General Conditions and Sanitation
One of the major reasons for the spread of plague in fourteenth century Europe was the generally wretched and squalid conditions in which most of the people lived. The vast majority of people were serfs or poor peasants. They lived in small villages of windowless thatched wooden huts.
People knew little of sanitation. They dumped their wastes into rivers from which they also drank, or into nearby fields. Humans and livestock slept under the same roof.
People rarely washed either themselves or their clothes. Fleas, lice, and other vermin were just part of life’s afflictions to be endured with all the others. Rats were so common that they went almost unnoticed except when there was a population explosion among them and the vast numbers of rats threatened to eat up the food supply.
The nobles lived in grander houses or in walled castles, but their sanitary conditions were not much better, and may even have been worse. The problem of waste disposal, for example, was more difficult within the walls of a castle than in a village.
Disease and early death were expected. Most children died before reaching the age of six. Their mothers often died in childbirth. The average age of death among those who survived the perils of childhood was about thirty five. Anyone who managed to reach the age of fifty was considered a marvel of longevity.
17th and 18th Centuries
Housing conditions in London during the 17th and 18th Century were incredibly bad, though improved by Medieval standards. A huge “floating population” was largely housed as weekly tenants in furnished rooms.
Those who could not find lodging slept in ale-houses, garrets, in night cellars (latrines with cesspits), in doorways and in streets. Many simply slept in rented chairs in pubs, where they were permanent guests. Coffee houses and pubs were desirable addresses for those establishing themselves in London.
Methane (swamp) gas generated by cesspits caught fire, exploded and brought instant death to those trapped in sealed homes. Hydrogen sulfide gases overwhelmed victims as they slept, their lungs paralyzed by the gas.
It is estimated that several hundred thousand Londoners perished from typhoid, cholera, plague and pestilence before it was understood that the City was dying from its own filth.
Finally, it was up to the Sewer Commissioners to find a way to rid the city of centuries of human waste stored within its walls.
Servants, such as cooks and maids, slept in the kitchens or pantries. There were 6,000 hog pens and countless slaughterhouses in the housing areas. Bathing and fresh air were feared. Most people had only one set of clothes. How often these were washed or cleaned is not known.
The crowded conditions in London were due, in part, to social tradition, but were mostly dictated by the need to be near a place of work. The small stalls of “Costermongers” lined the streets vending every manner of goods from buttons and brick to breads and sausage from cattle slaughtered on the spot.