Saturday, November 22, 2008

Toilet Training or setting the bog standard.

I'm busy preparing a piece about the many duties and tasks of the royal Marshal. What did the position mean for John Marshal and his sons and their sons? What did it entail? I have all the information in my head and dotted around various books, but I want to bring it together.
Anyway, that's what will be going on in the future, either the next blog or a couple of blogs down the line depending on my work schedule.

For the moment though, I thought I'd have a quick drop in to talk medieval latrines.... more specifically what a couple of castles have had made of theirs by the powers that be. I have to say that my mind (and eyes!) have boggled (pun intended!) at both of these portrayals of the medieval privy.
Joanne Mcauley, a reader from Northern Ireland visited Carrickfergus Castle and sent me this photograph she took of 'King John' ensconced on the privy. For some obscure reason his braies and hose are down around his ankles and almost off his legs. about no?
King Saul demonstrates quite neatly how it's properly done here in a piece from the Maciejowski Bible. Although at the time he is in a cave and David is sneaking up behind him to steal a piece of his cloak!

I understand that a scene like this might serve to entertain children and giving them an interest, since all things scatalogical appear to fascinate them - and many adults too. 'Oh look this is where King John did a poo!' But is it necessary? Is it respectful? Is it accurate? To me the answer to all three would initially be absolutely not. The further back in the past we go, the easier it is to belittle it. But then on second thoughts, the thirteenth Century Maciejowski Bible has no qualms about portraying a king involved in his necessary business, so one could argue that the portrayal is part of a long tradition. You pay your money and you take your pick - although of course one has to take mindset into consideration. That's not something I have time to discuss here and now, but I'm saving it up for a future blog.
Meanwhile, at Old Sarum, English Heritage has tarted out their thirteenth century placard reconstruction of the privy with paintings from the Bayeux Embroidery. Eh?
Just take a look at the naked couple above the toilet door. (click on the image to enlarge it). You will find the exact same couple in the border of the Bayeux Tapestry - see below. Speculation about them is rife, but it appears to allude to a sexual scandal of the day. So what are they doing decorating the walls of a thirteenth century garderobe. In fact what are any of the panels doing there? Did they put pictures of sexual scandals on their privy walls? Especially copied from a three hundred year old embroidery? Since Old Sarum is administered by English Heritage, you would think they'd strive to get it right.

It's interesting that an attendant is holding out the necessary wipes to the chap sat on the privy. There is evidence that nobles used to take their servants into the privy with them and have them on standby to hand out the medieval equivalent of toilet paper. I have heard people say that hay was used and moss but have never seen any primary source provenance for this myself - although doubtless it existed. I would think hay would be a bit awkward myself, but I haven't actually tried any experimental archaeology in this area it has to be said! However, I have read in primary source that rags were used as bum fodder. The King of France, when talking to William Marshal about traitors, says that in the manner of rags, they are to be used, and then thrown away down the latrine. I wonder if that's how scraps of material come to be found in cess pits when archaeologists are digging around. Was the privy the final destination of garments that had been used until they were threadbare? I suspect so.

P.S. and not connected with any of the above, but has anyone realised the pun in Harry Potter concerning Moaning Myrtle who hangs out in the toilet? There's a well known little plant called the 'Bog Myrtle'. - Get it?
The medievals used it for flavouring their beer. :-)

Monday, November 03, 2008


Longtime readers of my work and visitors to my website and my blog will know that as one of my threads of research I re-enact with living history society Regia Anglorum. I recently worked out that I've been a member for about 15 years now, ever since catching a performance by them at Nottingham Castle. There was a guard on the gate in Norman costume and I was so taken by his outfit that I went up to talk to him and find out where he had obtained it. He told me that he belonged to early medieval re-enactment society Regia Anglorum and that their ethos was to present the equipment and crafts of the period around the Norman conquest as accurately as possible. They portrayed Anglo Saxons, Vikings and Normans. I was immediately aware that this was something very useful for a novelist to investigate because it was bringing history off the page and into the living, fully realised 3D.
Now, you might say that we are products of our own century and we can't truly know what it was like back then just by putting on the trappings of the era and swanning about in them... and you'd be right. But there's more to this re-enactment lark than that. There are many in the re-enactment fraternity who strive to understand the past and rediscover what we've lost and forgotten by recreating artefacts and techniques and by experimental archaeology and thus understand how things worked and fitted into the environment. I won't deny that there's also great fun to be had hanging out with re-enactors, but it's also a wonderful opportunity to listen and learn too.
During a recent weekend event at Nottingham Castle, I talked coins, moneyers and mints with one of the most knowledgeable numismatists in Britain, who tells me that the people about whom we have the most information in 12th century society are the moneyers. Here's his brief history of coins and coin production on his website: I talked to an expert potter and observed him using a medieval potter's wheel to craft a wonderful little bowl. talked medieval embroidery with another expert, and mail shirts with someone else who is chummy with the chaps at Leeds armoury. I also discussed shoes with a guy who is a leather expert with an archaeology degree. Purchase-wise, I came away from the event with a replica drinking glass from the mid 12thC - something that my John Marshal might just have used while entertaining mercenary captain Hubert FitzWalter at Marlborough - see the scene in A Place Beyond Courage!
There's an entire community out there bursting with knowledge and enthusiasm. Re-enactors and the craftsmen, often re-enactors themselves, who serve the industry. It is so fantastic to be a part of it. As with anything one researches, one has to have a nose for the authentic versus the bull manure, but I have a reasonable working knowledge and a good sense of who to trust and who to take with a pinch of salt.
I've mentioned before that it's one thing to look at a cooking pot in a museum or in the pages of a text book and quite another to use one to cook a barley broth over an open fire. One thing to see a mail shirt displayed in a glass case, another to wear it. To walk up (and down!) a twisting medieval staircase wearing a pair of turn shoes and a long dress. And for the things I don't do, such as fighting, riding and sailing, to find out from those who do, what it feels like.
I was fascinated this week to see that Regia Anglorum members Ian and Hazel Uzzell had been making some 12th century kit. One of the garments is a cloak made of vair which is Russian grey squirrel fur. Cloaks of such are often mentioned in medieval inventories and miniver-lined cloaks are frequently depicted in medieval manuscripts - see below. So to see one recreated in the fur so to speak was extremely interesting.
I leave you with a gallery of photographs of recent re-enactment moments, all of which have their place in my novels - or will have. Look out for miniver cloaks in Hugh and Mahelt's story!

Miniver as portrayed
by Eleanor of Aquitaine:
Fresco at Chinon
I knew I'd seen this somewhere
when I was looking to post to
my blog and then I remembered
that it's on the front of Sharon
Kay Penman's new novel
Devil's Brood!

As modelled in the
21st C by Snorri!
Note too the gorgeous
embroidery on his
tunic neck.

A toast to John Marshal using
a replica mid 12thC drinking glass

Jim the Pot at work
at Nottingham Castle

Yours truly, about to
salt the stew!

Hose and braies
For anyone who has wondered
about these sexy garments

Row, row row
your boat...

Wanna fight?

A mark of silver

Photographs courtesy of Regia Anglorum, Ian and Hazel Uzzell and Ian Hicks.