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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Past the Tower Guard, Third Hole on Your Right: Medieval Toilets

Originally written for a medieval journal, Nov 2002.

Those that know me know that I have a bit of an obsession with bathrooms. Not through choice but through necessity have I visited a great many and spent hours and hours of my life sitting upon porcelain thrones. In fact, the van der Eychs have a WC plaque on the bathroom in their keep, which they say stands for “Welcome Colyne.” So it was only natural for me to think one day, “With this stomach disorder of mine, what would life have been like for me back in period? Where would I have gone potty?”

The answer depends on exactly what period we’re looking at. Roman garrisons had communal bathrooms that were basically trenches you would stand at next to your buddies (not unlike some American sports arenas today). Likewise in the more ‘civilized’ Roman world, people were more communal when it came to voiding. Bathrooms were unisex and toilets were long stone benches with strategically placed holes. When you were done you would clean yourself with a sponge on a stick, and then wash your hands in a bucket of water. All the waste produced would then flow through the sewer to the river.

I’m not sure what the Norse did their business in, but to clean afterwards they used moss or bits of clothing (hopefully not clothing they were still wearing).

In later period once castles were in vogue we saw the advent of the garderobe. Garderobe were basically semi-private ‘poop-chutes’ that stuck out over the castle walls. Picture a stone port-a-potty suspended over the top of a castle wall with a hole in the floor. Waste would plummet to the ground and some poor souls would periodically have to move it around to try to combat the stink. Often strange holes or chutes can be seen on the external walls of castles and these are, as you might have guessed, often garderobe vents. Waste sent hurtling outside of castle walls would often find its way into moats, which would be a deterrent to invaders all on its own. According to one source, farmers would sometimes collect the waste to spread on their fields.

Servants would clean the garderobes with buckets of water and cloths. As for the garderobe patrons, there was no such thing as toilet paper. Straw or hay bundles called “torche-culs” would have to suffice. Unless they wanted to use the “gomphus”—a curved stick.

In monasteries they were more Roman in their attitudes and would sit back to back on benches that dropped waste in water tunnels connected to some sort of sewer. The monks had to have strong bladders though, as they were only allowed to ‘go’ at certain times of the day.

The well-to-do had water closets in their manors. These were small rooms where one could do their business, but which did not have any type of sanitation system. It was up to the closet-keeper to keep the water closet clean. To cut down on smells they would place green sheets over the seats. (Why green? You got me.)

As for the commoner, the peasants, the serf? Nothing beats sand. Or dirt. Good old dirt. If they were at home they had a chamber pot whose contents would be tossed out a window after a suitable warning had been called. In France it was “gardez l'eau” (which gave birth to our term ‘loo’).

By the late 1400s traveling cesspool cleaners began to appear, called night men. How much could a night man expect to make for his toil? A bill from 1494 shows that two shillings a ton were paid to have a six-ton cesspool emptied! In Scotland enterprising sanitation engineers would wander the streets with a bucket calling “Wha wants me for a bawbee?” As a customer squatted over the bucket the bucket owner would cover them with a giant cloak to grant them a modicum of privacy.

Hhhmm. Now I’m considering taking a bucket and a cloak to Pennsic next year. Forget the lineups at the port-a-castles, I gotta nice bucket here.

Then again, maybe not.


About.com: The Jorvik Viking Centre, http://britishhistory.about.com/blJorvik.htm

The Castle Page of James M. Deem, http://www.jamesmdeem.com/castlepage.htm

RomanceEverAfter: Medieval Health and Sanitation, http://www.romanceeverafter.com/no_such_thing_as_toilet_paper.htm

Toilets, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/lostempires/roman/toilets.html

Toilets, http://atschool.eduweb.co.uk/easton.suffolk/castles/toilets/

Toilets through the Ages,

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