Environmental management in medieval London: was London a ‘filthy city’?
By Barbara Rouse
Master’s Thesis, Massey University, 2013
Abstract: The BBC series “Filthy Cities” presented medieval London as knee deep in muck, with rivers of butchers’ waste washing into streams and chamber pots emptied on the heads of hapless passers-by. This thesis asks whether medieval London was really a “filthy city”. It also investigates medieval attitudes towards the London environment, as a living space, pollution sink and a source of sustenance. The evidence for the state of the environment in medieval London and how the environment was managed is contained in a variety of primary sources, largely court records, ordinances, complaints and directives to abate pollution.
In order to provide a framework for analysis, this study examines whether environmental models currently used to manage and monitor the environment might provide a useful method for assessing the state of the environment in medieval London. A modified Driver-Pressure-State-Impact Response environmental reporting framework is proposed, taking account of the data limitations and the paucity of data on the environment per se. The selection of indicators for drivers and pressures on the environment is based on available information on the medieval economy, demography, housing, and industrial processes from documentary and archaeological sources. The key drivers are economic, cultural and demographic and give rise to pressures related to population, density, consumption, and associated resource demands and waste disposal problems.
Records of regulations and complaints provide information on both pressures and responses to environmental problems. Building on and considerably extending previous work, this study provides a detailed analysis of the Assize of Nuisance court records. It focusses on cases of environmental nuisance and supplements these with information on ordinances and cases from the Mayor’s Court. As shown in the modified DPSIR framework, responses may be precipitated by environmental problems, or that have spin-off environmental benefits.
This thesis assesses public infrastructure and services, and private activities, serving to reduce environmental effects. It also looks at how the city managed the Thames, and in particular the conflicts between various uses. Overall, the evidence suggests that the city’s environment was well managed other than in times of crisis such as the plague epidemics, given the resources and technology available. The inhabitants of medieval London may have tolerated a dirtier smellier environment than inhabitants of modern-day western cities, but beyond a certain threshold, they were highly intolerant of pollution of their immediate environment.