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Detail of an illustration of a woman emptying her chamber pot out the window. Medieval sanitation wasn’t very sanitary.

Cheerio and Gardi Loo! Words of Warning Prompted By Medieval Human Waste Disposal

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In 1775, the Scottish inventor Alexander Cumming was granted the first patent for the design of a flushing toilet. Although the Romans were known for their innovation in sanitation, which included public toilets and the sewage system (though this apparently did not improve public health ), these facilities vanished from Middle Age sanitation practices. Instead, human waste was disposed in quite an unhealthy manner.

Rich and Powerful Wardrobes/Toilets

During the Middle Ages, flush toilets and indoor plumbing did not exist. There were several ways in which people ‘did their business’. One of these, for example, was the garderobe, which means ‘to guard the robes’. This was due to the fact that people kept their clothes in them, as it was believed that the foul odor in these chambers repelled moths, which would otherwise eat the fabric. It is from ‘garderobe’ that the modern ‘wardrobe’ is derived. Basically, these were seats (either made of stone or wood) attached to a shaft leading to a pit. These toilets were installed in castles and manor houses. In other words, they were available only to the rich and powerful.

A garderobe from outside. (Public Domain)

A garderobe from outside. ( Public Domain )

Gong Farmers and Cesspits for the Rest

Most people during the Middle Ages, however, did not have the luxury of the garderobe. Instead, they had to settle for more communal facilities, such as cesspits. A cesspit was simply a hole in the ground covered by a structure called a privy (known also as an outhouse). As excrement would stay stagnant in the hole, cesspits needed to be emptied every once in a while.

This Cess pool has human bones and other rubbish left over from when it was used as waste disposal and latrine. After prisoners were tortured to death or executed the bodies were dumped here, above was the toilet that the warden used to defecate on the dead bodies. (Emillie/CC BY 2.0)

This Cess pool has human bones and other rubbish left over from when it was used as waste disposal and latrine. After prisoners were tortured to death or executed the bodies were dumped here, above was the toilet that the warden used to defecate on the dead bodies. (Emillie/ CC BY 2.0 )

The men employed to perform this unenviable task were known as ‘gong farmers’. These men were also known as ‘nightmen’, as they were only allowed to work at night. The ‘gong farmers’ are recorded to have received about three times the wages of unskilled laborers. Stories exist of people falling into cesspits through rotten boards in the privy and drowning in excrement. The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I is said to have been saved from such a fate at Erfurt in 1184.

And the (In)famous Use of Chamber Pots

In addition to cesspits, the people of the Middle Ages also had access to chamber pots. These were pots kept in the bedroom so that people could ‘do their business’ in them, especially during the night. Like the cesspits, chamber pots also needed to be emptied once they were filled up. In some cases, the contents of the chamber pots would simply be thrown out from the window into the streets. This was done, for instance, by the tenants of high rise buildings in medieval Edinburgh.

The practice of emptying chamber pots into the streets apparently gave rise to some new words in the English language. For example, in order to warn pedestrians below, those who emptied the chamber pots would shout ‘Gardi loo!’, which is supposed to have been derived from the French ‘Prenez garde à l’eau’, which may be translated to mean ‘Watch out for the water’.

A Medieval woman emptying her chamber pot into the street. (Nautical Archaeology Program)

A Medieval woman emptying her chamber pot into the street. ( Nautical Archaeology Program )

Another word derived from this practice is ‘cheerio’. During the Middle Ages, the more well-to-do members of society would inhabit the ground floors of the high rise buildings. When they went out, they would often be carried on special chairs by their servants. In order to avoid accidents involving the emptying of chamber pots from higher floors, the servants would should ‘Chair below’, which eventually became ‘cheerio’.

Muckrakers Stand Aside, Medieval Sanitation is Left Behind

Interestingly, the practice of emptying chamber pots directly into the streets gave rise to a new occupation, much like the ‘gong farmers’. The streets of medieval London, for instance, became so full of filth (which included the excrement of both animals and humans’) that muckrakers were hired to clean the streets. These were men who would collect the filth from the streets and dump them beyond the city walls. Like the ‘gong farmers’, these men were paid much better than average workers.

In Great Britain, things began to change during the 18th century, when the flushing toilet was invented. It was, however, only during the late 19th century that they became common. Two factors contributed to this. The first being the realization that poor sanitation caused diseases, prompting the British government to declare in 1848 that every new house was required to have either a flushing toilet or an ash-tray privy (a toilet with a pile of ash underneath it). The second factor was the new sewer system that was built in London in 1865. But it may surprise you to know that it was only during the 20th century that indoor toilets became standard.

Inside the early 18th century privy from Townsend House, Leominster, showing the 3-seat earth closet. Preserved in the Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings, Worcestershire. (DeFacto/CC BY SA 4.0)

Inside the early 18th century privy from Townsend House, Leominster, showing the 3-seat earth closet. Preserved in the Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings, Worcestershire. (DeFacto/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

Top Image: Detail of an illustration of a woman emptying her chamber pot out the window. Medieval sanitation wasn’t very sanitary. Source: loonyliterature

By Wu Mingren

References

Beck, J., 2016. Roman Plumbing: Overrated. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/01/ancient-roman-toilets-gross/423072/

McKim, C., 2016. Gardyloo: The grim story of unsanitary Edinburgh. Available at: https://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/gardyloo-the-grim-story-of-unsanitary-edinburgh-1-4073295

O'Neill, T., 2013. How Did People in the Middle Ages Get Rid of Human Waste? Available at: http://www.slate.com/blogs/quora/2013/12/24/did_people_in_the_middle_ages_throw_excrement_out_windows.html

Powell, C. A., 1996. Dry Land Disposal. Available at: http://nautarch.tamu.edu/portroyal/CHAMBER/Dry_land.htm

Reville, W., 2008. When doing the business could land you in it. Available at: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/when-doing-the-business-could-land-you-in-it-1.1215887

Simeonova, N., 2011. From Medieval to Modern. Available at: https://www.wwdmag.com/editorialtopical/medieval-modern

The Telegraph, 2011. Medieval London: 10 disgusting facts. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/8421415/Medieval-London-10-disgusting-facts.html

Comments

"But it may surprise you to know that it was only during the 20th century that indoor toilets became the standard"...but not me.

I've often surprised my friends ("perplexed" might be a better word choice - but I digress) when I said; "Indoor toilets are a 20th-century innovation. Homes built in the early part of the 20th century were just BEGINNING to add indoor toilets". "Kids" my age (d.o.b. 1943) had no knowledge of what I was talking about, much less have experienced. Our elementary school teaching on history did NOT include these simple facts. There was "no need" for this sort of teaching because we were "modern" and wanted to forget about our crude past.

However, indoor plumbing preceded indoor toilets by several thousand years going back to the Indus River Valley in India. (4,000 to 3,000 B.C.) Making the "leap" from indoor drinking and bathing water to the invention of the modern flush toilet was no small task. In addition to Cumming, there were others who contributed to the modern flush toilet, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flush_toilet#Flushing_systems, example: Sir John Harrington who was awarded the first patent on the flush toilet; and of course inventor Thomas Crapper whose name has been ascribed to the "Crapper" in everyone's bathroom. BTW, Crapper also invented the Manhole Cover that gave easy access to the sewage systems beneath all modern cities.

So, the next time you want to use "The Crapper" dream dreams and think of all the effort the civilized world went through to give you this privilege.

P. S. About 60% of the world's population still dig a hole in the ground to do their "business".

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