Of Cesspits and Sewers – Will Hunt

Exploring the unlikely history of sanitation management in medieval Holland

By Will Hunt

“On a balmy July afternoon, archaeologist Roos van Oosten strides through a muddied plot of land near the center of the Dutch city of Leiden and takes an exploratory sniff. The plot, bordered on all sides by apartment buildings, will soon be part of a housing development known as the Meelfabriek, but, for now, van Oosten and a team of excavators from RAAP Archaeological Consultancy are studying the remnants of a 400-year-old neighborhood.

[…] Van Oosten—along with Coomans and other colleagues—now participates in a multidisciplinary research initiative called Premodern Healthscaping. The project aims to reveal the sophistication of public health and sanitation in late medieval cities. They strive to counter the “smear campaign” carried out by the Victorians on medieval urban life. (The project motto: “Less mud-slinging and more facts.”) Contributors to the effort have archaeologically documented the ubiquity of public baths in late medieval cities, where people of every class came to wash themselves on a regular basis. They have shown that soap-making guilds were part of a booming economy, that late medieval urbanites were lovers of perfume, and that they valued clean teeth. Literary scholars have shown that medieval poets championed the joys of bathing and that knighting ceremonies culminated in scented baths.”

Read the full article here.

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