospitals and poorly maintained cemeteries are also suspected of causing disease. The war-wounded hanging out in the streets exhibit incurable putrid wounds made by bladed weapons, arquebuses and other fire fights. Some have been infected since the last expeditions of Charles VIII and Louis XII leaving behind infected dressings and mercury-based remedies. The arrival of a troop, a state of siege or occupation marked their passage through mountains of garbage.

Since the Merovingian period the Middle Ages have been the scene of numerous epidemics of leprosy, the black plague (or pestilence) and the dreaded bubonic plague (held for divine punishments by popular belief) causing a third of the population to disappear in 1348 ( according to Froissard), leading to consequences for commercial, administrative and military activities. The man of this time is totally helpless in the face of these diseases whose microbial origin he ignores.

But the permanent sight and smell of the cesspool, the air corrupted by toxic fumes and rotten vapors opened awareness of the danger. We come to associate the rubbish obstructing the street, the ubiquitous manure, animal and human material dumped everywhere, stagnant water, the corruption of poorly preserved foodstuffs, foul water from fountains where everyone soaks anything, with recurrent infections and illnesses. Failing to foresee in advance, because people of the Middle Ages acted most of the time under the influence of necessity or fear, voices are raised for measures to be taken to "remove and move away from everything." which can be the cause and occasion of corruption or infection of air harmful to human body. These spontaneous reactions led to the publication of prescriptions and the first measures of sanitation.

From the 12th and 13th centuries, sovereigns such as Philippe Auguste and Louis IX in Paris, the seigniorial and ecclesiastical authorities, the municipal magistrates denounced the nuisances in their multiple aspects.

First measures (cleaning, purging and emptying)

In the order of priorities appear the provisions against anything which harms the traffic or which offends the eyes of the prince, the clerk or the rich bourgeois. Lawsuits are increasing against certain trades, measures taken for the authoritarian relocation of noisy and polluting activities that are transferred to the outskirts of cities. Cleaning systems are set up for rivers and canals, installing services to clean pavements and cobbled streets. The consuls of Millau forbid the spreading of pieces of sheets and skins on the walls of the enclosures. Already in 1374, Marguerite de Bourgogne asked that her good city of Dijon be cleaned, justifying the future municipal regulations. As early as 1243 the city councilors of Avignon decreed "that no one should" gect through windows or elsewhere from top to bottom of dirty liquids, straw, and human excrement, orines and other garbage ". Pits covered with plank called rubbish pits are dug outside the cities to receive waste.

During the 15th century, the establishment of ordinances aimed at tanners, fullers, parchment workers (from rue Mercière in Lyon), dyers, stock market glovers, hemp retters, brewers using roasted barley , the tallow smelters. Efforts are being made to move away from political and religious centers and busy streets, butchers and fish meats, which have been relocated to suitable buildings. We also clear the quays of very congested ports and rivers.

The breeding of pigs in the city is regulated at four per family with a ban on letting them wander. An intervention by the Archbishop of Reims forbids passers-by to `` urinate '' in the bread market and a fine of sixty solz is given to those who defecate in private places. The executioner and his assistants are tasked with exterminating the hordes of stray dogs. Hygiene rules are imposed on food professionals relating to working methods, quality and conservation of products (fish and meat decreed “ord and vils” are prohibited for sale). In 1450 bakers were required to maintain beards and hair, wear clean shirts and not knead the dough with "ulcer-infected" hands.

Water treatment, new `` withdrawals or aysements ''

Protection against water pollution involves reviewing harmful habits and unwanted spills. Decanting the water once a year, draining the stagnant water leading the sewers downstream rather than upstream is an imperative for communities and users. The book of the fountains of Rouen by Jacques Le Lieur gives details on the situation of the city in 1525 (a unique historical document of its kind). It will be necessary to increase the number of insufficient drinking water fountains in all the towns placed under the protection of a fountain guard. Hydraulic installations; with locks and valves are sometimes set up to ensure the flow of water necessary for domestic and artisanal uses, for industrial mills, as well as embankments to reinforce the banks, creations for breeding water fish soft (bream carp) to eliminate waste thrown into waterways.

The return to the methods of antiquity took off in the fourteenth and fifteenth century with the entire sewer, development of networks of collectors to rid the urban space of its dirty water, pipes in stones or rubble covered with 'slate. There are private conduits that lead down to the river which the owners must maintain.

In the 15th century, “rooms for residents' accommodation”, most of them collective, were generalized in the privileged towns, while others were private, rediscovered by archeology and opening onto pits, which implies considerable progress in terms of public and family hygiene. These cabinets are located at the end of a courtyard or a garden, in a wardrobe an attic, or overlooking the river, inside the houses in the thickness of a wall in a cage of staircase or suspended along a load-bearing wall. They are vaulted in rubble stone, have a masonry duct, air vents and can be emptied at the rear of the houses by professional emptiers.

The magnitude of the task, the high costs, individual selfishness; private interests; interminable trials slowed the expansion of progress. But, despite all that remains to be created during the Renaissance and in the following centuries to curb the harmful effects of pollution and those just as serious of lack of hygiene, the Middle Ages in France (accused of obscurantism) after a return centuries back, tried to redress a situation that could have been catastrophic for humanity (while other more advanced countries such as Belgium, Italy and the Nordic countries had shown the example).


- By Jean-Pierre Leguay: Pollution in the Middle Ages, Editions Gisserot Histoire, 1999.

Video: 15 Medieval Hygiene Practices That Might Make You Queasy (January 2022).