The Medieval Sense of Smell, Stench and Medieval Sense of Smell, Stench and Sanitation ... had the ability to make people both ... The medieval sense of smell, stench, and sanitation, In Les cinq

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  • The Medieval Sense of Smell, Stench and Sanitation

    Dolly Jrgensen

    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 smellers 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 regu-lation in order to uncover how medieval city dwellers responded to offensive smells in their midst. C.M. Woolgar has previously discussed the moral impli-cations of smell in this period that smell could represent holiness or sin-fulness and thus individuals attempted to control smell through personal hygiene1. Susan Signe Morrison has likewise analysed the social context of faeces through literature of the period2. 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

    1 Woolgar C.M., The senses in late medieval England, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2006.

    2 Morrison Susan Signe, Excrement in the Middle Ages : sacred filth and Chaucers feco-poetics, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

    doja0001Text BoxCitation: Dolly Jrgensen, The medieval sense of smell, stench, and sanitation, In Les cinq sens de la ville du Moyen ge nos jours, ed. Ulrike Krampl, Robert Beck and Emmanuelle Retaillaud-Bajac, 301-313 (Tours: Presses Universitaires Franois-Rabelais, 2013).

  • 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 disease3. 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 level4. In the case of environmental pollution, medieval city government officials label-led biological wastes as dangerous because of their odours, but that danger may have been linked to both disease and disgust.

    On the one hand, inhabitants of medieval cities associated foul smells with disease. Medieval miasmic theory attributed disease to the corruption of air, which could be visible (like a fog) or invisible. Miasmatic theory has been widely embraced as the root of these sanitation measures in the West ; Martin Melosi even periodises American sanitation history by the prevailing scientific disease transmission theory, calling the earliest stage the Age of Miasmas5. Medicinal tracts from the Middle Ages, particularly those written about plague prevention in Southern Europe, highlight the role of miasmas, but generally, the tracts do not link waste and the smell of waste to the disease. One exception might be the foul smell of dead bodies, which was the subject of pestilence regulation : Pistoias Ordinances for Sanitation in a Time of Mortality from 1348 required particularly deep graves for corpses of plague victims to avoid the foul stench which the bodies of the dead give off and forbade butchers from having a shop near any kind of tavern, shop, stable, or pen that give off a putrid smell6. A papal decree issued to the Bishop of Wells (England) in 1412 noted that it had been difficult to find men to carry dead bodies from the leper house to the distant church on account of the smell7. In those cases, the smell of decaying corpses was objectionable because of the potential disease it carried.

    3 Curtis Valerie, Birna Adam, Dirt, digust, and disease : is hygiene in our genes ?, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 44, 2001, p.17-31.

    4 Douglas Mary, Purity and danger : an analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2nd impression with corrections, 1969 (1966), p.39-40.

    5 Melosi Martin, The sanitary city : urban infrastructure in America from colonial times to the present, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. See also Melosi Martin, Garbage in the cities : refuse, reform, and the environment, 1880-1980, College Station, Texas, Texas A&M University Press, 1981, for discussion of the aesthetic issues tied to the public health movement in the early twentieth-century.

    6 Text translated by Duane Osheim and available online (accessed November 14, 2011). The Pistoia ordinances also forbid butchers from having a shop near any kind of tavern, shop, stable, or pen that will give off a putrid smell.

    7 Bliss W.H., Twemlow J.A. (ed.), Lateran regesta 152 : 1411-1412, Calendar of Papal

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  • In historical analyses of modern sanitation, odour is an important com-ponent of Western public health movements. For example, scientific inves-tigations dominate Alain Corbins analysis of changing conceptions of smell and disease in France in The foul and the fragrant. Corbin traces what he calls a hypersensitivity to odours in eighteenth-century France arguing that an emphasis on phenomena of the air, specifically odours, within chemistry and medicine at the time can be linked to growing elite interest in public sanitation and deodorisation ; only at that time do we finally notice a reduced threshold of tolerance for the smell emanating from decomposing corpses and cesspo-ols8. Although Corbin sees a qualitative difference in the awareness of smell in the eighteenth-century, other research has definitively extended the link between smells and public health concerns back to the early modern period when the olfactory sense drove street cleaning, plague prevention measures, and other prescriptions for disease prevention and treatment9. This article extends this even further back to the medieval period.

    On the other hand, odours may have just as often been the subject of medieval complaints because of repulsive reactions to strong waste smells rather than fear of disease. Although smell is a biological function common to all humans, reactions to particular smells are culturally learned behaviours. Research on the development of odour preferences in infants and children shows that the meanings of smells are associated to the physical, social, emo-tional, or semantic context of the odour. Many odour preferences are not hard-wired, but rather formed through stimuli and cultural context10. Societies set tolerable levels of environmental contamination based on cultural ideas of cleanliness and knowledge of disease transmission11. We have to keep in mind that some people in the Middle Ages may have reacted to waste odours because they considered them disgusting rather than disease-ridden.

    registers relating to Great Britain and Ireland, vol.6, British History Online,

    8 Corbin Alain, The foul and the fragrant : odor and the French social imagination, trans. Miriam Kochan, Leamington Spa, UK, Berg, 1986.

    9 Cockayne Emily, Hubbub : filth, noise and stench in England, 1600-1770, New Haven (Conn.), Yale University Press, 2007 ; Dobson Mary J., Contours of death and disease in early modern England, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997 ; Jenner MarkS.R., Civilization and deodorization ? Smell in early modern English culture, in Civil histories, ed. by P. Burke, B. Harrison, P. Slack, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000, p.127-144.

    10 Herz Rachel S., I know what I like : understanding odor preferences, in The smell culture reader, ed. by J. Drobnick, Oxford, Berg, 2006, p.190-203.

    11 Cohen Erik, The broken cycle : smell in a Bangkok lane, in The smell culture reader, op. cit., p.118-127.

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  • In combination, the stench of waste was a threat within the context of the prevailing theories about miasmatic disease transmission as well as cultural ideas of smell acceptability ; and thus exposure to it needed to be limited. Early sanitation measures can be directly linked to the medieval sense of smell and interpretation of odours. Smell thus has a large role to play in the urban envi-ronmental history of the medieval city.


    Smell, unlike physical waste itself, moves invisibly. It drifts from the location of the waste to affect people passing near by. Waste was thus dangerous when it was left in place where its smell during decomposition would affect members of the public muckhills in the street, accumulated waste in the river, waste piles at the market cross.

    People living in the late Middle Ages sometimes made a direct connection between waste disposal and the creation of harmful disease-carrying odours. In 1380, some people lodging at the Coventry priory complained to the English king that certain evildoers had repeatedly thrown animal wastes into the river Sherbourne, corrupting the water that flowed into the priory mill and infec-ting the air. The king responded by issuing a commission of inquiry, although the results of the inquiry are not known.