5.03.2012

Mediæval Plumbing


So, having finished The Hunger Games (thankfully - review to follow on Saturday if you missed the radio show) I decided on Witch World by Andre Norton for the leisure component of my reading. It was recommended to me by a friend as "an oldie but a goodie" especially as an example of mixing futuristic tech with a medieval setting as I'm planning with my own fantasy novel. Certainly, older sci fi/fantasy can be trusted not to have the smut or really liberal stuff that's all too common among today's offerings. It's not bad so far, but one line really caught my eye:

Medieval the hold of Estcarp might be superficially, Simon discovered, but the dwellers therein had some modern views on sanitation. He found himself introduced to water which flowed, warm, from a wall pipe when a simple lever was turned, to a jar of cream, faintly fragrant, which applied then wiped off erased all itch of beard.

Well, firstly, the opening comment about "views on sanitation" is just more of the old "medieval people didn't wash" nonsense that I addressed in "Hygiene in the Middle Ages". I'll give her the benefit of a doubt that maybe in the '60s decent research wasn't as easy to come by as it is now. So I won't rail against her. BUT, it is noteworthy that at least some real mediæval castles had even more sophisticated plumbing than Norton's Estcarpians and their "modern" sensibilities.

By the 13th century, important castles with permanent bathrooms had hot and cold running water (for example, Henry III's palace at Westminster had this amenity). Water more humble castles at least had water for washing and drinking at a central drawing point on each floor. Hand washing was sometimes done at a laver or built-in basin in a wall recess (certainly at the entrance to the great hall at least), with waste water carried away by a lead pipe. Castles also made use of rainwater from gutters or a cistern to flush the latrine shafts. Not as sophisticated as the modern toilet, perhaps, but certainly indicative of "views" on sanitation that were not to be sneered at by superior modern folk.

With a tip of the hat to Joseph and Frances Gies' Life in a Medieval Castle for some of the information in this post.

4 comments:

Sophia's Favorite said...

Also fun to point out that High Medieval Europeans had standards, and technology, of sanitation that wouldn't be matched in East Asia until the 17th century.

Has anyone ever figured out why post-Renaissance Europeans decided to wallow in their own filth? Because hygiene in the 16th and 17th century was the sort of thing we—or the medievals—would primarily associate with squalid refugee camps.

Nicholas D.C. Wansbutter said...

Good question. I don't know whether there's any scholarly work out there explaining the post-Rennaissance attitudes towards hygiene.

Sacramento Plumber said...

I'm glad I wasn't a plumber in the medieval times!

Anonymous said...

Worth remembering that European'mediaeval' in too many minds means everything from late antiquity (the fall of Rome in the West) through the Dark and Middle Ages. . . .

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