Medieval toilets, just as today, had more “polite” names, the most common being ‘privy chamber’, just ‘privy’ or ‘garderobe’.
More evocative names included the ‘draught’, ‘gong’, ‘siege-house’, ‘neccessarium’, and even ‘Golden Tower’.
Medieval Toilet Etiquette
The earliest Medieval etiquette document, Count Anthimus’s letter to the Frankish King Theodoric, from 530 CE, instructs the King about the dangers of intemperance and gluttony.
One polite custom he initiated was the use of no more than three fingers to pick up meat. This put an end to unsightly grabbing.
The first courtesy book in England is probably Liber Urbani (or simply, Urbanus), which means Book of the Civilized Man.
It was written around 1190 by Daniel of Beccles, a man who may have been a member of the court of Henry II.
What better way than a 3,000-line poem to cover off the correct way to act?
Beccles gets down and dirty about all sorts of situations that might arise at a dinner party, including Medieval toilet etiquette.
Only the host is allowed to urinate in the dining hall, and following his example is a definite no-no.
Apparently, the Duke Of Albany would just pull over a little curtain while doing his business and would return to the table to polite applause from his guests.
As a guest, you should go outside, find a hidden place and – strangely – face into the wind while relieving yourself.
While outside, be sure to pass gas, as doing so inside was just downright wrong.
No Spitting, blowing or picking your nose at the table and (my personal favorite) always wait before leaving the house to check for fleas.
Medieval banquets were NOT places to get moldy drunk. So you had better be careful, restrain your drinking, and hold it in.
Guests had to wash their hands before joining the table, and good manners would prevent you from touching anything others would have to, or such dishes would be passed down according to rank.
But it really depends on the setting and the level sophistication of the host.
In England, there was sometimes a pot in a far corner since ale, as we know, is rented not bought.
Having said that, serving ale or cider at a banquet was considered miserly, and number two was never an option.
Medieval toilet wipes
For a large occasion, the host would have an area outside dug up and prepped as a toilet, and/or would have pots and buckets filled with hay and herbs in a separate room.
Guests would wipe or scrape with the hay and leaves at hand, or with the sticks, flat stones, shells or pieces of cloth they would bring along.
(Gives a new meaning to B.Y.O.)
The other option was to walk off and wear brown in town.
Toilet hay is referred to by medieval writers, albeit by the way.
Jocelin de Brakelond, the 12th-century CE English monk, recounted the story that a fire had almost broken out in the Abbey of Bury St. Edmonds when a candle had burned dangerously close to the hay in one of the abbey’s privies.
Rabelais relates, in Gargantua, that the best wipe of all is a goose. But that’s in the posher 16th century.
Some castles were equipped with Medieval toilet/poop chutes : latrines that were hanging above the moat or an internal chute, but they were few and mostly used by the guards.
The castle’s priest might also be one of the lucky few to have an en-suite toilet for his own chamber, as at Northampton Castle, England, built in the late 11th century CE.
There can be no doubt that the Medieval toilet stank to high heaven.
It was fairly common to hang clothing near latrines as the acrid ammonia fumes helped to kill mites!
The stench of a badly maintained latrine or cesspit was considered a reminder of the weakness of human flesh.
Miracle stories are full of demons lurking in latrines and emitting foul odors.
The King was lucky enough to be able to pack up and go “on progress”- leave the stinky castle every few weeks to live for awhile in another of his many castles, or visit various subjects throughout the kingdom.
Henry III of England (r. 1216-1272 CE) famously made mention of the problem of unsavory odors in a letter to one of his castle constables, ordering a no-expense-spared refit of the amenities of the Tower of London:
Since the privy chamber…in London is situated in an undue and improper place, wherefore it smells badly, we command you on the faith and love by which you are bounden to us that you in no wise omit to cause another privy chamber to be made…in such more fitting and proper place that you may select there, even though it should cost a hundred pounds, so that it may be made before the feast of the Translation of Saint Edward, before we come thither.
King Henry VIII, in his obsession with cleanliness – which was considered odd among other royals who bathed maybe 5 times per year – went on progress nearly 30 times a year to escape the nasty smells.
He even had pipes installed which ran from the bottom of garderobes out into the Thames river.
He hired “gong scourers” – little boys (or anyone small enough) to crawl through the pipes and push out clogged poo.
If you enjoyed this, maybe you’d like to see what job was worse than a Medieval executioner?
Siobhan is a freelance writer, research addict and lover of twisted history. If you like horrible but amazing history, check out her website www.interesly.com or Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/interesly. Or you can reach her through www.siobhanoshea.com.