When man started establishing permanent settlements, they needed to develop way to dispose of human waste and originally, it was buried it in the ground.  Maybe the idea came from watching cats digging a hole and burying their waste.  Most early civilizations were established near rivers, which not only provided a source of fresh water for irrigation, but also a method for waste elimination.  The ironclad rule was to always dump downstream!  Cesspools were designed in areas that not connected to rivers and they would receive and hold sewage for human waste.  They were frequently placed under the floors of castles that were often made of wood.  A cesspool consisted of an underground hole lined with brick or stone and porous material.  Excrement sank to the bottom and liquids flowed out between the spaces in the brick lining.  The waste could not just be flushed away, so when the cesspool got full, somebody needed to empty it and take it to an appropriate dumping site.  During the Middle Ages it was not uncommon for people to urinate or defecate in a chamber pot and just throw it into the streets, or perhaps just forgo the pot and go straight onto the street.  Eventually rains would wash the waste away into a local river, and all is well.  Then came the plague and a whole host of other terrible diseases.  While people of the time had no concept of germ theory, they began to understand that filth bred disease.

In 1183, Frederick I Barbarossa (1122–1190) Holy Roman Emperor and Duke of Swabia held a Diet (legislative assembly) in the Great Hall of Germany’s Erfurt Castle, when suddenly the floor of the main hall collapsed, and the emperor his knights and many of the dinner guests fell thirty-nine feet into the cesspool below and drowned.  The meeting was in the room directly above the latrine and the wooden floor beams gave way, and the group of German nobility along with the flooring and beams crashed down onto the latrine floor.  The screaming nobility plus two levels of flooring and beams descended into the cesspit.  About sixty members of the nobility of the Holy Roman Empire died on that day, drowning in the liquified waste.  Emperor Frederick pulled through as he was able to grab on to the iron grates of a window, where he hung by his hands till he was rescued, but it was a while before any of his guests accepted another dinner invitation at the castle.

In 1326, Richard the Raker, a latrine cleaner, fell through the rotten boards over the pit at Newgate Gaol and drowned in his own excrement.  This pit usually took five days to clear out using a team of 13 men.  Most people didn’t want to deal with the sight and smell, so this was not a very glamorous job, but it paid well.  Cleaning out cesspits needed to be done, but it carried the risk of falling in and very few people were prepared to come to the rescue.  Cesspits or cesspools which existed in London for many centuries weren’t maintenance free, emptying them was grim work, this occupation was clearly one of the least desirable in human history.  People in this profession risked getting disease, but eventually every cesspool needs to be emptied.  This task was for the so called ‘night-soil men’ to do, who worked from 9 pm to 5 am, so the public wouldn’t have to see them.  Once they had gathered their stinky haul, the latrine cleaners would dump the night soil outside the city limits in enormous excrement dumps.  Eventually septic pumping systems replaced the need to hand shovel human waste.

Written for Reena’s Xploration Challenge 258, where she gave us the prompt cesspool.

13 thoughts on “Civilization

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