Middle Ages

How People used the Bathroom in the Middle Ages

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Jean Sans Peur (John the Fearless) was the Duke of Burgundy and the de facto king of France from 1409 to 1413 BCE. The Tour Jean Sans Peur (the Tower of John the Fearless) in Paris is the last remaining vestige of the Palais Parisien des Ducs de Bourgogne (Parisian Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy), John's palatial fortress in medieval times. Now a museum, the Tour Jean Sans Peur boasts an exhibit displaying the oldest water closet in the city, John's lavatory, a state of the art marvel in 1409.

John the Fearless enjoyed the very height of plumbing technology for his time. Housed in the top level of his tower, John's state of the art lavatory offered the comforts of a padded seat and chimney heating while an air circulation system kept down that funky outhouse smell. A shaft twenty-five meters long descended from the toilet to a stone-lined septic pit, worn with urine streaks, in the depths of the palace.

The pit, covered to keep smells from filtering up into the living areas, once had a permeable floor, rather like a sieve, which allowed liquids to drain and solids to settle. To keep the solid material from building up, a tradesman, also known as a gong farmer, would clean the pit periodically. The gong farmer who sanitized John's septic tank went by the unlikely nickname, Monsieur Fifi.

To clean himself, John used cotton and linen rags. Less exalted people used mullein leaves, which were soft, though not very absorbent. The peasantry commonly resorted to straw.

Despite John's spectacular facilities, most castles did not have lavatories as the modern world understands them. Some castles offered "garderobes," shelf-like stone seats with holes that opened to the outside. These extended from the outer walls of the castle so that refuse was ejected into the open air and fell to the ground outside the castle. Often, the toilet chutes had iron bars set into the stone to keep intruders from getting into the castle. Some garderobes offered wooden seats, but most people had to use stone seats, which could be uncomfortable, especially in winter.

Privacy in the garderobe was not a priority. Some garderobes were shielded with screens, but most were open.

John the Fearless was not the only one to recognize the value of up-to-date lavatory facilities. In the early sixteenth century, King Henry VIII of England possessed the first portable "throne," which was known as the Close Stool. He had a beaded, embroidered toilet, studded with gilt nails and fringe, which he took with him everywhere. When the velvet-covered lid was raised, a toilet seat, also upholstered in velvet and stuffed with swansdown, was revealed. A picture of a toilet like it can be seen in "The Royal Toilet," a video on the History Channel website. Accompanying this toilet was an attendant, the Groom of the Stool, who was responsible for wiping the king's nether regions after he was finished. The Groom of the Stool was expected to be perpetually at the ready with a piece of soft linen for wiping, a bowl of water for washing, and a towel for drying the royal bottom. The Close Stool was, of course, for Henry's exclusive use.

Amidst all this luxury, Henry did not forget his staff and courtiers. In 1534, he built a special two-story toilet building called the Great House of Ease at Hampton Palace for his better-born staff and royal courtiers. Constantly fed by running water from the Thames River, the building boasted thirteen toilets on each floor. It was to the user's advantage to secure a toilet on the upper floor rather than the lower floor.

Henry's Close Stool is still on display at Hampton Court Palace. The Great House of Easement is now serves as the executive offices for Hampton Court Palace.

Henry's daughter, Queen Elizabeth I received the first flushable toilet as a gift from her godson, Sir John Harington, in 1596. Although both Queen Elizabeth and Sir John appreciated the cleanliness and convenience of the Sir John's new invention, the rest of the royal court jeered at it and him, so he never built another one. To this day, when we refer to a toilet as a "john," we are tipping the hat to Sir John Harington.

A member of the gentry or a wealthy merchant or tradesman might opt for the convenience of a primitive outhouse perched on the side of his house with wooden supports. Placed at the second or third floor level, the toilet seat jutted out over the street. Like Jean Sans Peur's toilet, these garderobes were also based on the principle of sending feces into free-fall. The main difference was that the waste flew through the open air into the streets and onto anyone unfortunate enough to be walking by instead of down a shaft into the darkest recesses of a castle.

Those who did not possess a garderobe or did not want to walk to one could use a chamber pot. Chamber pots could be simple and humble or ornate and luxurious. Materials ranged from fired clay to fine silver. In towns, people emptied their chamber pots onto the roads in front of their houses and the piles of refuse that lined the center of the road were known as the "midden."

Those of a lesser status had much simpler arrangements. Some common lavatories were no more than holes built into the wall. If there were no other options, people would squat in a corner of their domicile. Townspeople who found such behavior repugnant would find a quiet spot in an alley while poor country peasants would use in the woods. In rural areas, people also dug communal pits to accept refuse. They used the pits directly or emptied their chamber pots into the pits.

Toilets have come a long way since the days when dungeons, holes in the wall or floor, and freshly dug pits were an essential part of a bathroom's plumbing, but the fundamental issues are still the same. The basics, comfort, ease, and cleanliness while completing nature's call, are still difficult to achieve in some parts of the world and dealing with waste is still a problem everywhere. Modern day society may sneer at medieval plumbing solutions or the lack of them, but the sewage pollution plaguing many parts of today's world suggests that the citizens of the twenty-first century still have many problems to solve.

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"Weird Histories Number 8: A History of Bum Wiping, Hand Washing and Toilet Behaviour from Ancient to Modern Times." Xomba. 16 October 2008. Accessed 10 November 2009. Web. http://www.xomba.com/weird_histories_%E2%80%93_number_8_history_bum_wiping_hand_washing_and_toilet_behaviour_ancient_modern_times

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