Pollution And Privies: Medieval Delights

bath-houseThe question of hygiene in past eras is a fascinating one. It is a subject which seems to invite a feast of different assumptions – and I have heard everything from “They were filthy – never washed because the church said it was sinful – and stank the place out,” through to: “No, they were regular bathers, washed their clothes frequently and smelled no worse than we do today.” The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but during the period that interests me which is the late 15th century, I veer more towards a belief in cleanliness rather than the opposite. However – nothing is ever quite that simple.

We have it on record, for instance, that in one large noble household all linen, including the intimate apparel of the nobility themselves, was thoroughly washed every three days. We are given to assume from this that bedding was changed often, also shifts and sweaty shirts, whilst the gentlemen changed their braies (underpants) that frequently. But of course this information, although fascinating, is as deceptive as most of the rest.

Since wealthy gentlemen would certainly have owned more than one pair of braies, it is perfectly possible that they put on a clean pair every morning rather than waiting for wash-day, and the three day wash cycle would therefore be irrelevant in that respect. On the other hand, some men might have refused to keep such hygienic habits. Washing whatever was passed to the laundry girls every three days does not prove everyone discarded their dirty underwear that often. Nor can we be sure that other establishments carried out laundry duties with the same regularity. Some may have been even more diligent. Others may have been far more lax.

I also imagine that having been jousting for most of the day, or after having spent several days in the saddle, (not an unusual practise) the clothes would be sweaty and grimy, however often they were usually washed at home. So cleanliness was considered advisable up to a point – but what probably did not happen was the sort of shocked disgust at dirt and smells which we now experience. They would all have been far more accustomed to grime.  So his grubby knickers might not be the worst of your problems when your gallant knight came riding home.
Bed and table linen was regularly washed and then spread out on the hedges to dry in the sun. However, the nobility’s outer clothes were rarely washed. The great sweeping velvets and heavy brocades with their golden laces, fur trimmings and satin ribbons were kept clean by extensive brushing and wiping, and with the use of steam and Fuller’s Earth. More personal hygiene was considered equally important. Teeth were cleaned with specially cut birch twigs, and soap came in various different qualities from the cheap brown liquid available for the poor, up to the expense of solid white Spanish soap.
On the other hand, human waste was an accepted part of the everyday experience and wasdfdf01ae9e863344398263cd32b1be2b used as part of normal manure spread as fertilizer on country crops. Urine was considered a useful ‘crop’ in itself and was used in the process of tanning hides and in dying fabrics amongst others. Animal blood and brains were generally allowed to disappear into the shallow central gutters around the butchers’ quarters in any township, the animals that roamed most streets (dogs, goats, pigs and others) would add their own contributions, and most mornings the average housewife would empty the family chamber pots into the gutters as well. Much of this muck would remain until washed away by the rain, although large towns employed ‘raykers’ to clear the gutters on a regular basis, while diligent shopkeepers cleaned the gutters directly outside their own premises – sweeping the filth down to the next shop along!
In medieval times, privies were not an entirely wholesome affair, although they certainly existed, both in private homes and for public use (though public privies were men only). They were usually small cubicles tucked away in dark and quiet areas of the house, but invariably without any enclosing door.

Some public privies were built on London Bridge, not exactly private at all. These would take the form of a long polished wooden bench with several neat holes in a row. You would therefore be sitting in extremely close and undivided proximity to the next man. It was generally considered bad manners to talk directly to someone who was seated upon the privy. These ‘jaykes’ or ‘seats of ease’ as they were often known, usually opened directly down into the river, the cess pit or the moat below. Plumbing was unknown. One precarious set of London privies built to jut out with direct access to the Thames beneath, unfortunately collapsed after much use. They and their occupants hurtled into the river, and that is a picture I just cannot bear to visualise.

