The Power of Poo: Waste and the Medieval Environment

The Power of Poo: Waste and the Medieval Environment – A Comparative Study of Three Cities – Siena, London and Gdansk (1150-1550)

By Leslie Carr-Riegel

Graduate Student Paper, 2015

17th century map of London

Introduction: This study will compare the ways in which three vastly different European cities and their civic institutions, London England – the Chartered Capital of a Kingdom, Siena Italy – an Oligarchic Republic, and Gdansk Poland – the reluctant territory of a Theocratic state, dealt with the universal dilemma of urban waste generation and its disposal during the years 1150-1550.


Direct comparison of three such very different communities is a nearly impossible task. Yet, it is for this very reason I have chosen to frame my study thus. By focusing on a single factor which was equally problematic for all – waste disposal, a comparison of the way in which each city responded can illuminate differences and similarities otherwise obscured; whilst by looking at others, we learn about ourselves.

As in any historical venture, my efforts have been hampered by the availability of sources. On certain subjects I have nearly drowned in material while on others the record is silent or merely whispers temptingly from footnotes and obscure marginalia. The lack, or more often imbalance, of sources between our three cities, where evidence from two on a subject has survived splendidly but disappeared completely from the other, has made the organization of this study a challenge. For example, the City Letter Books and records of the Assize of Nuisance have survived in London, which paint a dramatic picture of the garbage collection system organized there by the Aldermen and Wardmots. While in Siena, where garbage collection was for the most part organized by private associations, records have rarely survived. In Gdansk, the situation is altogether worse, as few even civic archives are extant, so that assertions can only be made through a judicious use of archeological evidence. I do therefore apologize for times when direct comparisons are impossible, or questions left unresolved. We are all slaves to our evidence.


medieval mag 38In order to alleviate these problems as much as possible, rather than adopting a narrative approach, or focusing simply on the mechanical details, I have sought to reflect upon what the leaders of each city, through their management of waste, sought to achieve: a clean and beautiful environment which was healthful for their citizens, encouraged economic expansion, and was conducive to an orderly society.

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