Since the beginning of civilized living, we have made sure our waste is carried away. By moving sources of water and then through a series of pipes. The bathroom developed from just a necessary house to a place of luxuriating as the Romans perfected their bath houses. These became places of gossip and socializing as much as keeping clean. The Baths of Caracalla offered warm and cold pools, body oiling and scraping services, hair shampooing and styling areas, manicures and exercise areas. As the Roman Empire went into decline, these fabulous baths and their pipes and aqueducts deteriorated. By the time of the of the Middle Ages, bathing had fallen into decline and the bathroom became much less elaborate.
However, people in the medieval times did bath more than previously given credit for. There was a belief by some that submerging in water would open a person to debauchery or to serious illness. Some Christians preached that submersion in the waters of baptism was enough. Thankfully for everyone’s nose, this was not the prevailing view. There were still bathhouses in many cities, where a person could get clean and perhaps enjoy a bit of fun of the carnal variety. However, this was very much frowned on by the Church and was rapidly falling out of favor by the 16th century. Possibly because of more puritanical views that were becoming popular, but more likely because of the waves of disease. The Dutch humanist Erasmus, who wrote the first modern etiquette book said in 1526, “Twenty-five years ago, nothing was more fashionable in Brabant than the public baths. Today there are none, the new plague has taught us to avoid them.”
The nobility had access to special rooms specifically for bathing or huge tubs brought to their rooms. Warm water was toted up to these tubs from the kitchen, and the person would bathe using scented oils or flowers as well as homemade soft soap. Servants were instructed to “hang sheets, round the roof, every one full of flowers and sweet green herbs, and have five or six sponges to sit or lean upon, and see that you have one big sponge to sit upon, and a sheet over so that he may bathe there for a while, and have a sponge also for under his feet, if there be any to spare, and always be careful that the door is shut. Have a basin full of hot fresh herbs and wash his body with a soft sponge, rinse him with fair warm rose-water, and throw it over him.” Poorer people did not have special rooms, but would wash with plain water and a rag or take a dip in a nearby river or stream in warm weather.
Medical treatises of day associated bathing with digestion and eating, and warned that a long bath would cause fatness and feebleness. In times of Plague, washing increased as people tried to stem the tide of disease. They found that washing their hands in warm wine, warm vinegar and water was especially effective. Soaking with various herbs could help with ailments as well.
As the plumbing for baths declined, so did the plumbing for other bodily functions. Every castle was equipped with a garderobe or a privy, however, this was rudimentary compared to facilities in Roman times. The garderobe was a bench with a hole on it where a person would do their business and it would fall into the moat or a pit. The pits were then cleaned out by “gong farmers”, which were rightly featured as one of the worst jobs in history in the special by the same name. Garderobes were equipped with bars over the hole in case an enemy decided to use this as a handy means of entrance to the castle. All I can say is to try that you must REALLY want to get into that castle.
A privy was a private place for a person to take care of their business, however, servants would attend a noble before, during and after this process. This is where the term Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber came from. The King’s Groom of the Stool had the distinct pleasure of wiping the royal bum. As disgusting as this is to modern ears, it was a position of great trust and much influence. Chamber pots were also used and often emptied out windows into the streets. Legally, they were supposed to be disposed of by the night soil man and taken to the cesspool. However, this was not always done. The term “loo” comes from the call of “Gardez l’eau” people would call out when emptying chamber pots out windows. This is where the etiquette of a gentleman walking on the outside of the walkway came from. It kept his lady companion from walking in filth.
However, because of the lack of facilities, people would drop trou and do what was necessary pretty much wherever they were. The problem was so bad that Erasmus wrote in his book of etiquette, “It is impolite to greet someone urinating or defecating.” A notice went up in 1589 in a British palace:
Let no one, whoever, he may be, before,
at, or after meals, early or late, foul the
staircases, corridors or closets with
urine or other filth
That had to be an awkward meeting that brought forth that warning. Sounds like Mardi Gras. I digress.
Queen Elizabeth who was very sensitive to smells had one of the first modern flush toilets developed for her. Her godson, John Harrington, had fallen out of favor for circulating questionable Italian fiction. In 1596, he presented this design to the Queen. Initially she was pleased, but then Harrington made a mistake. He wrote a book about the new “privy in perfection” and called the book The Metamorphosis of Ajax. This was a pun on the slang word for privy, which was “jake”. Elizabeth was not amused and Harrington was banished again and the flush toilet fell out of favor until much later.
Hundreds of years would pass before the bathroom would be anything like our modern eyes would recognize. And I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I’m going to go and give thanks for my hot and cold running water and indoor plumbing.