Urban Bodies: Communal Health in Late Medieval English Towns and Cities

By Wright, Sharon Hubbs | Canadian Journal of History, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Urban Bodies: Communal Health in Late Medieval English Towns and Cities


Wright, Sharon Hubbs, Canadian Journal of History


Urban Bodies: Communal Health in Late Medieval English Towns and Cities, by Carole Rawcliffe. Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 2013. xiv, 431 pp. $99.00 US (cloth).

Despite Carole Rawcliffe's protest that Urban Bodies is in many respects a "preliminary sortie" (p. 7) into the largely unstudied subject of late medieval communal health, it can hardly be considered such. Examining the period of dynamic change between 1250 and 1530, Rawcliffe's book is an ambitious and foundational study of medieval English communities' collective efforts "to protect themselves from sickness, debility and disease" (p. 2). She consults an impressive number of civic records to which she adds archaeological and some ecclesiastical evidence, all with an eye to examining the "role played by central government, urban authorities, craft guilds ... and ordinary householders in the collective battle against privation and disease" (p. 7). Her investigation includes larger and prosperous centres and also looks at smaller and poorer communities. Urban Bodies's most successful feature is its accessibility and relevance to nonspecialists as well as academic researchers interested in medical, urban, environmental, social, and cultural history.

Rawcliffe's first order of business is combatting the myth of the excessively filthy Middle Ages. For too long medieval sanitation has been viewed through the eyes of the Victorian sanitary campaigners, medical positivists, and Monty Python. The villages and towns of medieval England were certainly not clean by modern standards. There were ongoing and sometimes overwhelming problems of dirt and disease, especially in places which were compromised by warfare or economic downturn--she discusses Carlisle for example (pp. 7, 174); but, medieval England was certainly not the sanitary backwater that it has been made out to be. A mixture of royal reform, civic leaders' desire for order, guild pride, the emergent gentries' identification of cleanliness with moral righteousness, and the longstanding tradition of town folk's engagement in civic life resulted in regular and broadly supported sanitation measures.

Perhaps the most useful aspect of Rawcliffe's work and the crux upon which her overall argument rests is her second chapter's contextualization of civic society's practice of hygiene as a spiritual and moral necessity. In "Urban Bodies, Urban Souls" she draws on numerous instances of the civic body being described as a well-governed human body--as in John of Salisbury's Policraticus (p. 78)--in order to show how sanitary measures were applied with equal force to plague or prostitution, civic officials' immorality or pigpens. Rogations were good for public health and so were laws that closed the stews because they contributed to the salubrious nature of the lanes and signified civic dignity and the righteousness of its governors and inhabitants. These are the beliefs that produced the adage about cleanliness' proximity to Godliness.

"Environmental Health" explains why late medieval medical knowledge, grounded in classical and Arabic texts, led civic governors to vigorously combat the "infectious and venomous fumes and vapours" (p. 123) that were part of urban life. While medieval urbanites had a much higher tolerance for refuse than their present-day counterparts, they nonetheless tackled their refuse problems aggressively, especially in periods of recurring plague. Rawcliffe presents compelling evidence for the importance of public works and sanitary regulations: the maintenance of paved streets; employment of rakers, cleaners, and gong fanners; maintenance of latrines, cesspits, and privies; regulation of butchers, threatening dogs, and runaway pigs; attempts to regulate noxious smoke from wood and sea coal in homes, forges and other industry; and, organized attempts at fire prevention. …

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