b_zps28de9931I have an idea that the general public went about their daily business with a constantly full bladder, suffering from the continuous discomfort of having very few opportunities to empty it. Certainly men urinating in public is mentioned as a fairly normal occurrence, (the gutters again) though surely only in some areas. Women, I imagine, found the situation even more inconvenient. Later this problem was overcome with several ingenious and hilarious methods, but during the late medieval it was a matter of suffering in silence until able to hurry home.
There were communal cess pits and these would be emptied from time to time by the busy gong-farmers, but I imagine the stench was fairly strong. Many busy waterways became almost clogged with general waste; The Fleet, for instance. The pollution, however unpleasant, was, of course, of a natural kind and not in any manner chemical – so the fish did not object. The Thames continued to be heavily fished for many years in spite of what else floated there.
So no wonder the water was, in general, unsafe to drink, although it was accepted for use in washing and cooking. It was safer when boiled, whilst ale, beer and wine were for drinking. In country areas, however, there would be fresh streams where the water would be drinkable, and usually deep wells would also be uncontaminated. 
Bathing was certainly a generally accepted necessity and quite luxurious baths were known to exist in all great houses. Wooden and barrel shaped for the most part, they could be linen lined and cushioned

with head rests. Hot water was carried in bucketfuls by the servants, with water boiled in cauldrons over the kitchen fires. The water could be perfumed with herbs, towels were warmed, and apart from condensation dropping from the ceiling beams, this would be a hygienic and very cosy affair.

Of course, the poorer folk had far fewer advantages. Few if any would have a private privy within the house or even outside it (a chamber pot would be the best they could do) and would be unlikely to own their own bath. There were public wash-houses however, which sometimes had a reputation for other activities apart from simply getting clean – but bathing and the washing of clothes and household linen still took place.
Naturally, it was hundreds of years before a scientific knowledge of hygiene and its connection with health was understood. Germs were undiscovered, and the cause of infectious diseases unknown. Even polluted water was avoided not because it could cause dysentery, typhoid or at least diarrhoea, but simply because it looked and tasted vile. Therefore the disposal of waste directly into the waterways continued and increased as the population grew. Vegetables and salads would be washed to remove the earth still attached before cooking but for no other reason, contact with animals was not thought in any manner unhealthy, and I doubt that hand washing after using those doubtful privies was considered imperative either.
These conditions naturally encouraged parasites and the poor could rarely escape the problems of lice, fleas and intestinal worms. Indeed, the habits of farmers, the use of manure, and the accepted behaviour of cooks and scullions even in the most illustrious establishments, ensured that although the nobility might avoid fleas and lice, (although Henry VII’s father, Earl of Richmond, died from the plague, and that meant a flea bite).they would certainly suffer frequent if not continuous infestations of intestinal roundworms. This actually continued up until and including the 2nd World War – so hardly a matter of wonder or concern. The roundworm was virtually universally tolerated until less than a hundred years ago, and unless these parasites accumulated in unusually huge numbers, they gave few if any symptoms. The recent over-dramatic reaction on this score is absurd, since the roundworm remains virtually undiagnosed, unnoticed and unimportant, yet flourishes almost worldwide to this day.
Conduits existed, and water carriers supplied the households of larger towns and cities but this often came directly from those same contaminated rivers, so on the whole it is surprising that the population managed to avoid disease as well as it did. There is another point to consider, of course. Our natural bodily immunity is often enhanced after becoming much habituated, and we are now told that our compulsive cleanliness only adds to our vulnerability, weakens our immune systems and brings about endless allergies. But I cannot imagine this means we would in any manner benefit from returning to the chamber pot and the use of medieval gutters.
So during the late medieval there were few standards we’d wish to copy today, indeed the smell of the cities was certainly rank, dysentery was common – and usually fatal. However, a desire for cleanliness was an accepted part of life at that time and considerable effort went into bathing and keeping clean.
It was many years later when the grosser behaviour, the overcrowding, the increased filth, cholera and typhoid became almost unbearable. After the Puritan horror of nakedness (dirt was holier, it seems) we then hear of the great balls and parties of the nobility during the 16th to 19th centuries, with their incredible luxury and sumptuous clothes. But our romantic fiction rarely tells us that the crush of a ballroom would have been overheated and noxious with the stench of old stale sweat and the cloying sickly smell of the perfume attempting to disguise it, the rampant lice in the unwashed wigs, and the fleas visibly leaping on some of the bodies. 17th century gentlemen were known to urinate in the fireplace, though hopefully not in female company, and the licentious habits of the Restoration era included some other unsavoury habits. So it got worse before it got better.
But at least I can imagine my late 15th century characters without having to hold my nose! The desire for cleanliness was both determined and accomplished within most 15th century households and considerable trouble was exercised in order to accomplish a standard of cleanliness which in those days was none too easy.

