Of Cesspits & Sewers

As a child, while behaving (reasonably) well in the backyard of the family home at Georgetown, Ontario, the earth suddenly opened and swallowed me up.

Perhaps I overdramatize. The explanation was a disused and forgotten septic tank, which collapsed underneath me. My descent was less than six feet, but I did require the assistance of an uncle to fetch me out.

Later, a considerable truckload of dirt followed me into the hole. By this time, I was staying out of it, on strict orders from my mama, though I imagined that I had spied passages leading to an enticing underground world. Children, it seems, like to go beyond what is in front of them.

In an archaeological magazine I was perusing, the cesspits and sewers of medieval Leiden in the Netherlands were under review. They were quite impressive. Roos van Oosten, “connoisseur of muck,” traces them through digs and archives. She has the nose for it, and the eye for subtle detail.

Within the old walled portion of this city, she has found the remains of house after 14th-century house with its own private, brick-arched cesspit behind it.

All kinds of lovely things are preserved in anaerobic bogs; archaeologists have always loved them. But the lady van Oosten was particularly curious about waste management, as a topic in itself.

Leiden has often been at the cutting edge of one thing or another, but was hardly unique in the area of medieval sanitary engineering. The town archives contain documents that explain how the system worked.

Hired nightmen cleared these cesspits from time to time, loading the carefully carried and slung contents into barges on the canals. They could be fined for slopping, anywhere. Refuse of all sorts was conducted out of town, with further attention to hygiene.

As gentle reader may know, life expectancy was higher in the High Middle Ages than for many centuries after. We have been learning this from the statistical analysis of parish records for some time now.

True, the Black Death put a dent in these figures, and populations in some districts took two centuries to recover after the fact. But except for that. . .

Plagues could not be stopped, but neither could influenza after World War I, or will the next global pandemic that will assuage all those who fear overpopulation. But brown rats, and any other colors, were not exactly welcomed in medieval town or country – notwithstanding the modern imagination.

The people were also obsessive bathers, not yet acquainted with early modern crackpot notions about disease, and thus made nearly aquaphobic from the theory that water carries all contagions. Their descendants would be perfuming themselves instead, and dying young.


Like witch trials, heretic-burning, pogroms, and other hysterias – which the uneducated associate with the Middle Ages — public health catastrophes were much more a feature of the Reformation, and the intra-Christian wars it touched off. The medieval mind was more fearful of pagan and infidel invasions (by Norsemen, and Mussulmans, respectively).

Generations of anti-Catholic propaganda have relocated the worst scandals of modernity backwards in time. The propaganda of the Enlightenment rubbed this in, with its false and malicious contrast between “science” and “religion.” The Western Church, consistently opposed to superstitions, and invariably in the vanguard of scientific advance, was blamed for everything.

The one thing that can be said for today’s post-Christian historical research, and the ecumenism of Christian retreat, is that much of this nonsense is finally set straight. A thousand years of deleted Western history is being filled in.

But let us get back to cesspits and sewers. Each city of Europe has its own detailed history, but Leiden’s was not untypical of broad trends.

It was at the Renaissance that the town authorities realized they could install sewers that would flush effluvia with the rain and tidewash – into the canals. Cheaper, and less labor-intensive: who could argue with them? Leiden quickly became a source of terrible stench, and an effective urban vector of disease. The town’s growth was arrested.

I could make this the start of a very long rant against the Renaissance, generally – of the spread of ugliness and the initiation of glibness, cleverness, mere plausibility, and bad taste. Too, as a reckless departure from growing prosperity that was patient, prudent, and morally aware, to the point of inconvenience. But I don’t have the space.

Through the centuries since Trent, the Church has been trying to restore not only Catholic dogma but a liturgy that animates reverence and beauty. Too, she has been trying to recover her own central historical role, as the principal supplier of schools, hospitals, almshouses, pilgrim shrines, and welfare services of many different kinds.

It was only in “the Spirit of Vatican II” that we gave up, almost formally, and surrendered to the Prince of Worldliness along most of our front lines. Though truth to tell, we had been flinching from this battle since it first turned against us.

Another truth, that ought to be conceded, is that as the Catholic Church retreated, her quasi-catholic rivals (established Anglicans, Lutherans, even Calvinists eventually) awakened to a duty to pick up the slack.

Moreover, the idea of a Christian civilization never dies, both within and without Holy Church; together with the instinct of Christian aspiration, from the lowest excavated hole to the highest tower. Nothing must be left to determination by profit and cost-effectiveness alone.

There are many ways to dispose of waste, intelligently with the help of nature. Leiden abandoned a better for a worse, but gradually learned its lesson. By discarding our un-Christian ideologies, we may discover better, and better still.

I have no credentials as a sanitary engineer; only the wish that we may recover a way of seeing the world, and of examining human and environmental problems, that encompasses the whole, and avoids the narrowness of blind reduction to material efficiency. Our husbandry requires more adulthood than that.


*Image: The Topsy Turvy World (aka, Netherlandish Proverbs or The Blue Cloak) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559 [Gemäldegalerie, Berlin]

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.