This Is How People Used Toilets In The Middle Ages

From archaic toilet paper to moats made of feces, using the toilets in the Middle Ages was no picnic.

For those familiar with an outhouse, the medieval toilet is its massive stone-built predecessor. Relegated to the private alcoves of a fort, medieval toilets were nothing but openings that led into a lavatory or castle moat below.

Designed mainly with function in mind, the medieval toilet was otherwise known as a garderobe or privy chamber. It was often located on several floors of most castles and no bigger than a modern-day coffee shop restroom.

Medieval Toilet

The medieval toilet was a product of its time before the advent of indoor plumbing refined the bathroom experience. However, how it came to be and met its end is worth a gander.

The History Of The Medieval Toilet

Despite the name, the Middle Ages were no mere intermediary between eras. This long and strenuous period in European history began with the fall of the Roman Empire in 467 A.D. and charged through the 14th-century Renaissance.

With the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe essentially became feudal. Disbanded nations and a general scarcity of resources saw wealthy lords take power and war with one another from the lofty castles they built for themselves.

Most average people were lucky to eat and survive, but this time, some luxuries were also created, including the medieval toilet.

Medieval Toilet And Exterior Castle Wall

Building castles was a lofty endeavor and could take up to 10 years, not to mention constructing them was rather expensive. At the tail-end of the Middle Ages, King Edward I nearly bankrupted the crown’s treasuries by using 100,000 pounds on his Welsh fortifications, with toilets being a significant design priority.

There were a couple of different designs for these commodes. The waste shafts of some medieval toilets ran down the exterior of a fort into moats or rivers. In contrast, others were designed with internal castle channels that funneled waste into a courtyard or cesspit.

Other privy chambers, meanwhile, protruded out from the castle wall. Openings hung above open air, allowing gravity to do the rest. Usually, a wooden bench separates the stone-carved hole from a user’s rear.

However, building toilets within the palace walls wasn’t just for convenience. Indeed, they also served as a hindrance to potential enemies.

Invaders could be kept relatively at bay by building toilets with shafts that emptied into courtyards or cesspits around the palace.

However, these shafts had to be built high enough off the ground that enemies couldn’t sneak in through the hole in the privy chamber. This happened in 1203 when King Richard I’s French palace, Château Gaillard, was sieged.

Keiss Castle Toilets

Ideally, waste would fall into a river where no one had to deal with it, so some castle toilets were built jutting out over a cliff.

Without that luxury, there had to be someone tending to the excrement, removing it, or making sure it was mixed correctly with the surrounding moat. In Tudor, England, this job was known as a gong farmer, and these unfortunate souls had to work only at night so others couldn’t be put off by their horrible job.

Though forced to live in isolated homes, they reportedly received decent pay per ton of excrement they removed.

Why Garderobes Met Their End

Closeup On Medieval Toilet Seat

The most considerable downside to the medieval toilet was that there was almost no practical way to avoid the stench. Unfortunately, toilets in middle ages were not always situated in privy chambers containing a window, in which case aromatization through herbs was relied on.

Some garderobes were also made without privacy, with no doors or dividers.

Additionally, washing a medieval toilet was burdensome. Those unfortunate enough to be tasked with the duty threw buckets of water down the toilet shaft or rerouted rain from the gutters.

As for the waste collected below, local farmers often amass this human fecal matter as fertilizer. Meanwhile, medieval toilet paper consisted of a bunch of hay. This was rarely an issue regarding clogging or cleanliness, though 12th-century monk Jocelin de Brakelond recounted that this once nearly caused a fire.

While it would take until the advent of indoor plumbing in the mid-1800s to standardize the marvelous innovation of toilets, the toilets in middle ages were undoubtedly an ingenious — and necessary — step toward that historic invention.