Medieval Rubbish

One day this week I was sitting in the car in a car park waiting for my passenger to return and I noticed the bins. We have a lot of bins in the UK because we make a lot of waste. We’re a wasteful society. This wasn’t true seven hundred years ago. There was waste then, but of a different kind and not in the same quantity, even allowing for a much smaller population. We have plastics and paper and glass bottles and electrical goods and food, but plastics were unknown in the fourteenth century, as were electrical goods. There were a few glass bottles, but there was always food.

Even if you adulterated that English culinary masterpiece, the pie, by adding bits that no one wanted to eat, there were still bits of animals that couldn’t be eaten or used in other ways and these had to be disposed of somehow. People were perfectly happy to eat the internal organs of animals and, as far as I know, still are happy to eat hearts, livers and kidneys. I expect tripe is still eaten, although I don’t think it was something that ever appeared on my plate as a child. The blood, fat and skin of animals were all useful and even the brains of some animals could be boiled and eaten as brawn. I do remember eating that as a child. Bones could be boiled to make a stock, but they had to be thrown away once all the tasty bits had been extracted. As far as I know, there was no use for animal hooves.

There was waste in the production of other foods, such as flour. Grains had to be flailed to separate them from their husks before they could be ground. The chaff blew away and, presumably, rotted back into the ground from which it had come, providing it with some nutrients. The same thing applied to vegetables with pods and nutshells, although I have learned that hazelnut shells, left by the local squirrels in my garden, take a long time to decompose.

Last week we looked at the production of vellum, which had a waste product in the form of urine, or whatever had been used to remove the hairs from the animal skin. There were also items that failed in production, such as tiles that broke in the kiln, or leather shoes that came apart when they were turned.

Mostly, though, there was little waste. If a piece of carpentry went wrong, what was left of the wood could often be used for something else and ultimately used for fuel. An imperfectly formed metal object could be melted down and made into something else.

For the most part, clothes were worn until they could be worn no more, and pots and pans were used until they broke. There came a point, then, when things did become waste and had to be thrown away. Floor rushes had a limited life, as did the straw or hay that some people used in their bedding. What happened to them?

If there was a river nearby, some of the waste ended up there. You had to know what you were doing if you decided to drink from, or swim in, a river. On the coast some rubbish would go into the sea. In some places, like London, rubbish was used to aid the reclamation of land from tidal rivers or the sea.

If you were in a town with a moat or a ditch, quite a bit of waste would end up there, although it would be forbidden by the town authorities. In some places, pits were dug specifically for rubbish and gradually filled in. These are some of the sites that have become the focus for archaeologists.

Since a lot of waste was organic (wool, leather, linen, silk, wood), most of it has simply rotted away. Metal and glass objects are what have generally survived. Even a low-waste society managed to leave some of its rubbish behind.

The Medieval Household by Geoff Egan

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Medieval Food, Medieval Life

23 responses to “Medieval Rubbish

  1. We do generate an awful lot of crap. Even a couple of generations ago there was little rubbish. Depressing. Pigs trotters or crubeens were often eaten here, still are. Never tried them though. In the back of my mind theres some information about boiling animal hooves to make glue…but that was true of all bones I suppose..thanks April, great post…you always look at the everyday history one doesn’t offten think about.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Losing the Plot

    When clothes could no longer be mended, they were cut into rags and used to make rugs. Here there seemed to be a tradition of making a new rug each spring, in time for Easter, and this would go in the bedroom. The previous year’s rug would move into the kitchen, till it fell apart and would end up on the fire.
    I don’t know how far back that goes though.
    How often would you replace clothing to have that stream of textiles?

    Liked by 4 people

    • That’s sensible. I don’t think people went in terribly much for floor-coverings in the Middle Ages, not in England anyway. They had reeds on some floors, so I doubt rugs would have gone with them very well, although I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that wealthy people had the odd rug. It wouldn’t have been made of rags, though.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Rubbish is a good source for archaeologists, I pity those digging up our stuff in 500yrs time!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I’m also appalled by the amount of rubbish we generate, even if there’s just two of us. And I never buy fruit and veg in plastic. Also think of the waste generated by hotels, restaurants, hospitals, etc. Beggars belief, but I don’t know what can be done to eliminate it…

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Great post, April! We could learn a thing or two from the resourcefulness of our medieval ancestors!

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Great post! There’s a recipe in Forme of Cury (c.1390) for jellied meat that uses calves feet (which includes the hooves) as well as pig’s trotters, ears and snout. There’s a lot of collagen in calves feet as there is in trotters so the idea was to cook these along with capon and rabbit in wine/vinegar/water, pick off the meat, strain the broth; boil it up again, skin off the fat, and strain again; then your left with a sauce that becomes jelly as it cools. It’s poured over the pieces of meat and left to set.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Boil bones long enough and they soften – easily mashed and added to gardens. I imagine a lot of animal and plant waste was either mulched or buried. There are places in the world (including England) where mollusk shell middens became noticeable rises, almost hills. Oysters, cockles, mussels, etc., were vital food sources, and even transported a bit inland.

    I am particularly upset about plastics still being manufactured and thrown away willy-nilly. We have a local firm that recycles electronics, but I saw the waste bin destined for the landfill; it was filled with plastics. Most of what is recycled are metals.

    Covid really slowed the plastic bag conversion. Local supermarkets were to have eliminated plastic grocery bags back in 2020, but fear of the virus caused them to forbid reusable bags. This has been relaxed a bit, but plastic bags still abound.

    Apparently it’s cheaper to make new glass from sand and silica than to recycle. All glass is sent to the landfill.

    Appliances, once broken, are disposed of. I well remember from childhood having our toaster, TV, oven, and such, repaired. I’m on my third oven and second refrigerator in the last 20 years. Grandma had her fridge from 1949 to 2002, and would have probably kept using it had she not died.

    Even my body will be recycled, as I am donating it to a medical school. My body IS organic, except for the metal and plastic implants they will discover.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad to say that we recycle glass here and covid doesn’t prevent us from using reusable bags in shops. We have to pay for a plastic bag if we don’t bring our own.

      Here, bodies that go to a medical school, assuming they want it, which they usually don’t, are still cremated, so it’s not a complete solution.

      I’ve recently taken a lot of stuff to our local tip and I’m impressed by the amount they recycle.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think it’s because you have so little room for landfills that England is being more responsible. You take far better care of the land. I’ve been there and was always impressed. Rural America is waaaay behind and there are so many rednecks we’ll probably bury ourselves in garbage before they’ll acknowledge there’s a problem. That’s the way they deal with Covid as well; not an issue until they get it, and then they bellow like pigs in an abattoir. Stupid!

        Liked by 1 person

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