Middle Ages – 13th century CE

© Bob Denton, 2016
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Chinese paper-making
Image source: crystalinks.com

In the 13th century, paper technology spread from China through the Middle East and reached medieval Europe. Rags were the principal raw material, they were in short supply so that growth was limited. Rags were boiled, rinsed, and beaten to a pulp, then pressed to get the water out and dried to become paper.

Great Zimbabwe, 1200

Location of Great Zimbabwe
Image source: ancient.eu

The Bantu emerged in Shona (in today’s south-east Zimbabwe) from the 11th to 15th centuries. Great Zimbabwe was built after the 12th century, some 1100 metres above sea level. As some of the oldest and largest structures in southern Africa, it has become a UNESCO site of Outstanding Universal Value. It consists of three components, the Hill Ruins, The Great Enclosure and the Valley Ruins.

Perhaps its presence is best explained by the surface gold deposits on the plateaux between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers; there were also iron and copper deposits. Research indicates that it was deforestation and resource-decline that led to its being abandoned around 1450, some suggest climate change. It was clearly on trade routes, presumed to be trading gold and ivory, because porcelain from China and Persia, among other foreign products including coins from Arabia, have been discovered here.

The agriculture of millet, pumpkins, sorghum and watermelons was pursued from the 10th century in the region.

Great Enclosure walls
Image source: en.wikipedia.org

The Great Enclosure is 14th century and surrounded by a wall of granite blocks rising to 11m (36ft) in height. The granite would have been split by heating and then cooling it to obtain regular blocks. At 250m (820 ft) in circumference it is the largest ancient Sub-Saharan structure. The wall inclines inward for stability and has regular channels to allow drainage from the central area. This and its many doors confound any defensive role, so the wall is considered more as insulation for those inside. Of course, it may have been for grain and mineral storage.

Great Zimbabwe
Image source: theguardian.com

The wall protects a series of daga homes, fabricated from clay and granite-dust bricks, typically with a narrow passage leading to a 9m (30ft) tall conical tower over a kitchen and two living areas with an outside courtyard. Great Zimbabwe is the largest of some two hundred zimbabwes. The Shona word Zimbabwe means house of stone or venerated house. The nation adopted the site’s name. Estimates of its peak population were at 18,000, but more recently this has been pegged down to 10,000.

Large tower at Great Zimbabwe
Image source:en.wikipedia.org

Don’t underestimate the task involved. The central structure with the highest tower used 900,000 pieces of sliced granite to have a c.10m high tower and 250m circumference enclosure.

Great Zimbabwe
Image source: sacredsites.com
Soapstone Zimbabwe Bird figurine Image Source: en.wikipedia.org

Eight bird figurines have been recovered from the site, they are a metre long and do not represent any actual bird; though some suggest a peregrine falcon. The material, soapstone, was traced to a location 24km (15m) away.

The Hill Ruins are considered for ritual, but the find of a base for an acropolis suggests it was a royal city, perhaps aburial mound for the local ruler/s.

It became fabled as the Queen of Sheba’s capital, also claimed to have links to King Solomon’s mines. Others conjectured that by Phoenicians or Arabs. Local inhabitants became convinced it had been built by demons given its size and technology. Today believed to have been built by Shona cattlemen, it is the only one of its kind in Africa, covering some 80ha. The site confounded 16th century European colonialists who, given their racist tendencies, couldn’t believe that sub-Saharan peoples were capable of its creation.

Great Zimbabwe Hill Complex
Image source: en.wikipedia.org

The Valley Ruins are widespread groups of dwellings from the 19th century, conjectured to be the dwellings of 2,000 goldsmiths and blacksmiths, potters, stonemasons and weavers. These have a surrounding dry-stone wall to insulate each group and contains similar brick-built huts that feature indoor floors, benches, basins etc. Many have walls decorated with chevron and chequered designs.

The real mystery is that this location is steep-sided hillock and yet there are no signs of any water storage and distribution techniques at work. The river Mapudzi and its tributary Sabi, are however nearby. There is a midden on the hillside which is conjectured to have been used for 300 years, its base is festooned with pottery and bones.

