As 2020 drew to close, I noticed an alarming trend on social media. People seemed to be conflating the end of the calendar year with an end to all the awful things that took place in that year. I didn’t want to pick any fights or burst any bubbles, the change of an arbitrary digit doesn’t necessarily mean a change of conditions. Turns out, I was right in my incredulity. A little over two weeks into the new year and things are continuing to suck. Dare I say: things have continued to be shitty. So you know what? I’m gonna lean into it. Here’s a shitty historical thing you can import into your fantasy world.
It’s no secret that most fantasy settings lean heavily on medieval and Renaissance Europe for their foundations. Funny enough, the sanitation systems from other cultures get grafted into these societies. The ancient Romans, Persians, and Maya all had extremely sophisticated sewage systems that we here in the modern era would recognize as decently similar to our own. They had running water and toilets that carried waste safely away from population centers. You see systems like this in the sprawling sewers of Baldur’s Gate and Waterdeep in the Forgotten Realms setting and something similar in the ratways of Riften in Skyrim.
In France, Britain, and Germany on the other hand, sanitation on this scale wouldn’t be seen until the 19th century. So what did they do before then? In 15th century London for instance, most people dug cesspits into which they simply discarded their waste. Rainwater could wash away a portion of the filth, but most of these pits would need to be cleared every year or two. Who would this task fall to? Well, that would be the gong farmers. Gong is an old english word that means “to go.” It was used much in the same way we use the colloquialism “go to the bathroom.” The term gong referred to both the action and the product. Depending on how persnickety you are about the pronunciation at the time, they were also called gongfermors, gongfermours, gong-fayers, gong-fowers or gong scourers (maybe one of these sounds more mysterious or suitable to your setting). To put it simply, they would shovel the contents of cesspits into a cart and transport it safely away from the city.
While it was a relatively high-paying job, it was extremely dangerous. In addition to the risk of disease, it was not uncommon for the gong farmers to be overcome by the noxious fumes from the material they were working with. They’d pass out and fall into the fetid mass, which almost certainly meant an ignoble death by suffocation. To make this work somehow even worse, they were permitted to operate only at night; hence their other nickname: nightmen. A common euphemism for waste was “night soil” owing to the time of its removal. Of course, doing this work under the cover of darkness further raised the odds of death from falling into one of the pits they were tasked to clean.
Look, you can take the easy way out like JK Rowling and just have a wizard teleport everything away, but even in a fantasy world I don’t think, “they just magically get rid of it,” is a pretty lazy explanation. Also, if we use D&D 5e as our starting point, can you point me to the spell they’d use to do this? The earliest spell that approximates something like this is Banishment, which you can’t cast until 7th level. Maybe there’s a homebrew spell you could whip up that targets inanimate matter instead of a creature, but we’re still looking at something that would take a fairly experienced magic user to pull off. So if mages were involved with these removal tasks, it would have been the lowest skill levels.
But let’s think on this a little more shall we? What if we did want to reimagine the gong farmers as a low-level arcane professional? Perhaps these individuals would be poorer pupils at a wizard school looking for a way to pay the crushingly high tuition or a sorcerer who just didn’t have the raw force of personality to advance beyond some basic magic. They’d load up some simple spells to first mask the stench, probably have some means of moving material without having to touch it, and likely some protection incantations queued up.
The gong farmers may prove to be an invaluable resource for your players. Who else is active at night where they could be the only witness to a crime? And who knows what secrets they uncover in their wretched trade as they filter through the refuse of their unsuspecting customers. It’s also possible that they might be tasked with more fantastical forms of waste removal. In your world, they could be the ones that dispose of the monstrous rat corpses in the tavern basement after the adventurers kill the pests, and rudely leave the remains I might add. I can’t think of anyone better suited to clean up the viscous remains of a gelatinous cube slain on the outskirts of town. Wouldn’t it be a shame if you party of players had to pay off a debt by spending a month undertaking this unusual task?
Either way, the introduction of NPCs tasked with menial, dangerous work like this is a great way to bring life to the city and towns of your game world. Your players will know while they’re tucked safely into their bedrolls there’s an army underappreciated but undeterred workers undergirding society just out of view.