Medieval Monday – What Did the Middle Ages Smell Like?

So there I was the other day, driving home from work, caught in traffic, stuck behind a car whose exhaust system needed serious attention.  As I wrinkled my nose and said, “Eew, gross” the thought hit me:  We like to think that we live in a pristine, modern world that smells sweet while looking back in time and assuming everything stank like sewage all the time.  But did it?

Uneducated modern thinkers might assume that because there was no running water in the Middle Ages everything was dirty and smelly.  Well, if you’ve known me and heard me talk about history long enough then you know that nothing galls me more than this completely false assumption.  As I discussed at length last year in my blog post about how medieval people did bath, frequently, hygiene was far more advanced a thousand years ago than modern people assume.

True.  Running water was not readily available in homes of the Middle Ages.  That does not, however, mean that it was any more stinky than the vast majority of the world today.

Depending on where you were.

© Zoelavie | Dreamstime.com

If you, like 90% of the rest of the population, lived on a manor in the countryside, then things probably weren’t any more noxious than they are in the countryside of the 21st century.  I’ve been out in Pennsylvania dairy country when the wind is blowing the wrong way and whoo!  Yes, it gets smelly in a hurry.  But when you take into consideration the sheer size of herds of livestock these days it isn’t all that surprising.

Herds of animals, be they cows or sheep or goats, were generally smaller in the Middle Ages than they are now.  They weren’t kept in vast industrial barns either.  Livestock in the Middle Ages was free-range.  I’m not saying that they didn’t get a bit niffy now and then, but Nature does have a way of taking care of those things.  So if you think about it, the smells of the animals in rural medieval life probably wasn’t any worse than what it is in the 21st century.

As for there being no indoor plumbing, well, that’s why outhouses were out.  In general, people are smart enough not to defecate where they eat and sleep.  I’m pretty sure that chamber-pots and other necessities were emptied on a frequent, regular basis.

So taking those more nasty things out of the equation, your average medieval home would most likely smell like a wood-burning stove and cooking.  You can get a sense of what this could have been like when you visit reenactment sights like Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Plymouth Plantation in the US.  Even though those buildings are modern reconstructions, enough period activity takes place in them that they have that sort of woody, smoky, meaty smell.  Frankly, that’s not all that bad.

What about the people themselves?  Well, as I’ve already established, they did bathe.  They also used herbs and plants of various sorts as medieval deodorant.  Was it as good as Secret?  Probably not.  Would a modern person traveling back in time notice more BO?  Probably.  But then, we’re so conditioned to think that humans should have no scent at all these days that we would be more bothered by it than a contemporary would.  At least that’s what I think.

Okay, now the exception to my assertion that the Middle Ages wasn’t a stinky place: cities.

Not even I, medieval apologist that I am, can get around the fact that cities smelled vile.  But it goes far beyond a bunch of people being packed tightly together in streets where sanitation consisted of tossing the contents of your chamber-pots out the windows.  There were drains, open and feeble though they were.  And there was an actual job held by the lowest of the low that was the medieval equivalent of the people who walk around with plastic bags cleaning up after their dogs.  There was money in poop.  And when it rained things freshened up considerably.

Wikicommons – public domain

No, the biggest problem medieval cities had was industry.  Industrial waste of a thousand years ago was just as nasty as it is now.  Only back then it was organic.  The byproducts of tanning, fulling, cloth dying, forging, and a whole bunch of other medieval crafts were just gross.  A single household might have emptied a few chamber-pots a day into the street, but industry chucked some serious crap into the streets and rivers around cities.  Literally.

This is why the nobility had estates in the country and why they went to them when the weather was hot.  When the weather was colder it made things a little easier.  But the heat of summer made cities like London and Paris pretty much unbearable.  The situation got so bad in the Late Middle Ages that the great cities began building underground sewers.  That didn’t help the nearby rivers, though.  It would still be centuries until those problems were cleaned up.

So all in all, the quality of scent in the Middle Ages really depended on where you lived.  And since most people lived in the country, we would probably all have been fine.  But sweet or sour, fresh or ferocious, the scents around us in the Middle Ages would not have been the ones we’re used to now.  I dunno, I think I could do without car exhaust and chemical fumes.

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10 thoughts on “Medieval Monday – What Did the Middle Ages Smell Like?

    • Actually, yes, they did! Not just the moats, but sometimes just on the other side of the wall. Crap like that makes good fertilizer for the farms. 😉 A lot of castles had privies built onto the outer parts of the castles with open “toilets” that deposited the waste directly into the moat or on the other side of the wall. In other words, you’d be pooping in mid-air from several stories up! Ingenious!

      • Yeah…I’d be so afraid of falling in. ha! I don’t know about good fertilizer as far as human feces. Cows, yes. If I remember correctly from my zoology class, human feces would have played a huge role in the life cycle of parasites. Human ingesting something contaminated with the parasite eggs, worms live in intestines, bladder depending on on what type, then eggs go out in stools, and repeat…I bet they had a bunch of parasites, worms and such. ick. by the way, I’d take the country smell, horse/cow manure smell over chemical/car pollution any day. I used to milk cows and not in the huge commercial farms either so I know a little bit about the smells. 🙂

  1. Excellent post, Merry. Thanks for following me on twitter – now I can play catch up on your medieval posts here and check out your books! My own historical research is currently centered on the Third Crusade.

    • Oh, hey! If you’re researching the Third Crusade then you’ll have to read my latest novel, The Courageous Heart (coming this weekend – good timing!). Not to give too much away, but a large part of the book consists of letters written by one of the characters detailing the crusade. I did A LOT of research about it myself to write those letters.

      Although you should really read the first two books in the series first, wink wink, nudge nudge. 😉

  2. Wonderful post! It’s amazing how often what we think about the past -and how it actually was, when you dig a bit, are two different things.

    I think a lot of the stereotype came from the way that the early modern elite subverted cleanliness – there was a point in the seventeenth century when one of the symbols of status became the ability to ‘go’ anywhere in the house. Showing you could afford the servants to clean it up. It was still true in the eighteenth century – in Versailles, apparently, everybody said you needed toilets. Louis XIV said you didn’t. “Who’s King?” This sort of mischief became one of the lenses through which earlier periods were always viewed, I suspect.

    And I’m delighted to be able to pass on the Reality Blog Award to you! Congratulations.

    http://mjwrightnz.wordpress.com/2012/10/30/passing-the-reality-blog-award-to-those-who-deserve-it/

  3. I really can relate to this one. My grandmother (she lived to 95, passed away 1983) lived – of her own choosing and quite happily – in a shack with an outhouse and coal stove for cooking and heating. I visited her often and it really did not smell bad. I remember some earthy smells and an odor of dry wood. I imagine that was what a hovel in the Middle Ages must have smelled like.

  4. I enjoyed this. I, too, have dwelt on the smells of past ages, mostly because I seem to go through life nose first – smells really get to me. Even small-scale/free-range livestock is pretty smelly to me. I hold my breath when I pass a horse downtown in one of those Old City carriage rides.

    On the other hand, I would rather spend an hour in a medieval barn than an hour in Bath and Body Works. And medieval country living couldn’t have smelled worse than exhaust fumes, lysol, clorox, perfume, scented deodorants and air fresheners.

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