>Medieval waste management in pictures

>I imagine that when most people who are not medievalists think of sewage in the Middle Ages (er, if they do at all), they think of the line about one minute into this clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Dennis, there’s some lovely filth down here!”

But medieval structures, especially the expensively built ones, had some pretty impressive systems for their waste management. Here, let me show you a couple of examples.

The first set of pictures is once again from the castle Carreg Cennen in Wales. First, you see a castle privy, minus the wooden seat that would have provided a slightly more comfortable place to rest one’s bottom than what remains of the stone edifice:

If you’re wondering what those white, glowing spaces on the right are, either something happened in the data transfer to my hard drive and erased a portion of my picture (most of which I cropped out), or else this is an extra-special haunted loo. I like to think the latter is the case.

OK, so that’s the loo. But where does it go? Here’s my friend G. to demonstrate:

Here’s a closer look:

That’s right, G. is being a giant piece of sh*t. Heh heh.


In this castle the outlet seems to be in the outer yard. Let’s hope it was behind the horse stables or something, but it still means some poor guy was in charge of cleaning it up every so often. Ew. But the yard there slopes down towards the cliff side, so maybe the poor sap just needed to wash it downhill with a bucket.

Meanwhile, the Cistercian monks at Kirkstall Abbey, outside of Leeds, had a better system. And today’s museum curators know what will get the attention of kids and Dr. Virago — a monk on the loo! Look! —

Actually, technically he’s a lay brother, but whatever. “Monk on the loo” is a much funnier phrase (though not as funny as “monkey on the loo” would be.) And no, he’s not pooping on people’s heads. He’s on what would have been an upper floor. Where his waste goes is the clever part. The toilets in this dormitory for the lay brothers were constructed over a trench that ran between the walls. Here’s a picture of fragments of those walls which I borrowed from the Abbey web site:

That trench was fed by water from further up the hill (where the monks had a mill) and ran under the entire monastery complex. Here are a couple pictures of the now exposed trench:

Eventually the trench let out in the nearby River Aire, which I realize is not all that great, but I still find the system kind of fascinating. And hey, maybe it’s why the wild flowers it this final picture are so abundant!

7 thoughts on “>Medieval waste management in pictures

  1. >Then you should be glad you’re not James I of Scotland. I have to quote a bit of the account because of the privy pun, which indicates, at least, that Chaucer wasn’t the only one playing with this word:For the same Thomas Chamber [sic] had been before right familiar with the king in all places, and therefore knew he well all the privy corners of the chambers; and so he went forth straight to the same privy where the king was, and perceived well an saw how a plank of the floor was broken up, and lifted it up and with a torch looked in, and saw the king there and a woman with him. Saying to his fellows, ‘Sirs, the spouse is found on wherefore we [have] been come, and all this night have carolled here.’

  2. >actually, i am prolly even more interested than you (some might say obsessive) about medieval WM. because, you know, it’s been a continuous part of human life since humans have been around.while i am admittedly easily fascinated, i have been particularly fascinated at archeological sites from malta to colorado ghost towns to norway to learn where people did it and what they did with the waste. because while maybe they didn’t speak english or weren’t literate or didn’t eat meat or ate only meat or believed in a thousand gods or whatever, people centuries before you and me, you know, still had to deal with doing their business.perhaps this explains why i am still single, but i digress.in any case, i looked at that first photo before i read your text and thought at once that the light spots on the right was sunlight coming through a narrow window. no? hmm. was your flash on?and kudos to the monks who figured out the whole trench system.and, in closing, i think monk-a-loo is a most excellent name for a band. though it also sounds like what Australians would call some very common item (their slang always sounds made-up-on-the-spot to me), as in, “well, i wanted toast with my tea, so i put some bread in me monk-a-loo”… apologies to any Aussies offended, but you guys have to admit you’ve got some crazy words.

  3. >Pirate – On the camera weirdness: nope, no window (it was a wall) and my flash was not on, because I first took a picture with it and it was too washed out and so I redid it without the flash. And then I checked to see what it looked like on the screen and it was fine. And later, when I was going through images to delete some to make room for others (b/c I’d forgotten my USB cable), it was fine then, too. Bullock took a look at it on his fancy photo software and said there’s no data in the white bits. Weird.On my toilet-related subjects, remember the farting mannequin in the loo at Castle Rushen that the curator was so excited to show us? Hee-hee!Karl – wait, what??? Ew!!!

  4. >Oh, and Pirate, yes you’re right that there’s a light source to the right, but the white splotches in the original look rather like someone spilled bleach on it! In other words, not just light-source issues.I’m telling you, it’s a data-stealing ghost! 🙂

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