The Dastardly Death Of William, Lord Hastings

William HastingsIt appears that the traditional assumptions surrounding the execution of William, Lord Hastings in June of 1483, generally incline towards the idea that the Lord Protector, Richard Duke of Gloucester, simply lost his temper and so, without lawful trial or consultation, ordered the immediate beheading of his previous friend, virtually on the spur of the moment.

This assumption is derived from depictions in Tudor literature claiming that the Duke of Gloucester was infuriated by Hastings’ rigid support of the uncrowned Edward V, contrary to the wishes of the wicked duke who was eager to usurp the throne in the prince’s stead. This account of these events was written down after many preceding decades of indoctrination, when the Tudor-era orthodoxy of the usurping, murdering king had become imprinted on popular consciousness.

The writer who invested the confrontation with its best-known dramatic scenario, later adopted by Shakespeare, was Sir Thomas More, whose various attempts at a ‘history of Richard III’ are loathed by some, beloved of many, and seriously analysed by all too few. Since there exists no official contemporary documentation of exactly what happened, More’s chatty details attract those searching for explanations. It is often further assumed that, although More’s various elaborate accounts concern a time when he was a child and certainly not present, on the occasion of Hastings’ death, John Morton, Bishop of Ely, was certainly present and must therefore have witnessed exactly what happened. More, it is said, would thus have been told the truth by Morton some years afterwards when the young Thomas later lived as a page in Morton’s household.

However, regardless of assumptions, Thomas More himself reveals no source of information for his dramatic construction concerning the Duke of Gloucester’s peremptory execution of Hastings pursuant to a hissy fit. It is unsupported by any contemporary source, although the execution itself was condemned by some contemporary chroniclers. Sadly, very few later commentators appear to have bothered to take into account the bias of those contemporary accounts, or the probable circumstances (leaving dramatics aside) that actually led to Hastings making an attempt on Gloucester’s life.

Let us take one point at a time:

1) The incident occurred in the context of two events which are generally agreed to have464472629 preceded it, i.e. the disclosure that there was an impediment to Edward IV’s marriage with Elizabeth Woodville which rendered their offspring potentially illegitimate, and the discovery by Gloucester of threats to his life which prompted him to call for protection in the shape of forces from the North, combining in an atmosphere of heightened tension and insecurity.

2) Contemporary accounts report that Hastings was officially accused of treason. The simultaneous arrests of several others support the existence of a treasonous conspiracy. Any assumption that this accusation of treason was untrue is unsupported by any existing evidence. The crime of treason at that time was the most serious in the land, and could not be slung at just anyone, in particular someone as powerful as Lord Hastings, without any substantiation. In days leading up to the arrest and execution, Hastings is reported to have been seen visiting the houses of Morton and others who were caught up in the arrests. Morton and Hastings were most unlikely companions and this report – if true – raises considerable suspicion.

3) Some people mistakenly suppose that the crime of treason related only and exclusively to violent actions against the ruling monarch’s person. This is untrue and there are many sources which indicate that treason took many and varied forms. The further assumption that Hastings was simply attempting to support the true king (the young uncrowned Edward V) against the actions of the Protector, and therefore his attack on the Protector was not treason but loyalty to the crown, is an even further exaggerated train of suppositions without support, evidence, or even logic.

4) Others accused of having been involved in the same treason were arrested at the same time:- three present in the council chamber, and several others across London – their arrests carefully timed to coincide. This points to the uncovering of a treasonous conspiracy and the planning of a lawful reaction which would stop that treason before it became any more dangerous.

5) There is an account of a public proclamation made immediately after the execution, regarding the treason and the culprits’ arrest. There was neither secrecy nor lack of explanation given to the public concerning the situation. The accusation of treason and its consequences remained undisputed by any legal challenge or recorded public outcry at the time.

6) More’s account, written so many years later, denies the legality of the Protector’s actions. But More had no possible way of knowing the details he recounted. The mighty and extremely busy John Morton (by then Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor) chatting at length with his insignificant page and telling him stories of what happened many years previously, is not only highly unlikely but somewhat ingenuous. Indeed, Morton would rarely even have been at home let alone conducting cosy discussions with one of his pages. However, if such an improbable little scene did take place, the fact that Morton himself was one of those arrested and accused of treason, would certainly place a huge doubt on the veracity of any tale he told.

