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Florencie v 16. století

What did cities look like before the introduction of sewage? Nobody wants to live next to the slaughterhouse

Florence in the sixteenth century

In the Middle Ages, cities were a symbol of progress and prosperity of trade. However, the more residents moved into them, the more burning the question of where to go with all this waste. The construction of the first functional sewage systems in European cities did not begin until the second half of the nineteenth century.

Norwegian historian Dolly Jorgensen has calculated that a city of 10,000 people produces about 900,000 liters of excreta and nearly 3 million liters of urine annually. But that was not all.

Everything, not just everyone, together

In cities, people usually raise farm animals, and meeting a pig, chicken or cow on the street was not unusual. We must not forget about the horses used for transportation. Then there was the usual waste from homes and craft workshops. In unpaved alleys, you drown in the mud mixed with animal feces and litter of all kinds. Do you think people got used to it then and didn’t mind? But she bothered.

Personal hygiene in the Middle Ages: the spa was replaced by the so-called honorable French method

Suburban crafts

Especially smelly leather and textiles were taken to the suburbs, where the residents did not bother much. Nobody wants to live next door to the slaughterhouse. In the cities, special alleys were created in which there was only a butcher’s shop.

However, people complained. In 1371 York City Hall received a complaint from local monks that butchers were throwing the intestines and heads of slaughtered animals into a river next to their monastery. The members of the council forbade the butchers, and even incited them, because piles of slaughter waste began to be bought on the walls and gates of the monastery for a change. So the city council issued a new ordinance, but this time is more specific: the waste must be taken out of the monks’ residences. From now on, butchers buried the remains of the slaughterhouse in the ground. However, this only attracted stray dogs and birds of prey to the place … (Source:

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Albrecht Dürer - Nuremberg, 16th centuryAlbrecht Dürer – Nuremberg, 16th centurySource: Profimedia.CZ

So council members tried, even if it wouldn’t be easy without a sewer. In some cities, there have been efforts to prevent waste from being poured into the river. But then it ended like in Trondheim, Norway, where all the sewage was drained into a huge swamp in the city center.

However, fairly effective measures have also appeared. For example, townspeople often had to clean in front of their doorsteps so that the street was not so much manure. Elsewhere, special workers, often of race or executioners, were commissioned to clean the streets. The work was disgusting, but it paid well.

the bathroom? Anywhere!

Public toilets were already in existence in the Middle Ages. For example, London had at least a dozen people in the fifteenth century. They were mostly placed on bridges so that the droppings could end up directly in the river.

However, rivers eventually became a major source of odors and inflammation. As the city’s population grew, the situation became unsustainable. In addition, during industrialization, all waste from newly built factories flowed into the rivers, which also posed new risks to human health. We can assume that in the nineteenth century the smell around the rivers that flowed through the cities was much worse than in the High Middle Ages. Then the municipalities finally decided to build sewers. (Source: