Europe had an early start in sanitation, as early as 3,000 BC in Scotland, and the continent remains the largest flourishing sanitation and water treatment market
ThrougHOUT the modern history of man, we managed to advance our way of life in countless ways with newer technological and medical discoveries. One of those areas that received much attention was sanitation, the widespread tradition of health promotion through prevention of human contact with wastewaters.
Any history of sanitation is incomplete without mentioning Europe. As civilisations grew, sanitation practices and utilities also developed, particularly in Europe since it was the source of inventions and technology. Considering the fact that most of the kingdoms that had colonies around the world belonged to Europe, sanitation practices evolved quicker in this part of the world.
As the human civilisation exited Stone Age and started working with metals in Iron and Bronze Ages, they started developing new knowledge in the fields of medicine, chemistry and architecture and urban planning. All of these advances played a big role in the development of modern sanitation.
History of modern sanitation started with the development of the protected water wells in Neolithic times. European civilisations of that time started noticing the harmful impact of wastewater on human health, most notably Babylonians and ancient Greeks. The largest advance of early sanitation happened in ancient Rome, where latrines and sewage drains to divert the flow of sewage water from major cities with some degree of success.
The oldest archaeological discovery of working toilets dates back to 3000 BC Scotland. In their Neolithic settlement, Skara Brae, scientists found remnants of the stone huts, fully equipped with drains that extended from the recesses in the walls. This extremely early and very sophisticated – for that age example of toilet technology was not seen in other more advanced cultures for thousands of years, managing even to remain superior to any design in the entire world.
Lack of sanitation in European Dark Ages forced the medical and scientific community to truly start combating this dangerous health issue. During this time towns all across Europe were dirty, crowded, full of faeces, contaminated water, and with the virtually unknown tradition of keeping personal hygiene.
Central and southern Europe was for the longest time home to very simple toilets, which were only outshined by the architects in 1700 BC Crete, who created the royal Palace of Knossos. Latrines located in the ruins of this ancient structure had large clay pans connected to the water supply that travelled through terra-cotta pipes. This advanced toilet design remained unmatched all the way through the life of Greek and Roman empires and through entire European Dark Ages. They were surpassed only in the middle of 16th century when the technical advances of the European renaissance finally enabled the creation of something better.
Public or private bathrooms in Rome were an extension of the various designs found in their neighbouring civilisations – Greece and Egypt. After seeing the tradition of public bathhouses and saunas in Egypt, Romans established their own public bathhouses that were created in staggering size. Baths of Caracalla were six times larger than St. Paul’s Cathedral and could serve over 1600 people at once! As for communal lavatories, Rome at one point housed over 144 of them, but they were used rarely, and a majority of the human waste regularly ended up on the city streets.
In medieval Europe, lavatories took several forms, but they were very rare. Mostly they were created over the castle or village motes, suspended in air with simple wooden buildings or in castle galleries. Waste that fell in those motes served as an excellent repellent to enemy forces who wanted to enter into the city by force, but sadly such waste attracted many diseases. Peasants usually had their own latrines at the ends of the streets, and people who lived near rivers dumped their waste into them.
Well... not quite. While people in the European Dark Ages resorted to throwing excrement onto streets, the people in the Middle Ages were more conscious of sanitation. While they didn’t understand exactly how human waste could spread disease, but they knew it did—they just thought it was something to do with its odours. People were sensitive about smells in the Middle Ages. It was tied to their ideas of cleanliness. Bad odours--specifically rotting offal and sewage--were thought to be a vector of disease. The reality of logistics prevented cities from getting rid of this waste entirely, but people were at least aware of the problem and did at least try to remedy it.
Therefore, medieval towns and cities actually had a lot of ordinances and laws to do with waste disposal, latrines, and toilets. In medieval London, for example, people were responsible for the upkeep and cleanliness of the street outside their houses. The fines that could be imposed on them if they didn’t do this could be extremely onerous.
Larger houses had enclosed latrines attached to or behind the home, which emptied into deep cesspits. These were called a “jakes” or a “gong,” and the men who were employed to undertake the foul-smelling task of emptying these pits were called “gongfermours” or “gong farmers.” Not surprisingly, these men were well-paid, and the gongfermours of medieval London usually ended their day with a much-needed dip in the River Thames.
Smaller residences made do with a bucket or “close stool” over a basin, either of which was emptied daily. They were usually carried to one of the streams that emptied into the nearest river and emptied into it. This made some of these streams, like the Fleet, rather foul-smelling and gave one in the city of Exeter the lyrical name of “the Shitbrook.” There were also public latrines maintained by the city of London, like the large communal municipal latrines on London Bridge that emptied into the river.
With the arrival of Renaissance, toilets finally started looking like something more modern. France’s Louis XI used hidden toilets that were located behind curtains and were regularly scented by herbs. Other European rulers used similar tactics. In the very late 16th-century mass adoption of toilet sanitation swept across England, with water closets that used running water to transport waste away from human premises. Both ordinary people and royalty used this kind of system, especially after Alexander Cummings.
The modern age of sanitation started in Europe between 16th and 19th century when Pail closets, outhouses, and cesspits became used to collect human waste all over the world. Development of plumbing, latrines and personal toilets by many inventors enabled organized collection of human faeces and their distribution to sewage networks. During the same period, the techniques of water purification, the creation of drinking water and its transport to the human population started the era where personal hygiene could be easily enforced by everyone. This culminated with 19th and 20th-century “Sanitation Revolution” in which governments started enforcing strict hygiene rules, with organized garbage collection, development of public health departments, water treatment networks and more. Modern revolution of toilets arrived with the works of Thomas Crapper, prominent London plumber who constructed lavatories at several English royal palaces. His last name soon becomes slang for all latrines and toilets, and his public showings of toilets ensured they’re spreading all across the world.
Interestingly, the modern toilet and its associated plumbing was as much a response to urban industrialisation as it was a result of the manufacturing technology that industrialisation made possible. In a rural society, an indoor toilet may be a convenience, but it isn’t essential. In a crowded urban environment, however, the sanitary elimination of human waste becomes a real problem, and in the absence of sufficient soil to contain and break down human waste, water became the only other medium available to carry it away. The development of municipal sewage systems in London and Paris in the 18th and 19th centuries was a direct response to the threat of disease that came from increasing population densities and inadequate waste disposal. The modern world needed the modern toilet not so much for convenience but for its own survival.
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