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.
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.
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.