Do you feel like you were born in the wrong generation? Do you envy the people in middle ages who didn’t have to worry about their 9-5 job or paying hundreds to thousands of dollars in rent? Well, you don’t know the half of the utterly filthy life people lived in the middle ages.
The cities had high population but lacked sewers. It was not until the last 200 years that waste management was a thing. People simply dumped the waste out from their window onto the streets where it piled up.
Cities like London and Rome had open drains or gutters for waste water along the center of the street. They were called ‘Kennels’. In Paris, such open sewers were called ‘split streets’ because the running waste water physically split the streets into two halves.
Only the upper class and wealthy could afford clean drinking water. However, they were delivered through lead pipes which led to heavy metal poisoning. Also, they were the only ones who could build a sewage system in their houses.
Romans built public toilets with proper drainage systems but this meant that hundreds of people would have to share the same toilet so people chose not to go with that option. It was easier to just dump the waste onto the streets and this was the standard way of waste disposal for much of history. Sometimes the pile of waste was so deep that stepping stones had to be built to traverse them.
Medieval London made it illegal to dump waste from the windows but nobody cared about the rules. It was recommended that people throw the waste into the river Thames, the same river people drank water from.
Why didn’t anybody do anything about this?
You see, people weren’t healthy enough to take action. The middle age population was too busy trying to keep themselves alive from the deadly and hideous diseases. There were no cures and medication for diseases such as leprosy, diabetes, dysentery and measles. If someone suffered from a disease, death was almost certain. But if you were lucky enough, you’d just end up with an amputated limb.
What happened to the pile of waste and open sewers?
In London, sewage collectors known as muck rakers would roam the streets and collect all the waste to sell it to local farmers as fertilizers. After gunpowder was taken on by municipal outhouses, the piled waste became an important source of raw material for the making of saltpeter (potassium nitrate) in European countries. The collected waste delivered to the nitrite beds where it was laid into specially designed soil beds to produce earth rich in mineral nitrates. The nitrate rich-earth would be then further processed to produce saltpeter, an important ingredient in black powder that was then used to make gunpowder.
Soon, ‘sewage farms” began to emerge in cities like Edinburgh, Paris and Berlin. These farms are used wastewater for agricultural purposes.
With the start of the industrial revolution, more people migrated to cities to work in the factories. The growth of finished goods and mass manufacturing by industries meant that farmers had increased free time to realize that cities needed to be better places to live peacefully. People realized that this sort of unregulated disposal of waste in the streets was a problem.
Edwin Chadwick released a report in 1854 which paved way for the ‘Sanitation Movement’. His report became a major catalyst for political people to realize that the population will soon cause mayhem unless something is done about the waste.
Sewer systems were soon introduced. The London sewer system was built in 1859 and is the same one used by the city today. Some European cities destroyed everything and rebuilt the cities above sewer systems because it was difficult to dig up every street. The city of Chicago lifted themselves by four feet to install pipes.
So, let’s be happy we live in a modern world where we don’t have to worry about poop on the street.