Hangzhou (aka Hangchow), China, 1200s

In Hangchow, the capital of China’s Southern Sung Empire (and probably the largest and richest city in the world during the 1200’s AD). It was at the southern end of the Grand Canal, which connected it to Beijing. The dyke had been replaced during the Tang dynasty (7th to 10th century CE) by its governor, Bai Juyi. He built it higher, added a dam and a causeway to relieve a local drought and make it a beautiful landmark.

Huangzhou became one of the Seven Ancient Capitals of China, with Emperor Gaozong adopting the city as his capital in 1129. The imperial palace was quite modest in size, yet it served as the centre of Chinese public life, as it grew to a two million population. Its wooden buildings fell regularly victim to fires. In 1237 some 30,000 houses were destroyed.

Chinese nightsoil transportation
Image source: environmentandsociety.org

In the 1200s, ‘nightsoil’ was collected from Huangzhou homes on a daily basis by human scavengers called Pourers, who sold it on as fertilizer to farmers or gardeners. The Pourers were members of a profession, known as yong (soil) or feiyong (fertiliser). They were mostly family enterprises that obtained the rights for their patch in return for paying taxes, and the crime of nightsoil stealing, working another’s patch was dealt with seriously. Yong traders did not process the nightsoil, they merely loaded it into boats and carts and delivered it to peasant farmers. In small villages the source was mostly from emptying public toilets into wheelbarrows. The feiyong traders treated the nightsoil to make it more suitable as fertilizer.

A town 70km from Huangzhou is reported to have regularly travelled to the city’s night soil markets, it was reported that there were a number of night soil markets held in the city.

London water and waste 1237

In 1237 the City of London acquired springs out near the river Tyburn (today’s Marble Arch) and built a reservoir to build a head of water that was led through a lead-piping underground channel, the Great Conduit. It ran along Charing Cross, The Strand and Fleet Street to a Cheapside cistern and later fountain. This was built ‘so the rich and middling persons therein might there have water for preparing their food, and the poor for their drink’. Those householders who could not tap into the gravity-fed supply despatched water carriers or ‘cobs’ to a little building on Cheapside to collect their supply.

Great Conduit manhole cover in Cheapside
Image source: c17thlondontokens.com

By 1345 the Corporation of London records that it was being abused by commercial users, for example it ‘was now so wasted by brewers, and persons keeping brewhouses, and making malt, that in these modern times it will no longer suffice’ and noted that ‘fishmongers at the Stokkes’ (or Stockmarket’, more cattle than shares!) washed their fish in the Conduit. The Corporation passed several new fines for this abuse.

In the 15th c the Conduit was extended taking supplies from springs at Paddington and Highgate and added a new terminus at Cripplegate. It was also led by lead pipes to serve the inmates of Newgate Prison. By 1666 there were fifteen conduits in London, many of these were damaged by the Great Fire of London. (Corporation of London Records Office, Letter Books C, f.110, F, f.107, H, f.252; 2)

 London’s Great Conduit Overcroft
Image source: c17thlondontokens.com

The Devil’s Conduit (I can find no explanation for that name) was built in the 14th c to supply water to the Greyfriars monastery on Newgate Street (later Christ’s Hospital). It was relocated in the early 20th c when the Imperial Hotel in Russell Square was extended.

Waste was also subject to change throughout London’s Middle Ages.

The River Fleet flowed through the city, running through Farringdon and joining the Thames beneath today’s Blackfriars Bridge. In Roman times it was a significant river and boasted one of the world’s earliest mills that was driven by its tidal flow. In Saxon times it had provided a suitable dock for loading and unloading of shipping and was said to be ‘deep enough to float a boat laden with a tun of wine’. It had wells along its length and several springs were said to have haling qualities.

