What it was like to “relieve yourself” in medieval times
Medieval times are often romanticized in movies, but the secrets of day-to-day life remain largely untold. Take using the restroom, for instance. Without the luxury of modern plumbing, what did they do, and how bad did it smell?
Life sure didn’t smell very good before modern plumbing
Medival toilets, called garderobes, were more often than not a damp closet made of stone (even in the case of royalty in castles). There you would find a bench with a hole in it. In the absence of plumbing, where did the waste go? The, shall we call it, “byproduct” would drop into a stinking cesspool, hopefully far, far below. If it wasn’t far enough below, you might expect that whatever lives in a cess-pool and eats the waste could also theoretically come up and bite one of your bare, vulnerable cheeks.
Living in a castle provided an ever-so-slightly less horrible bathroom experience. There was often a great distance for the waste to fall, meaning the smell and the danger was not quite as close in proximity and therefore less pungent. Often, their waste would end up in the moat that surrounded the castle. Because moat water was stagnant, it was left with a wretched smell, especially in warmer months.
The art of avoidance
Medieval times saw a rise in population, and more people inevitably meant more waste. With byproduct filling the streets, one solution was to avoid the stench by using a nose bag or cone — a small, individual sack filled with flowers and other pleasant fragrances. Some tried to divert their plumbing, but for the most part, all that did was move the waste and smell slightly further from their living spaces (but perhaps right outside someone else’s).
Plenty of people didn’t even bother with plumbing or cesspools and would go to the bathroom wherever they happened to be the moment the urge came. Many would even go right there inside of a building. With the floors almost never being cleaned, you can imagine the nightmare of filth and stench that accumulated. When it got to be too much, they would simply build a new layer of flooring to cover it up.
No privacy was just a way of life
Garderobes were not generally made for just one person, so there wasn’t much privacy while going number two. A typical garderobe was a long line of benches, sans stall.
The amount of time a person could expect to be relieving themselves was much higher because of the un-sanitized water, food, and way of life in general. Diarrhea was common, as was constipation, and water sources were likely not well treated. We wonder if Medieval reconstructionists also recreate this part of Medieval life.