Certain things in the recent era can feel akin to the Middle Ages … or at least what we think of the Middle Ages. The truth is a lot of what pop-culture presents of the period doesn't match the actual history. This week at Cracked we're doing a Middle Ages deep-dive – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

It’s hard to say that any job in medieval times was “fun” considering the endless number of things that could kill you on a daily basis, but gong farmers won the Misery Olympics. Gong farmers were not farmers in any traditional sense. Instead, they farmed organic, artisanal … human poop. “Gong” was derived from an Old English word that meant “going,” and gong farmers had the disgusting but necessary job of shoveling excrement out of castles and other homes.

Flushing toilets didn’t come around until 1596 and weren’t common until centuries later. Instead, castles had what were called garderobes -- a wooden bench with a hole in the middle which led to a series of chutes that dropped poop into a cesspit. In time, the cesspit would fill up and need emptying. This was when the gong farmers came into play.

A team of three or four gong farmers would climb into a cesspit and fill buckets with fermenting poop. Buckets would then be placed in carts and transported outside of a town. Often gong farmers would sell their “crop” to farmers who would pay good money for fertilizer.

The work was just as nasty as it sounds, and the people of the Middle Ages simply did not want to have to deal with the professional pooper scoopers. Because of this, gong farmers had to perform their craft at night while everyone else was asleep. This earned them the friendlier name of “night men.” Additionally, gong farmers had to live away from most other people. The nature of their work gave them a putrid smell, and bathing was not common for anyone at the time. In a world where everyone reeked, the gong farmers managed to stick out.

Wiki Commons

This is from a bit later, but here's a proud gong farmer advertising his services.

Being socially ostracized was not the only occupational hazard, either. Human waste breaking down produces gasses that can be toxic. While these may not cause harm in small quantities, the buildup in a cesspit could have poisonous consequences. There are accounts of gong farmers dying on the job, including poor Richard the Raker (take a guess what he raked), who drowned in a cesspit in 1325. Additionally, younger boys were often on the job, as being smaller in stature helped them fit into otherwise hard-to-reach spaces. This is, unfortunately, a frequently cited reason for child labor.

Life wasn’t all bad for gong farmers, though, because they did get paid pretty well for their work. One day of gong farming was worth a week of work for most other medieval occupations. Plus, even though this might not have been super common, a gong farmer could claim any valuables that they found among the cesspits.  

Changes in toilet technology led to the end of the occupation, and gong farmers are now mostly only remembered as a minor historical anecdote. So let’s all take a moment to thank and remember the brave gong farmers who boldly went where absolutely no one wanted to go.

Top Image: Public domain

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