7) Richard of Gloucester’s proven record of rationality, of intelligent administration and commitment to the rule of law, would make this supposed hissy fit exceedingly out of character.

8) The arrests and following events took place in a council meeting at the Tower, in front of members of the Royal Council – the most powerful and influential lords of the land, together with their attendant officers. It is both naive and absurd to suppose that Richard could behave in some highly improper and illegal manner in such company without consequences to himself including a virtual battle in the council chamber.

9) Kindly old Hastings, simply standing loyally by the rights of his old friend’s son, is a total illusion. Hastings was a massively ambitious man. His many years of fighting bitterly against Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset, the queen’s elder son and Lord Rivers, her brother, (largely regarding disputed land borders) show him to have been ruthless and capable of cruelty. He had recently quarrelled with Edward IV and been deprived of some of his power, but this was – after warnings given – returned to him just before the king’s death. Hastings was certainly no cosy daddy-figure.

10) As for the allegedly illegal execution – and this is the most important ingredient in the murky soup of supposition – the accepted legal powers of the High Constable, (one of Richard of Gloucester’s long-held and most powerful offices) empowered him to hold an immediate trial of Hastings for treason in that place and at that time, and to pass sentence without leave of appeal. The other members of the council present would have stood witness, thus there was no outcry against the following execution. Since no documentation survives (and indeed the Court operated under the Law of Arms and was not required to keep records), it is impossible to say if any such trial took place. There is no specific evidence that it happened. Nor is there any specific evidence that it did not. However – since Richard of Gloucester was most certainly empowered to hold such a trial, it is logical and natural from what is known of his concern for the justice system, that he would have used the legal powers at his disposal. What is now doubted and frowned upon by modern judges with little or no comprehension of the medieval mind, would have seemed utterly right in those days – and in fact utterly necessary according to the situation. Summary courts with powers of life and limb, such as that of the High Constable, were important elements in the exercise of authority during the Middle Ages, and in fact Hastings himself presided over just such a summary court at Calais.

For this knowledge I am entirely indebted to Annette Carson and her recently published book RICHARD DUKE OF GLOUCESTER, AS LORD PROTECTOR AND HIGH CONSTABLE OF ENGLANDhttp://www.annettecarson.co.uk/357052369 which outlines with considerable clarity and detail, based on existing documentation and clear historical precedent, the official powers the Duke of Gloucester held in 1483. This book does not set out to prove the rights and/or wrongs of the situation regarding Hastings’s execution, nor does it prove that any trial took place. It does indicate, however, that a trial could immediately have been called, and that if the proceedings found him guilty of treason Hastings would have been justly and legally executed.

In the first months of 1483 after King Edward’s death, the country was in a perilous position, and it was the duty of the Lord Protector and Defender of the Realm to keep the land and its people safe. There had already been an attempt to raise an army and civil war might have ensued (certainly the queen’s family continued organising uprisings, which came to fruition in the autumn months). It was Richard’s principal responsibility to be aware of all dangers and put a stop to them before the risk might escalate. Such an attitude must have been paramount when faced with whatever treason was discovered. That his actions are now seen as suspicious is a function of the villainy later attributed to his actions, and appears to ignore the pressures and demands involved in his personal responsibility for national security.

Today, amongst those interested (whether or not they have researched the era or the life of Richard III at all) there is a somewhat irritating attitude by which if you argue and judge Richard III guilty of something, then you are being open minded and unbiased. Whereas if you argue and judge him innocent, then clearly you are prejudiced and are making an attempt to exonerate and justify him and treat him as a saint.

But most of those who exhibit the former attitude appear to think the powerful lords of the late fifteenth century must have been weaklings and brainless puppets, too stupid or frightened to stand up for themselves. They sat meekly, it seems, while the wicked Duke of Gloucester got away with anything and everything. It is unwise to so vastly underestimate the over-riding power of the lords and the church, the three estates of parliament and the Royal Council during this period. Had they so meekly acquiesced to apparent villainy, they would, in fact, have been complicit to it. Instead no single man ever held absolute total power, not even the king.

See Annette Carson’s book RICHARD III; THE MALIGNED KING http://www.amazon.com/Richard-III-Maligned-Annette-Carson/dp/0752452088/ which remains a reliable source for the arrest and execution of Lord Hastings and the other important events of 1483 following the death of King Edward IV.

