Filthy Cities episode 1 – Medieval London: Historian Dan Snow gets down and dirty in medieval grime to discover the hard way how the London we know was forged in the filth of the 14th century.
State-of-the-art CGI reveals London’s streets as they were 700 years ago, and Dan steps into the shoes of a medieval Londoner – wooden platforms designed to help him rise above the disgusting mess underfoot. He spends the night as a medieval muck-raker shifting a staggering six tonnes of excrement, and has a go at medieval butchery to find out what the authorities were up against.
He also examines the remains of a plague victim to discover how a catastrophic epidemic would help a new and cleaner London emerge from the muck of the past. Dan Snow gets down and dirty in the murky histories of London, Paris and New York, exploring their filthy histories from the bottom up.
Filthy Cities episode 1 – Medieval London
Medieval London was made up of narrow and twisting streets, and most of the buildings were made from combustible materials such as wood and straw, which made fire a constant threat. Sanitation in London was poor. London lost at least half of its population during the Black Death in the mid-14th century. Between 1348 and the Great Plague of 1666 there were sixteen outbreaks of plague in the city. In 1666, the Great Fire gutted much of London within the city wall.
Medieval London was a maze of twisting streets and lanes. Most of the houses were half-timbered, or wattle and daub, whitewashed with lime. The threat of fire was constant, and laws were passed to make sure that all householders had fire-fighting equipment on hand. A 13th-century law required new houses to use slate for roofing rather than the more risky straw, but this seems to have been ignored.
The government of the city was by a Lord Mayor and council elected from the ranks of the merchant guilds. These guilds effectively ran the city and controlled commerce. Each guild had its own hall and their own coat of arms, but there was also the Guildhall (1411-40) where representatives of the various guilds met in common.
Many of the streets in the city were named after the particular trade which practised there. For example, Threadneedle Street was the tailor’s district, Bread Street had bakeries, and on Milk Street cows were kept for milking. There was also a very active livestock market at Smithfield.
Trade and commerce grew steadily during the Middle Ages, and London grew rapidly as a result. In 1100 London’s population was little more than 15,000. By 1300 it had grown to roughly 80,000. Trade in London was organised into various guilds, which effectively controlled the city, and elected the Lord Mayor of London.