(Picture: Trevor Huxham/licenced under CC by 2.0)
Garderobes – structures jutting out from the side of an external wall, containing open-bottomed privies – like this one in the Tower of London were added to European buildings from the early medieval period, particularly castles but also monasteries and larger houses.
Waste dropped directly down through the seat onto the ground or into a cesspit (a hole that had to be emptied periodically), moat, river or even seashore where water carried it away.
(Picture: Peter Dunn © Historic England Archive)
The toilet in the royal palace of Old Sarum, built within the bailey of the 11th-century Norman castle in Wiltshire, was probably more luxurious than most. This reconstruction of the interior imagines richly decorated walls, absorbent, fragrant straw scattered on the floor, and an attendant with cloths and water for cleaning. Still, the principle was familiar: waste fell through a hole in the seat into a pit lined with rubble and cut stone. The pits at Old Sarum were emptied by a man lowered down by a rope tied around his waist – not a very appealing job.
(Picture: Mkooiman, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Many Norman and later medieval castles across Britain and in Europe have garderobes – this picture shows a stone garderobe jutting out from the 13th-century Clifford’s Tower in York. These were sometimes built in places where waste would fall onto potential attackers. The flaw in that plan was that the garderobe hole could provide an entry point – Château Gaillard, built in Normandy in the late 12th century by Richard the Lionheart, was captured in 1204 when enemy soldiers entered through the latrine hole.
Each medieval monastery, convent and abbey typically had a communal latrine called a necessarium or reredorter connected to the dormitory on the first floor, so that the monks or nuns could relieve themselves at night and at set times during the day. These were typically very long, seating dozens in long rows, sometimes separated by partitions. The seats were usually set above a drain, river or diverted stream to flush away the waste.
Some enjoyed more sophisticated plumbing. A 12th-century book of psalms contains a diagram of the ambitious water and sanitation system installed in Christ Church Priory, Canterbury by Prior Wibert, who died in 1167. As well as carrying fresh water from a spring north of the site, feeding gardens and a pond, it also served the necessarium where, together with rainwater from the roof, it flushed waste into the city ditch.