Living cheek by jowl: the pathoecology of medieval York
By Gary King and Charlotte Henderson
Quaternary International, No.341 (2014)
Abstract: Medieval York was one of the largest and most important cities in England. The close confines of the city, the household and industrial waste, alongside the air and water pollution made this a city known for its pervasive smells, which at the time were considered to be a leading cause of disease. This paper aims to present the environmental context for disease combined with the human osteological record to reconstruct the pathoecology of medieval York.
Combining archaeological and historical data, we gain insight into the interplay between medieval culture, disease, health, and the urban environment. It is clear that local authorities were concerned about urban pollution, and historical evidence demonstrates that legal measures were taken to remove or regulate some of the perceived causes of pollution. There is a demonstrable trend towards improving environmental conditions in York between the 11th and mid-16th century. However, it is likely that the extant socio-environmental conditions continued to contribute to morbidity, as evidenced by the prevalence of infection.
When one comes into a city to which he is a stranger, he ought to consider its situation, how it lies as to the winds and the rising of the sun; for its influence is not the same whether it lies to the north or to the south, to the rising or to the setting sun. These things one ought to consider most attentively, and concerning the waters which the inhabitants use, whether they be marshy and soft, or hard and running from elevated and rocky situations, and then if saltish and unﬁt for cooking; and the ground, whether it be naked and deficient in water, or wooded and well-watered, and whether it lies in a hollow, confined situation, or is elevated and cold.
From these things he must proceed to investigate everything else. For if one knows all these things well, or at least the greater part of them, he cannot miss knowing, when he comes into a strange city, either the diseases particular to the place, or the particular nature of the common diseases, so that he will not be in doubt as to the treatment of the diseases, or commit mistakes, as is likely to be the case provided one had not previously considered these matter