Monday, 2 July 2012

Necessities of life in castles

Durham Castle and Cathedral above the river Wear
Latrines are usually called garderobes in historical fiction, but they had other names – Gang, or gong, cloacum, neccessarium, reredorter and jake, which is the French form of john or jonny. The Welsh tŷ bach was also used (it means a small or private place). Another popular name was the privy.

Privies varied from a hole in the ground to grand, purpose built structures – a wooden bench with a hole cut into it, or sometimes stone seats, inside a small, private space. Lids with handles were used to drop across the hole, and earth or sand was kept to throw in; both required in an effort to dampen the smells. Henry VIII had sand in his jake at Dover Castle. Gongscouring was a recognised trade by the 16th century. I can't help but shudder at the thought of a stone toilet seat on a frosty January morning...

Usually the latrine cubicle projected out over the castle walls, and excrement piled up below. Someone (the gongscourer) had to go around at frequent intervals and shift it. Sometimes a chute or shaft inside the walls drained into a cesspit. In this case, latrines were necessarily grouped together at one spot in the castle. Rainwater was often directed from rooftops to the chutes to clean them out. Hampton Court had a communal House of Easement which was two stories high. “Pissing places” were common and at Greenwich Palace an effort was made to stop this  habit by whitening the walls and painting red crosses on them in the belief that no Christian would piss against the Holy Cross.

From the 15th century on, toilet arrangements within private chambers featured a chair or stool with a pot included below the seat – a close stool – and the pot would be regularly cleaned out by servants. (I imagine they emptied the contents over the castle walls! Certainly that happened at Stirling Castle in the sixteenth century.)

Water was a necessity for life within the castle and several wells were included at most residences. The deepest well in England goes down 330 feet, (100 metres) and such depth requires a mechanism to lift the heavy bucket full of water to the surface. Systems of pulleys and counter balances were used. Rainwater was also stored in cisterns at roof level and lead pipes were in use from 1300.

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