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. :-)


Passages to the Past said...

Who knew that other's toilet goings could be so interested! Leave it up to EC!

Anne Gilbert said...

Wow Talk about "mindset"! Medievals really did have a different "mindset" about some things, at least! Perhaps it was just that, unlike ourselves, the whole idea of "privacy", even for kings and the like, wasn't, shall we say, a top priority. So people were very much aware that other people had, um, "bodily functions".
Anne G

Katherine said...

With regards to rags being used for toilet paper, I recently read Alison Weir's biography of Queen Isabella, wife of Edward II. While Weir's opinions are for the most part highly biased, she mentions that Isabella's household account books make reference to rags being provided, probably for the Queen's necessary business.

With regards to pictures in books of kings on/ in the privy, I suspect it's a lot like the photos you see in tabloids today of celebrities getting coffee/ without their makeup/ talking their way out of a traffic ticket, etc., as though trying to prove that well-known people are "just like us!"

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Hi Katherine,

That's really interesting about Queen Isabelle and bears out the other pointers re latrine wipes - for the aristocracy anyway.
I think re the pictures in books that it was just an accepted part of life - because who would get to see the books other than the immediate household? They'd be too precious to display to all and sundry. I guess they'd get their sights from other ecclesiastical visuals such as misericords and carvings - although these weren't always easily seen (like in the roof or under a bench). The Medievals also believed in calling a spade a spade. So the UK village of Skidbrook was once Shitbrook. Grape Street in London was once known as 'Gropecu*t' lane.
There was a medieval lady called Elizabeth Widecu*t. I don't think they were prurient with their sex and scatology the way we are as a society. They just portrayed it as part of everyday life - although in the case of sex there was the guilt trip of sin. We're also looking at a society where musical farting was the entertainment highlight of the year at the king's Christmas court!!!

Anne Gilbert said...

I think in any society where "privacy" in our modern sense, probably just "called a spade a spade". This is probably true even today in some places. I don't think medieval people were all that different at leastin that regard. As for the names, yeah, "Grape" Street that used to be Gropec--- Street wasn't the only street or lane or path so named. My understanding is, there were "Gropec---" Streets or Lanes in any sizeable town, and their names often got changed over time to something more innocuous, even, sometimes "Lover's Lane" As for the lady called Elizabeth "Widec---", I don't know. Maybe she got her name from having that, um, characteristic, or is it possible that it had a different meaning at an earlier time?
Anne G

Anne Gilbert said...

Also, I forgot to ask, at whose Christmas court was "musical farting" considered entertaining? Just curious.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Hi Anne,
Yes, there were Grope Lanes all over the country. Just as there were Cow Lanes where the cattle were brought into the town, or Bridlesmith Gate (the entrance to the city where all the bridlesmith's had their trade) etc. Things went by their function. Also, if something looked like a certain part of the anatomy, they weren't afraid to say so. There's a native plant in the UK - the Arum Lily. Its berries in the autumn grow in a tight cluster, and the plant takes one of its names from them - Lords and Ladies. In the summer though, it grows a very suggestive single spike. So it's also known as the Cuckoo Pint. The second word comes from Pintle, the Old English word for a penis. The cuckoo bit probably ties into the bawdy connotation associated with cuckoldry. The word orchid comes from Greek and means 'dog testicles.' Our ancestors may have had inhibitions, but they weren't always the same ones as ours!
The unfortunately named lady: Yes, in the medieval period the name alluded to the same body part as today, but it wasn't as rude then. It was much worse to blaspheme against God than to use a body part when swearing. By Shakespeare's day it was getting ruder. Shakespeare himself puns on the word in Hamlet when talking of 'country' matters. By the late 18thC the word appears in Francis Grose's Dictionary of the vulgar tongue as 'c---t' 'A nasty name for for a naty thing'. In the Middle Ages it was much less of a deal.
Re the musical farting. Yes, it was very entertaining. My Roger Bigod had a tenant whose job it was to 'leap, whistle and fart' every Christmas before the King, for which he received the rights to his land. It was often part of a jester's repertoire and the tradition continued into Victorian music hall where I recall reading about a particular entertainer who, for a grand finale used to fart lavender water over his audience.
In the late 12thC, John of Salisbury complained that 'illustrious persons allow buffoons to frequent their houses and perform before the eyes of all disgraceful actions with the obscene parts of their bodies....worse still, these fellows are not ejected when in the turbulence of their hinder parts they cause the air to reek by emitting a series of loud noises which add to their deplorable conduct.'

