'Great Stenches, Horrible Sights and Deadly Abominations': Butchery and the Battle Against Plague in Late Medieval English Towns

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


Focussing upon urban responses to the perceived hazards posed by butchers and butchery, this paper argues that sanitary measures promulgated throughout England from the 1350s onwards were based upon complex and sophisticated beliefs about human physiology and the dissemination of disease. The conviction that pestilence was spread by miasmatic air had widespread practical implications for a trade that generated large quantities of noisome waste and frequently stood charged with environmental pollution. Medical theories concerning the crucial role of diet in strengthening (or weakening) an individual's resistance to epidemics, as well as ideas regarding the transmission of toxins through the gaze, also prompted complaints about butchers, which in turn gave rise to the many regulations concerning their activities that feature so prominently in local and national records. These attempts to safeguard public health had a striking impact on the urban landscape, as new, purpose-built slaughterhouses were constructed on hygienic principles, and attempts were made to confine the worst aspects of butchery to peripheral areas. The disposal of offal and other noxious waste taxed authorities to the limit, and led to the development of special facilities for removal, which were designed to protect the urban water supply and keep the streets free of filth. At the same time, markets became cleaner and better organised with improved standards of supervision in order to ensure that poorer citizens could obtain cheap and uncontaminated cuts of meat.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPlague and the City
EditorsLukas Engelmann, John Henderson, Christos Lynteris
ISBN (Electronic)9780429450044
ISBN (Print)9781138326125, 9781138590670
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2018

Publication series

NameMedical History
PublisherCambridge University Press
ISSN (Print)0025-7273
ISSN (Electronic)2048-8343

Cite this