The Medieval Sense of Smell, Stench and Sanitation
By Dolly Jørgensen
Les cinq sens de la ville du Moyen Age a nos jours, eds. Ulrike Krampl, Robert Beck and Emmanuele Retaillaud-Bajac (Tours, 2013)
Introduction: Smell is uncontainable. Odour wafts over boundaries reaching those who had no part in their creation. The smeller will find some odours desirable and others detestable. The smeller’s reaction to a smell is not a given: the rejection of certain odours is related to cultural notions of both disease and disgust. Stench is in the nose of the smeller.
In this article, I investigate how the rejection of certain odours because of concerns about disease and disgust motivated early urban sanitation efforts in the medieval period. Using English and Scandinavian court records from the fourteenth through sixteenth-centuries, I examine reactions to and attempts at controlling smells from human and animal wastes in urban sanitation regulation in order to uncover how medieval city dwellers responded to offensive smells in their midst. C.M. Woolgar has previously discussed the moral implications of smell in this period – that smell could represent holiness or sinfulness – and thus individuals attempted to control smell through personal hygiene. Susan Signe Morrison has likewise analysed the social context of faeces through literature of the period. Here, I will focus not on the moral, religious or social implications of odours, but rather on the practical legal efforts to control contamination from foul smelling waste. We will see that in the medieval era, there was concern for the foul and the fragrant because smell had the ability to make people both literally sick and sick to their stomachs.
The complaints about waste handling in this article deal with biological waste – manure, human faeces, and animal corpses – which give off strong odours as they decompose. Researchers have found that there is a fairly consistent dislike of odours from bodily fluids across cultural boundaries, and concluded that this may be an evolutionary response linked to avoiding disease. One reaction to unacceptable environmental contamination is the creation of taboos, as proposed by Mary Douglas, in which certain practices are labelled as dangerous as a way to create order at the larger communal level. In the case of environmental pollution, medieval city government officials labelled biological wastes as dangerous because of their odours, but that danger may have been linked to both disease and disgust.