Odd this day

27 April 1307

3 min readApr 27, 2024

YES, OF COURSE: it’s the 717th anniversary of a legal battle in medieval England over whether royal groom Thomas Scott could piss in the street with impunity.

Screenshot, British History website: Thursday after the Feast of St Mark the Evangelist. Walter and John, his servant, were summoned to answer Thomas Scott, groom of the Prince, on a charge that when he wanted to relieve himself in [] Lane, they assaulted him and struck him with a knife, to his damage 100s. The defendants pleaded that they told the plaintiff that it would be more decent to go to the common privies of the City to relieve himself, whereupon the plaintiff wanted to kill Walter…

Obviously, it was the scrapping as much as the pissing that caused the problem, but the important thing to note here is that Thomas Scott didn’t have to piss in the street, despite the image we have of The Olden Days.

I am in debt to Tim O’Neill for alerting me to this tale, and his thread has some fascinating detail on exactly why and how we’re wrong about medieval filth — but basically, it’s not a simple question of more muck the further back you go.

(Follow the link in his name if that embedded tweet doesn’t work.)

That thread also put me onto a book, Urban Bodies: Communal Health in Late Medieval English Towns and Cities, by historian Carole Rawcliffe. Which, obviously, I couldn’t resist.

Front cover: Urban Bodies: Communal Health in Late Medieval English Towns and Cities, by historian Carole Rawcliffe. Illustrated with a section of a medieval manuscript

Apparently, there were ‘pissyngholes’ all over the place, especially on bridges, so your bodily excretions could drop directly into a river and be magicked away. There were five ‘places of easement for the common people’ on Hull’s waterfront in the 15th century

A ‘long house’ was

built on the bank of the Thames by the executors of Richard Whittington

— yes, that guy — and

catered for significant numbers at a time.

Which means panto scripts need updating to record his contribution to sewerage

Promotional image for a Birmingham Hippodrome production of Dick Whittington, starring John Barrowman, Steve McFadden, The Krankies, Matt Slack, and Jodie Prenger
Yes, that is ‘Phil’ from EastEnders wearing eyeliner

And something I thought I’d learnt from Horrible Histories had to be unlearnt on flicking through this book. I thought ‘gong-farmers’ — people who emptied privies and cesspits — were the lowest-paid and regarded people, and smelled bad and lived in squalor. But

the emptying of cesspits could prove … expensive … being generally delegated to ‘gong fermours’ whose high rate of pay reflects the disagreeable nature of their work.

So, cast aside your stereotypical view of streets running with shite — there weren’t quite so many people flinging bucketfuls of plop out the window as you thought. Mind you, the book does say there’d been complaints about

the filthy narrow lanes leading down to the Thames … since at least the 1270s

An inquiry of 1343 into the blockage of these dank and malodorous alleyways had already painted an unsavoury picture of leaking and obstructive latrines, as well as garderobe chutes emptying directly from upper storeys into the street, sometimes upon the heads of unfortunate passers by (‘super capita hominum transeuntium’).

So, there was room for improvement. Anyway, here’s an illustration from around 1280 of… no, no idea, but it seems to involve bodily functions

Naked monk, on all fours, defecating in a container and holding a bowl in his hand. A character rides it. Another character, with a tail, mixes the excrement, index finger pointing in front of its open mouth.

…so I can just about get away with claiming it’s relevant.




Purveyor of niche drivel; marker of odd anniversaries