But by 1355 it had become an open sewer. It was a low-rent area and a series of prisons were congregating along the Fleet, these were the Bridewell, Newgate, Fleet and Ludgate prisons. The section passing the Fleet prison had become solid with waste and excrement. Alexander Pope wrote, ‘To where Fleet-ditch with disemboguing streams, Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames, The king of dykes!’ Down the years more and more of the Fleet became a sewer and disappeared underground.

We saw earlier that Queen Isabella of Spain had just two baths in her lifetime (at birth and on her wedding day). But British monarchs were only marginally better. King John (1166-1216) bathed every three weeks, probably significantly more often than his subjects. Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) took a bath just once a month ‘whether she need it or not’.

For the other bathroom activity, British monarchs seemed to favour the pottie rather than the privy. From Henry VIII to James II (spanning two centuries 1491-1701), monarchs kept their ‘close-stools’, a portable toilet-cum-chair with them. This was also termed a ‘necessary-stool’, the French called it a ‘chaise percée’ (pierced chair). This of course links the two uses of the word ‘stool’ as a chair and faeces. In England the ‘Groom of the Stool’ was the trusted courtier who assisted the monarch and presumably emptied the pottie. We shall see it was during QE1’s reign that the first flushing toilet was designed for her.

More lowly folk also used a potty, then threw it from upstairs windows into the street.

Illustration of emptying chamber pots into the street Image source: Wikimedia Commons

This was progressively fought as a practice. In 1345 for ‘defiling the streets’ you could be fined two shillings. In 1358 a Royal Warrant proclaimed that ‘all dirt, dung and filth’ must be removed from the streets. Another in 1388 concluded that anyone found disposing of ‘issues, dung, entrails or other ordure in ditches, rivers or waters’ would be fined £20, which was then a huge sum of money.

Cosmetics, 1250

13th century beauty tips
Image source; bustle.com

In the mid-13th century women began to curl their hair with hot tongs. They dyed their hair with vegetable dyes and coloured their faces and nails.

Beauty tips of the time suggested lemon wiped on the lips gave them colour, and to smear fireplace soot onto eyelashes to enhance them, or to apply rouge to the cheeks to add a healthy glow. But priests from their pulpit condemned these because they interfered with God’s vision of you.

However, Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274, commented that women needed to apply enough makeup to attract a husband, and maintain this to sustain his interest, yet not so much that it would attract other men – or worse be accused of witchcraft. Go figure!

Nonetheless the women of the time used many devices to maintain this difficult balance.

Berries, beets and a root called alkanet, were mixed with fats and applied to the face to add colour. Birthmarks, moles and freckles might be interpreted as a sign of witchcraft, so concealers were required to hide them. Oatmeal mixed with vinegar was one approach. However, if you wanted a white face then lead and mercury was used despite being poisons, but this is little different to botox today. Paleness was popular and the use of blue ink to paint in veins helped create a translucent impression.

Eyelashes and eyebrows were enhanced by adding rodent hairs. To get the preferred waxen hair look they would apply honey and alum and sit in the sun to highlight their locks. Or chestnuts and walnuts could be used to darken your hair. Wigs were considered a vanity at this stage.

Islamic Soap, 13th century

Islamic documents describe the manufacture of soap from al-qaly or alkali, meaning ashes. But it was during the 13th century that an industry in soap making existed in cities like Aleppo, Damascus, Fez and Nablus.

Islamic documents from the 9th century describe the manufacture of hard soap from al-qaly or alkali, meaning ashes. Recipes for soap-making are described by Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (854–925), who also gave a recipe for producing glycerine from olive oil. In Syria, soap was produced using olive oil together with alkali and lime. Soap was exported from Syria to other parts of the Muslim world and into Europe

But it was during the 13th century that an industry in soap making existed in cities like Aleppo, Damascus, Fez and Nablus. In 1200 Fez alon had twenty-seven soap manufacturers.

Dirhem issued by Al- Muzaffar Yusuf
Image source: vcoins.com

A Thirteenth Century Treatise was issued by King Al- Muzaffar Yusuf ibn `Umar ibn `Ali ibn Rasul from the Rasulid dynasty, that described soap-making in much detail.

© Bob Denton, 2016
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