What I am trying to get to is that many video games have a sewers level. To my understanding, these aren't as realistic as we'd like to think (too big or sewerage wouldn't exist yet in the settings timeframe; you name it). I know of the idea of cesspits, but modern cesspits don't tend to be in cities, and are well regulated by laws.

If you were to think of a medieval (anything from 12th century to 15th century) city, with quite a high population; how did the major cities handle waste disposal? Did they use a cesspit? Because if so, I am already filled with a bunch of questions:

  1. Where were the cesspits located? Were they located away from civilian life, or still within city boundaries?
  2. How did the waste get into the pits; was there a primitive sewer system taking waste from latrines to the pits, or were there shared latrines at the location of the pits?
  3. How were the pits emptied? Would they have multiple pits rotate use, and once one is full it gets emptied by hand to be used as fertilizer?

Basically, I can't picture what waste disposal and going to the toilet is like in those times... And I dislike the idea of giant tunnels called sewers where you can walk among the turds. Correct me if I am wrong, but that seems like a game design to me rather than an actual historical practice.

(ps. I do understand that they might not have entirely known what we'd consider best practices. There is a reason why we've had the Black Death and the like: people wouldn't have known what we know about hygiene.)

  • NOTE: this question was migrated; as phrased it isn't really in scope for this site. (we only deal with actual history, not hypothetical history) I think with some minor edits we can bring the question into scope. community, please assist with edits.
    – MCW
    Commented May 20, 2021 at 14:58
  • I took a crack at historical edits.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 20, 2021 at 15:11
  • According to wikipedia, the sewers of Paris date as far back as 1370, so I'm not sure this is really accurate. I'd wager that all of the major cities in Europe started developing systems around then, not because of best practices, but rather not wanting to walk in, or smell, shit any longer.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented May 20, 2021 at 15:24
  • 1
    @CGCampbell - That comment led me along a path that ended with wondering what was done with all the "horse pollution" swept and scraped off city streets. I haven't seen much mention of that end of the business, and I saw an estimate for 19th century NYC that put it into the millions of pounds a day.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 20, 2021 at 15:48
  • 1
    @jamesqf - Still, there's such a thing as too much of a good thing.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 20, 2021 at 18:47

3 Answers 3

  • You call it waste, they call it raw materials.
    Depending on the era, human and certainly animal feces were fertilizer. They would be collected and carried to the fields. Similar for some organic wastes. Urine would be used by some crafts, too. Rags get collected by papermakers.

  • There were some sewers, just not so big.
    The thing about sewers in games is that they're big enough to fight a duel, not that they exist. Think of them as tunnels barely big enough for a single person to move.

  • Open gutters.
    Not as nice and clean as an enclosed sewer, but they work after a fashion.

  • 2
    Urine was collected for tanning. The second part of an answer is that medieval cities were filthy, unhealthy places due to the prevalence of waste, human and otherwise.
    – user15620
    Commented May 20, 2021 at 19:47
  • @GorttheRobot, I believe for some dyers, too, hence the plural for crafts.
    – o.m.
    Commented May 21, 2021 at 3:47

you could take the German town Freiburg as an inspiration. They had small canals on the sides of the streets in which they poured the grey water. they also used the water in them to stack fires.


  • 4
    Hi Sara and welcome! When answering a question please cite your sources. It will help add validity to your assertions and give context.
    – EvanM
    Commented May 20, 2021 at 19:57

Trier is one example of a city which for a long time used the old Roman waste water system (ie sewer.) Trier is built at a slope with a fairly stable water resource upslope. That water was used to continuosly flush the sewer piping.

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