PHYSICAL FABRIC Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval York Bristol regulations sanitation public health safety waste disposal butchers fishmongers pigs
Subject: Provisions for sanitation and public safety
Original source: 1. York City Archives, Memorandum Book A/Y, ff.7, 15; 2. Bristol Record Office, MS. 04719 (Great Red Book), f.23
Transcription in: 1. Maud Sellers, ed. York Memorandum Book, part I (1376-1419). Surtees Society, vol.120 (1911), 17-18, 39; 2. Elspeth Veale ed., The Great Red Book of Bristol, Bristol Record Society, vol.4 (1933), part I, 142.
Original language: 1. French; 2. Middle English
Location: York, Bristol
Date: 14th and 15th centuries


[1a. Ordinances made by an assembly in York's Guildhall, 9 February 1377]

Concerning the transport of dung and disposal of animal entrails by butchers

If any butcher of the city, his servants, or anyone else throws dung or other refuse issuing from animals onto the Ouse Bridge or into the river beyond, or in the city lanes, or anywhere else other than the place assigned for it by mayor and city, the container from which he jettisons the dung is to be confiscated and, furthermore, the master whom he serves is to be amerced 6d. to [the use of] the community each time he is found to have infringed. If any butcher's servant carries animal dung or entrails from the butchery to the Ouse uncovered, without there being a cloth over it, he is to be amerced 6d. and the container to be confiscated, as indicated.

Concerning wandering pigs

If any pig is found wandering in the city, by day or by night, its owner is to pay 4d. or the sergeant or other officer who catches it – whether in the high street [or other streets] – shall detain the pig and may, if he wishes, kill the pig and keep the four trotters until he is paid the 4d. If pigs or other animals are found wandering beside the city walls, whether inside or outside, their owners are to pay 4d. per pig or other animal to the sergeant or other officer.

Concerning the leading of horses

No man of the city shall take his horses to drink from the waters of the Ouse without having them under control; driving them before him creates a grave danger for children playing in the city. The owner of such a horse shall pay 6d. to the community, unless it is an escapee.

[1b. York ordinance made 19 March 1380]

Because large amounts of dung and refuse are dumped at various spots in the city – both in lanes and in highways – from which there issues a noxious, vile, and harmful stench and which gives rise to foul things and great illness among the populace, it is ordained and confirmed by common agreement that all those living in the vicinity of the dunghills, along with anyone else who takes dung to those dunghills, are to have all the dunghills removed at their own cost. From now on the streets and lanes are to be kept in a clean and respectable condition, upon the penalty specified in another by-law recently made and ordained.

[2. Prohibition of unsanitary or unsafe practices at Bristol, mid-fifteenth century]

No man, whether burgess or outsider, is to occupy ground at the Quay, nor the Back. Nor any common land with timber, ballast, or anything else, upon penalty of the bailiffs confiscating the same without any warning.


No cook is to cast fetid water into the high street, upon penalty of 40d. every time there is an infringement.

No man whatsoever is to cast urine, fetid water, or any other filth out of his windows or doors into the street, by night or by day, upon penalty of 40d.

No man is to occupy the communal streets or lanes of the town with rubble, dung or timber, upon penalty of 40d.


Every man is to clean the street in front of his home, upon penalty of 12d.


The Bristol provisions are fairly representative of some of the principal problems urban authorities faced in regard to sanitation. They are part of a much larger set of over 50 by-laws that were to be proclaimed publicly every year, and thus a compilation, undated but probably written down in the 1450s. Much the same concerns are visible in the fourteenth century at Bristol and elsewhere, or even earlier. Yet the large number of provisions to deal with these problems in the fifteenth century may be more than just the fuller records of that period; it may reflect an increased determination to set and maintain standards of hygiene.

The later ordinance from York provides a general rationale for borough authorities' concern for sanitation. It was recognized that refuse left lying around near residential neighbourhoods was not only unpleasant by unhealthy. Edward I, after his government relocated temporarily to York in 1298, turned part of his attention to regulating the affairs of the town to be suitable to his own needs, including a provision for keeping the streets clean unsanitary activities away from areas where food was sold. Despite this, Edward III in 1332 complained of the stench in York, which he considered worse than in any other English town, and had ordered the citizens to keep their streets clean; but it was left to his grandson to legislate on the matter or unsanitary urban conditions, a few years after the York ordinance. It was the difficulty in persuading citizens to act responsibly in where they dumped wastes from households and businesses that gradually motivated boroughs to introduce or encourage garbage removal services.

Perhaps the worst offenders in this regard were butchers. It was the nature of their trade that unsanitary by-products were produced; they needed to be disposed of in a safe way. Furthermore the slaughtering of animals in public places resulted in a bloody mess that could become unsanitary or dangerous, as congealed blood made the pavement slippery. Some towns set up slaughterhouses – sometimes specialized, as in the case of that at Coventry (1423) which was only for pigs, butchers being ordered to slaughter cattle and sheep on their own property; but it was another matter to get the butchers to use them. Coventry's butchers were at the same time ordered to remove offal to a pit dug in the Poddycroft, immediately southwest of the walled city. At Worcester it was ordered (1466) that the by-products of slaughter – entrails and blood-pits – be cleaned up not during the daytime, but overnight. The number of ordinances, found in many towns, addressing these issues suggests that butchers tended to be very careless in this regard. Also ubiquitous were the ordinances aimed at discouraging pig-owners from letting their animals roam, whether in the streets or around the city's defensive ramparts.

Fishmongers were also quite often targets for regulation; in regard to Coventry's Saturday market, for example, it was ordered in 1494 that the entrails and other parts of fish that they cut off and dumped under their stalls were to be removed before 4 p.m., and the part of the street around the stalls to be cleaned, while the smelly water that was in the tubs they used to clean the fish was to be emptied into the gutters and then washed away with two buckets of clean water by 2 p.m. We should beware of assuming that fishmongers or butchers were universally careless about sanitation matters, but the need for regulations likely indicates that offences were not uncommon; sometimes occupational groups were fined as a whole for offences, which may (or may not) point to widespread poor practices.

The York ordinance concerning horses reveals a concern less commonly addressed. It can be imagined that one or more specific incidents involving injury to children playing in the streets would have given rise to this ordinance. The intent here seems to have been that all horses being led down to the river should be roped.



The Back was a secondary quayside facility on the Avon, as opposed to the main quayside on the Frome. See map of Bristol.

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Created: August 27, 2004. Last updated: September 4, 2013 © Stephen Alsford, 2004-2013