Anne Gilbert said...

As usual, EC is very, very knowledgeable. I didn't know about the names of the plants(except for orchids, which is pretty common "botanical" knowledge anyway). I did read that, in medieval times, these "gaseous" entertaiments, were popular with kings, I just didn't know which ones. Interesting stuff, that. Oh, and sorry it took so long to get back to you folks. I was out of town for three days with family during the (American) Thanksgiving holidays.

Carla said...

I did spot Moaning Myrtle, although I admit not until most of the way through the book. One of the things I like about the Harry Potter books are the little jokes and puns :-)

Malcom Jones's The Secret Middle Ages leaves no doubt about the lack of medieval inhibitions about all things scatological!

Anne Gilbert said...


Hmmmmm. . . .there is a lot in the Harry Potter series that appears to be references to historical places or figures. Many of these went over my head, because I'm American, not British. But I still was able to pick out some "historical" names. I had a lot of fun doing that!
Anne G

Sarah Bower said...

Re Katherine's comment about rags, that might alludes to her 'sanitary towels' which would have been washable rags for ladies of quality - very eco friendly!

And re the medieval sense of humour, there is a fabulous book from the York Medieval Press entitled Medieval Obscenities. It's a collection of essays and abstracts from an academic conference on said subject, which must have been a good deal more entertaining than most academic conferences, and is full of vivd evidence of the medieval love of scatalogical humour.

Anne Gilbert said...

I wonder if those "eco friendly" "sanitary towels" were used as um, "monthly rags" by these "ladies of quality". After all, "on the rag" is or was a popular expression for women's periods in my lifetime.
Anne G

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Anne, It would be interesting to know what was used for sanitary protection a thousand years ago. We can make educated guesses, but I've not seen any direct primary source provenance in my wanderings.
Sarah, I've got the Medieval Obscenities book and it is interesting - although I do prefer the Malcolm Jones because it's broader in scope and less dry.

Anne Gilbert said...

Somehow, I don't think the monks who commented on such things a thousand years ago, were very interested in what women used for sanitary protection. OTOH, there might be some archaeological evidence, if anyone is looking for it.
Anne G

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Anne, I don't think monks would much comment, if at all, on such a function, but there are other literatures that can be sourced - secular writings of the time including tales, and household accounts. There is still a massive wealth of manuscripts untranslated and it's tantalising to think that there might just be something lurking in one of those. :-)

Anne Gilbert said...

Since I'm somewhat familiar with archaeology and archaeologists, I thought something might turn up in the medieval archaeology front. I didn't think of these "untranslated manuscripts" you mention, partly because I'm only aware of what has been translated and/or is available, and I haven't come across any such mentions. I guess you haven't, either. And I guess that's a project for somebody out there.

Anonymous said...

I'm a new fan (having previously stuck primarily to reading history research type books) and I flew through The Winter Mantle in 3 days. I've already ordered the William Marshal books and can't wait to read more.
I'm fascinated by your sessions with Alison King and I was wondering if you could use one of the sessions to clear up the question over whether or not Jesus of Nazareth actually existed(and if so, what does she see of him) and the same for King Arthur.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Hi Angela,
Glad you've found the novels and hope you continue to enjoy them!
Goodness...I think that's a very interesting question. I don't think I would go there re Jesus of Nazareth because so much else is tied up in it and it could be very dangerous territory. King Arthur, yes, but it's getting round to finding the time. Requests for who murdered the Princes in the tower is one of the other ones we are often asked about too. At the moment I prefer to work with the characters I am studying for my own work and get used to them and establish a rapport - a very strong one in the case of John Marshal! But unless I was actually writing a book about Jesus or Arthur, I'd probably not personally go there - Arthur is the more likely if anything.