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