Friday, 9 May 2008


The Beadle has just returned from attending a weekend study conference to learn more about the history and practice of his ancient office. He was mortified to learn that in their medieval incarnation, beadles were a forerunner of modern sanitary inspectors, and brought back the following report from John Kelly's The Great Mortality: An intimate history of the Black Death, the most devastating plague of all time [pages 70-71]:
London supplemented its sewer system with municipal
sanitation workers. Every ward in the city had a cadre of
inspectors, the Dickensian-named "beadles" and
"under-beadles," who probed, peered, sniffed, and
questioned their way along the medieval street. Was waste
being cleared from housefronts? Were alleys being kept
clean? Better-off Londoners often built indoor privies,
or garderobes, over alleyways, suspending them "on two
beams laid from one house to the other."  For the
garderobe’s owner, the privy meant liberation - no more
chamber pots on cold nights - but for his neighbours, it
meant piles of dung in the alley, a medley of frightful
odours, and swarms of flies (rats do not usually feed on
human waste). Beadles and under-beadles also investigated
acts of sanitary piracy. The year before the plague
arrived in England, two malefactors were arrested for
piping their waste into the cellar of an unsuspecting
Under the beadles were the rakers, the people who did the
actual cleaning up.  Rakers swept out gutters, disposed of
dead animal carcasses, shovelled refuse from the streets
and alleys, and hauled it to the Thames or other dumping
points, like the Fleet River.
The beadles and rakers not only had the dirtiest job in
medieval London, but the most thankless as well. In 1332
a beadle in Cripplegate Ward was attacked by an
assailant who, to add insult to injury, stole the
beadle's cart; a few years later, two women in
Billingsgate heaped such abuse on a team of rakers,
municipal authorities ordered the women arrested. Indeed,
judging from contemporary accounts, medieval London seems
to have been engaged in a low-level civil war sanitation.
On one side were miscreants, like the foul-mouthed
Billingsgate ladies and William E. Cosner, the garbage
king of Farringdon Without.  On the other side, the king,
Edward III, who thundered, "Filth [is] being thrown from
houses by day and night"; the nervous mayor, who tried
to assuage these royal outbursts with a flurry of widely
ignored sanitation ordinances; the much-abused beadles,
under-beadles, and rakers; and irate private citizens
like the murderous shop owner.


Merkin said...

Be sure your sins will find you out.
In the LavvyBloo painting he looks as though he is wondering who peed down the lamp-post.

ben trovato said...

Well, who did? Own up!

the burrow beadle said...

No probing, peering, sniffing, or peeing against lamp posts in the Burrow.

By Order

the crafty chambermaid said...


[Heaves full bucket of slops through the window onto head of hapless Beadle lurking below.]

mrs malaprop said...

Just you wait till I catch you, you saucy wench.

dame barbara de carteblanche said...

Send for Miss Marple immediately.

sanitusexplanitus said...

Zola did the dirty deed.
He also predicted that the Beadle of the Parish would end up in the shit.

zola a social thing said...

I demand evidence in this matter.
Innocent unless proven guilty.

postmodernist pedant said...

I do not believe Zola is the culprit, as it was an anti-social thing to do, and Zola is a Social Thing.

I suspect Wooffie.

Wooffie said...

Who, ME? Never! Miss Marple will testify that I was on sleuthing duty with her at the time, hot on the trail of Wicked Wolfie thwarting his attempted abduction of Little Red Riding Hood.

independent reporter said...

Load of old bollards.

zola a social thing said...

Anticant loves to use irony as if he were the real postmodern originator.
" Private citizens"??????
What did Antipublic really say to Maggie the milk snatcher?
We need to know!

Merkin said...

There is always room for a 'Dirty Protest'.
Sadly, soon, that is all we are going to be Left with.

zola a social thing said...

As Neil Young used to say and sing and play : better in the dirty ditch.
Better class of person there.

Bodwyn Wook said...

In our Old New England settlements of three hundred-and-fifty years' since -- perhaps because in those days the chaps could dash out to void in a convenient forest! -- the detested beadle became a better class of official, still annoying and resented to be sure:

There were /chimney-viewers/ who made sure the wattle-and-daub chimneys were regularly cleaned against the municipal hazard of fire (and who kept count of the number of glazed sashes for tax-purposes); and, /fence-viewers/, who made sure that the town(ship) farmers were up to their mark and not letting any beasts stray, either unto their neighbours' or on the common land before time, in the Spring and so on.

And, if one of these viewers either fell into any ditch(es!) or otherwise seen some'at they shouldn't have done in their rounds, why, there was always an ardent puritan judiciary, ready in cases of misconduct to have these hapless under-officials stocked, on charges of condign lewdness...or, indeed, /fornication/ in those cases where an excited official was espied sporting perhaps remnants of an actual boner whilst crawling from the mud!

Olde Reg Grundy (not born on a Monday) said...

Near-dwellers, everybody needs good near-dwellers,
Just a friendly flush each morning, helps to make a better day.
Near dwellers, need to get to know each other,
Next door is only a slimy footstep away.

The Burrow Beadle said...

I am definitely a beadle of the better class. I do my best not to be annoying, and while I may occasionally be resented I am sure I am not detested - even by knicker-waving naked kayakers.

By Order

zola a social thing said...

Bugger me the Beadle of the Parish is getting soft.
Squidgy even.
Misty and
Confused in his role of Guardian.

Even the crafty chambermaid is ready to throw him out of the upper windows and down, where he belongs, in the street to get his just deserts.

miss marple said...

My investigations have concluded that it was the crafty chambermaid who soiled the lamp post and the Burrow flagpole. She has made a full confession and been summarily dismissed by Dame Barbara. Not before emptying the slops over Dame B's four-poster, I regret to say. Mrs Malaprop is mortified.

lawyer in paris said...

Send her for her "punishment" to Zola.