Sanitary Insanity

Every now and then I like to share an excerpt from my recent novel, Grasping at Water. The story is set in modern-day Sydney but there are medieval elements woven through it, usually in the form of a dream sequence or as ‘tales’ told by key characters. I’ve tried to make these medieval moments as authentic as possible, based on my many years of research, lecturing and writing on medieval topics. And, in line with that desire for authenticity, the following sample is about the [very] ‘basics’ of everyday life in the Middle Ages. There are two schools of thought on the question of how medieval townspeople disposed of the contents of their chamber pots each day. The first, and most widely held, is that the contents were thrown into the street (or river, if one was nearby) every morning; the second view is that, as some large towns such as London had statutes against such disposal, the towns were not as filthy as we might think. As you’ll see in the following excerpt, I subscribe to the former, majority opinion.

Excerpt from Grasping at Water (Odyssey Books) p.152-154

Kathryn is dreaming again. She knows she is dreaming and yet everything is so vivid that her sleeping self seems more real than her waking self. She is moving backwards down a dark tunnel. It is constraining, claustrophobically narrow. She wants to get out. Suddenly she is expelled from it but, immediately, she wishes to be back in the tunnel. In the world outside the tunnel she is surrounded by death. The stench is overwhelming. Cupping her hand over her mouth and nose she takes short, shallow breaths in an attempt to filter out the repugnant smell. Gagging, she raises her head from its downcast position and tries to make visual sense of the dreamscape in which she finds herself. She is leaning against a wall, a house wall. Her feet are standing on cobblestones. Everything around her is narrow. Across the narrow cobbled street she sees narrow, closely packed houses of uneven proportions, many with the upper storey protruding fifty centimetres or more over the lower storey, overhanging the street. The houses’ windows are narrow, mean, without glass and covered, instead, with what looks like oiled cloth. The doors are narrow and heavy. It looks like the medieval town that Sophia had described to her. From somewhere overhead, Kathryn hears a female voice shout out something in a strange accent. “Gardey loo; gardey loo,” calls the woman who Kathryn can now see is hanging out of the upper storey window of the house directly opposite where she is standing. She is holding some kind of a pot in her hands.

“What are you saying?” Kathryn calls back, stepping forward into the middle of the street. She is hit with a downpour of liquid and other matter; it drenches her head, sticks to her hair; and its overpowering odour tells her instantly that she is covered in urine and faeces.

“She was saying, gardez l’eau, and using the phrase to mean ‘watch out for the water’. But I see you got more than water,” laughs a well-dressed gentleman as he passes by. “These English have been bastardising the French language ever since the Norman Conquest.”

Kathryn wants to ask the gentleman more but he vanishes, clearly not belonging to this place and time. Kathryn wants to vanish from it too, but does not know how to do it. Instead, she takes a single, crumpled tissue from the inside of her sleeve and tries to wipe her face with it, tries desperately to remove the smell of the chamber pot’s contents from her nose.

Another woman at another second storey window a little further down the street, holds a chamber pot in her hands and cries, “Gardey loo,” and this time Kathryn does what she observes other pedestrians doing: scrambling for cover against the first storey walls of houses so that they are under cover of the overhanging second storeys. Up and down the street, the cry is repeated until the street is a shower of human waste products that splash into, and up from, the cobblestones, some of it clinging to the clothes and uncovered hands and faces of passersby, the majority of it pooling in the slightly concave centre of the street and mixing with other muck that coats the cobbles to form a lumpy, brown sludge that oozes and flows along the sloping thoroughfare and into the river at the end of the road. 

Kathryn hurries towards the river too, hoping that from its banks she will gain a perspective on where she is, and how she might escape. But on reaching the embankment, she is assailed by an even greater stench and it is not simply the result of the odious refuse and excrement that pours into the river from the streets that wind down to it. Kathryn sees that both banks are home to trades and industries that she takes some time to identify.

“Tanning and butchery,” says a scrawny woman crouched on the shore, and looking up at Kathryn as if she has read her dream-thoughts. “Stinks, doesn’t it? That’s because the butchers slaughter right here, on the river’s edge, and skin the animals as well. Then the skins are sold to the tanners next door and up along the river and they submerge the hides in a solution of lime and urine to dislodge the hair and fat. And then they rewash the hides by immersing them in either warm dogs’ dung or birds’ droppings. And then they drench in another solution of barley and urine or stale beer. They make beautiful leather here – oh, the shoes, belts, gloves, saddles and harnesses are something to behold. Still, the smell is so bad that even the rats keep away.”            

Kathryn does not dare to open her mouth to thank the strange woman for the information but, instead, looks down at her to acknowledge that she has heard what was said and is shocked to see that the woman is washing her clothes in the river, right next to the tannery’s outfall. And at various spots all along the river’s edge there are women washing clothes, immersing heavy fabrics in the water, then wringing them by hand and rubbing and scrubbing them on washboards, and spreading them out on the ground to dry. She feels herself retching. ______________