Christmas Curiositie’s

FOT1220192In the northern hemisphere, winter can be long, dark and bleak. In ancient times this could mean starvation. The land froze and any remaining crops, edible roots and herbs disappeared under the snow. Farm animals were brought under cover, or killed and their meat preserved by smoke. Chickens stopped laying. Wild animals were harder to hunt, as they either migrated south or slunk deeper into the thicker parts of the forest. Sometimes hungry wolves crept from undercover and attacked vulnerable folk living in outlying huts. In those past centuries, poverty increased in winter, the sun barely rose, and older folk died of hypothermia. It was a season to fear.

And so, the human spirit being what it is, from the earliest times it became the custom, then tradition, and finally the accepted religious practise, to congregate and celebrate during mid-winter, so lifting the hearts of an otherwise suffering people. A mid-winter feast could help save lives as well as encourage hope until spring came again.

In early Nordic and Celtic civilisations, this celebration was known as Yule, and it is surprising how many of the customs which originated then, have been carried forward even to today. The ancient worship of the tree, and in particular the evergreen which still carried its greenery amongst other trees which stood bare and stark – although finally brought to England as a Christmas festivity by Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Arthur – has its origins in Nordic times. Other Christmas customs date to the same period and pagan religion – decorations of ivy, holly and mistletoes for instance.

Christianity took the hint. It was easier to convert the pagans to the new religion if some6a014e87d88579970d0162fe2238b1970d of the most popular old practices were brought along with it. Besides, no date of birth for the infant Jesus is offered in the Bible, and therefore adopting Yule as Christ’s birth came as a sensible adaptation.

The Christian church brought new power to the seasonal festivities. Feasting and drinking continued of course, including the wassail cup – another pagan custom brought over into the Christmas tradition. This drink, taken from a huge wooden bowl and shared amongst all present, became a medieval delight. It can still be made today and the recipe is simple enough. Cider, or a combination of cider and ale, should be well spiced with nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, juice and zest of a lemon or two, and some spoonful’s of honey. Chopped apples are sometimes added. This is simmered for some time and served very warm. Medieval recipes were never exact so adaptations are freely permitted, but few would still wish to share the same drinking bowl amongst the entire party.

Although there are now conflicting opinions worldwide concerning Christmas, most of us set out to enjoy the season in our own way. Some of us are more religiously inclined – others less. However, its origins are now accepted as specifically Christian and many complain that we are now too materialistic and concentrate our celebrations around eating, drinking and gift-giving instead of the nativity. But drunken self-indulgence was actually the original basis of the period, still occasionally known as ‘Yuletide’.

Christianity has of course, refined and brought glorious additions and although medieval celebrations were firmly based around the mid-winter traditions of feast and pleasure, the church was central and Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve was a great event. The season started on December 6th and continued officially until January 6th.  Present giving – which at first took place on 12th Night, known as Epiphany, symbolised the arrival of the three kings and the precious gifts they brought to the infant Jesus. Travelling actors set up in town squares and re-enacted the story of the Nativity. Carols and songs of praise were a great part of these plays, and were carried over into the homes of the people who heard them. Mummings, religious and comedy plays were also very much the practise during the medieval Christmas, and all theatre blossomed as a result.

Medieval People : Eating -  Table - 16th century

Stich, Abbildung, gravure, engraving : 1877

Food, of course, played a major part, and the principal meal on Christmas Day itself was traditionally, although only for those who could afford it or were permitted to hunt it, wild boar roasted on the spit and served whole with or without the proverbial lemon in its mouth. Mince pies were made with real meat which had been minced (hence the name, surprise, surprise!) and cakes, puddings and a hundred other delicacies were indulged on this most lavish day of the year. The medieval royal court gathered and celebrated in extraordinary style, courtesy of the king, but the ordinary folk gathered as well, meeting with friends and neighbours, and even the poor, the priests, nuns, and the beggars of Bedlam were expected to eat and drink and be merry.

The first day of the official Christian season of Christmas was St. Nicholas’ Day (December 6th). St. Nicholas was traditionally the saint who brought rewards to those who deserved them (although something quite different to the undeserving!). Father Christmas, based on the original saint, is a principally American adaptation – but also just another example of how nothing related to Christmas is new.

So whether the festivities marked the worship of the tree and nature, the need to break the bleak subsistence of mid-winter, or celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ – it has been Christmas time we have celebrated since the earliest times.