Rats, Rubbish and Hygiene in 17th Century Yorkshire

Updated: Apr 16

AS HUMAN BEINGS around the world change their daily behaviour to try to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, our absence is causing ripple effects in the urban ecosystem. Among the most noticeable changes: Rats are coming out of hiding. People who have never had rat problems are suddenly coping with these unwanted visitors. Rats are taking to the streets in broad daylight and invading homes in a desperate search for food much like in the 17th Century.

The Middle Ages weren't a good time to be alive and when survival was the priority, staying clean and fresh was often not, although peasants did attempt to keep clean. The poor, were much cleaner than we assume, making considerable efforts to keep their bodies, hair, teeth and clothes as clean as was possible. Interestingly in these times it was often thought that too much washing could weaken the body; however, poor people bathed in cold water, but for obvious reasons probably washed less frequently.

As most people ate meals without cutlery, it was also a common to wash hands before and after eating. Soap was sometimes used, and hair was washed using an alkaline solution such as the one obtained from mixing lime and salt. Teeth were cleaned using twigs and small pieces of wool cloth. Often powdered sage was used to rub on teeth as a whitening agent and vinegar was mixed with herbs to form a mouthwash. Shaving was either not done at all or once a week with a sharp blade.

York was home to great wealth and great squalor, and it was noisy and crowded. The city was filled with narrow lanes crammed with houses. Some had yards where they kept pigs and other animals. Debris and waste built up in and out of houses and on the streets, a perfect environment for the hungry rat. Families had to get rid of their own rubbish and often dumped it in the street. Cesspits were dug near properties and usually backfilled with everyday rubbish. Often the water in the wells had passed through these areas and was unfit for drinking. For this reason ale was more frequently drunk than water.

Houses were made of wattle and daub and overhung the streets, cutting out light and air. Rats, lice and fleas flourished in the rushes strewn over the clay floors of people's houses. One major source of infection was bites from fleas and body lice - they were rife. Bodily parasites such as lice and worms were a big problem, but people did their best to prevent and treat infestations. The poorer class of people were very susceptible due to a meagre diet and malnutrition. Sores from bites would often become infected and fleas spread diseases such as typhus and parasites such as tapeworms.

Floors were covered with white clay, and covered with straw and rushes, occasionally renewed, but the bottom layer was often left undisturbed, sometimes for years, harbouring vomit, the faeces of dogs and the inhabitants, ale droppings, scraps of fish, and other abominations not fit to be mentioned. Often household dogs would eat up the majority of dropped food, but even they left enough to encourage rodents and bacteria to flourish.

Paul Rushworth-Brown is the author of three novels:

Skulduggery- An exciting, mysterious, fictional and historically accurate adventure pulls no punches about the life and hardships of peasant farmers living on the moors of Yorkshire in 1590.

"Was excellent reading . I intended to read it over the next week but once I started I could NOT put it down . Really enjoyed it !"

Winter of Red- Come on this historic journey, which twists, turns and surprises until the very end. If you like history, adventure and intrigue with a dash of spirited love, then you will be engrossed by this tale of a peasant family unexpectedly getting caught up in the ravages of the English Civil War in 1642.

"A fictional, historical novel about a loving peasant family caught up in a 1642 shocking Civil War. Humour, romance, adventure and excitement are here to enjoy. A great story.

"Dream of Courage- Soon to be released!

The much anticipated story of the Rushworth family and their journey out of poverty.

King Charles has been executed and England becomes a Republic under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell. Highwaymen, thief-takers, pirates and broggers tell

the story in this mysterious and bone chilling historical thriller.

First Snow in Haworth Dec 4th 2020-3.jpg

Times were tough in 1603, and there were shenanigans and skulduggery committed by locals and outsiders alike...

mock06 (1) (1).png


Novels by Paul Rushworth-Brown


unnamed (1).png
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • Facebook
  • Facebook