Controlling the Butchers in Late Medieval English Towns

By Carr, David R. | The Historian, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Controlling the Butchers in Late Medieval English Towns


Carr, David R., The Historian


CONTRARY TO POPULAR belief, medieval municipal populations and governments took pains to improve their urban environments. Their efforts frequently focused on controlling the impact of butchers. In an era without refrigeration, the "meat" was most conveniently and healthfully brought to market on four legs and slaughtered within the confines of town. This left a smelly, slippery mess in the city streets, assaulting the noses and threatening the step of passersby.

In response, urban governments throughout England enacted ordinances designed to improve town environments by regulating, among many other things, the practices of the butchers: where and when cattle were to be brought into the town, the location of their markets, the disposal of offal--all came under scrutiny. Should butchers not conform to the demand of these regulations, other townsmen proved quick to complain about the nuisances.

This study examines the ordinances and examples of their enforcement drawn from a broad sample of cities and towns from throughout England. Topics will include the location of cattle markets and butchers' stalls, the disposal and transport of offal, municipal provisions such as slaughter and scalding houses, and efforts to ensure clean streets. The language used to describe the olfactory assaults reveals concern not only for improving the municipal physical environment, but also the identification of foul smells with disease and with spiritual corruption.

Governments regulated and citizens complained for a variety of reasons. Some towns had been prompted by the sensibilities of kings or nobles. Others found their own sense of decorum and propriety sufficient to prompt action. The common belief that noxious air--miasma--caused diseases underpinned the demand for regulation. While modern notions of the germ theory of disease dismiss this medieval "science," stinking piles of offal did attract everything from rodents to bacteria. While mistaken about the cause of diseases, they had made a correct decision. Their desire to improve the respectability of the town also loomed large among their motives.

This topic forms a portion of a larger study of environmental regulations in late medieval English towns. Within that study, butchers repeatedly, and seemingly more than any other tradesmen, found themselves the object of frequent complaints and multiple regulations. Of course, a number of other scholars have examined environmental issues and have discussed butchers and the attempts to control them. In the 1930s, Ernest Sabine provided three early and thorough studies of environmental topics, one of which focused on London butchers. (2) Interest in environmental topics waned after this, and those interested in such arcane topics more likely found brief mentions in the histories of various towns and archaeological reports than in studies devoted to environmental history. Other perspectives however also could provide much information. In the 1970s, Philip Jones' study of London butchers devoted a good deal of his text to the environmental issues. (3) As interest in environmental history increased, perspectives broadened geographically to look beyond London and to include social history and archaeology. David Palliser examined "Civic Mentality and the Environment in Tudor York" and gave substantial attention to the problems caused by butchers.(4) P. V. Addyman used the archaeological evidence unearthed in York from the 1970s onward to discuss public health and, by extension, urban environmental matters. (5) Derek Keene adopted a broader perspective in the early 1980s by using both documentary and archaeological evidence, and by discussing several towns. (6) In 1976, Colin Platt, drawing upon his own fine research as well as that of numerous other scholars, devoted a substantial portion of his book to municipal environmental matters. (7) However, despite the general interest in global, regional and local environmental history, both general and specific English urban histories devote only brief space to such a basic theme. …

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