A good riddance of bad rubbish? Scatological musings on rubbish disposal and the handling of ‘filth’ in medieval and early post-medieval towns

A good riddance of bad rubbish? Scatological musings on rubbish disposal and the handling of ‘filth’ in medieval and early post-medieval towns

By Dave Evans

Exchanging Medieval Material Culture: Studies on archaeology and history presented to Frans Verhaeghe, edited by Koen De Groote, Dries Tys and Marnix Pieters (Brussels, 2010)

Introduction: One definition of archaeology would be that it is the study of mankind through those vestiges and physical remains of its past which chance to survive. As a result, we tend to spend a considerable part of our professional lives studying material which has been discarded, for whatever reason; perhaps because it was no longer needed, or had been broken or used up, or that it represents the unwanted by-products of a process or activity: in a word, rubbish. Added to that, we have the ageold problem of what to do with human excrement and liquid waste, particularly on settlement sites.

Archaeological literature is full of references to ‘rubbish pits’, ‘cesspits’, and various terms for latrines (e.g. garderobes, toilets, lavatories, closets, etc.); however, whilst the presence of such structures is almost always noted and described, all too often, rather less thought is given to the all important questions of what exactly do we mean by some of these terms (particularly, rubbish pits and cesspits), and how did these structures function; in short, what did people do with their rubbish, what does the material contained in these pits actually signify, and how representative of what would have been in use on these sites are the material assemblages recovered from these contexts?

Finds researchers have long recognised the opportunities of ered by the study of sealed groups of material incorporated in the fills of cesspits and rubbish pits, or in the dumps of rubbish found behind waterfront revetments; however, rather more attention has been devoted to the study of such finds per se, than to the interpretation of their significance within such contexts.

The wealth of evidence pertaining to rubbish disposal practices and sanitation in English medieval towns was first identified by some of the 19th- and early 20th-century historians publishing extracts from our better-preserved borough records (e.g. H.T. Riley and Reginald Sharpe in London; W. Hudson and J.C. Tingey in Norwich; or T.P. Cooper in York); but, it was the detailed synthesis of the evidence from medieval London, carried out by Ernest Sabine in three successive ground-breaking papers, which laid the foundations for the modern study of this subject.

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