Fleas in Medieval Castles: Garderobes

Summary

Parasites were ubiquitous within castles, with fleas being among the most common. In an attempt to ward of fleas, clothing was stored in garderobes. A garderobe was small room, like a closet, which was positioned over a castle’s wall. These rooms were early bathrooms, where nobility defecated into a hole leading outside the castle wall. Ammonia fumes from the human waste accumulated in the garderobe. The fumes were thought to ward of fleas and other pests, thus protecting expensive clothing.

Details

Parasites in Castles

Parasites were ever-present in medieval castles. They infested all inhabitants, from maids to masters. In the Middle Ages, there was no connection between parasites and disease. Thus, biting pests were seen as nuisances, rather than a health threat.

Fleas, bedbugs and lice were some of the most common pests. Castle floors were covered with rushes, and were infrequently swept. This created ideal flea breeding grounds. In warm months, flies buzzed around kitchens, rush-covered floors, and cesspits. Internal parasites, such as whipworms and roundworms, were also present in castle residents.

Garderobes

Stone castles had small, closet-like rooms called garderobes. They served two functions: (1) as a toilet, (2) as storage for clothes of the nobility.

Early Bathrooms

Garderobes were some of the world’s earliest toilets. The small rooms contained a platform with a stone or wooden seat, which was suspended over a round hole in the floor. The hole led to a chute which dumped the human waste outside of the castle walls.

Castle builders positioned garderobes so they jutted out over castle walls. When possible, they were built over moats, lakes or streams, so the excrement could be disposed of easily. However, bodies of water weren’t always nearby. Oftentimes, the waste simply slid down the castle wall, to the base of the castle or into a deep sewage pit. For this reason, garderobes in the Tower of London were all built on the side away from the city, so the feces couldn’t be seen dribbling down the walls.

Castle defense was a top concern. Some had garderobes on each level, one above another, and were connected to a drain. To prevent blockage, the drains had to be fairly large. However, made the drains entry routes for enemies. To stop attackers from climbing up the garderobe, chutes were often covered all the way to ground with a metal grid. Some garderobes were designed without chutes. They simply dumped waste through a slit high on the castle wall.

Early garderobe designs had the hole leading straight down. Waste fell to the foot of the wall, or into a moat, river or lake below the castle. Later, more sophisticated methods were used, with pipes connecting garderobes to cesspits or bodies of water.

Generally, garderobes were features of elite individual residences. Most had stone or wooden seats, but some nicer ones were padded. For example, John the Fearless’ garderobe had a padded seat and ventilation. Life in castles was luxurious compared to the villages. Still, hygiene was appalling by today’s standards. Garderobes were likely cold and uncomfortable, and prone to unpleasant smells, especially in the summer. Likewise, castle walls would’ve been covered with decaying feces, leading to an awful stench.

The first castle garderobes appeared in the 11th century. They became obsolete with the introduction of indoor plumbing. Many can still be seen today in standing medieval castles and fortifications.

Wardrobes

The second function of garderobes was to store clothing. In numerous languages, “garderobe” translates to either “wardrobe”, “cloakroom” or “checkroom”. Today, to be polite, some people may still ask the way to the cloakroom instead of the toilet.

Within the garderobe, clothing was hung near the ammonia-soaked shaft of the toilet. At the time, it was believed that ammonia fumes arising from the human waste would ward off any fleas, moths or other pests. Thus, their coats, cloaks and other expensive garments would be protected. Garderobes were literally thought to “guard robes”.

Related Interesting Facts

Gong Farmers

While garderobes were convenient, they still required upkeep. If the waste fell into a cesspit, the cesspit would have to be periodically cleaned. The task of mucking out the waste was done by gong farmers. They were the early drain cleaners, who cleared out cesspits, latrines and privies. “Gong” comes from the Old Engish “gang” which means “going”. Gong farmers could earn in 11 nights’ work what a skilled laborer would take six months to earn. Many supplemented their income by selling human waste to farmers for fertilizer.

Chamber Pots

For centuries, chamber pots were used to carry waste away from living areas. There used in villages and also in castles, where they’d be emptied over the walls. They were likely used in conjunction with garderobes. When a person emptied their chamber pot, they would open a window and yell “gardez l’eau”, which translate to, “watch out for the water”. “Gardez l’eau” became “loo”. Thus, the word “loo” originates from medieval times.

Medieval Toilet Paper

For toilet paper, people used clumps of straw or hay. Some nobles likely used scraps of linen or cotton cloth. A plant called “common mullein” was popular for its soft leaves.

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