Lots of assumptions have been made about the state of personal hygiene and the disposal of human waste in medieval times. But unlike towns and cities where raw sewage was dumped in the streets well past the Middle Ages, we are able to draw on numerous examples from the castles we visited to demonstrate that castle builders seemed to have a clear understanding of the vulnerability created by human waste and went to great lengths to construct strategies to deal with it. Medieval plumbing was much more than buckets.
The earliest adaption we found was the so called Toilet Tower at Crac des Chevaliers. As you may recall, Crac was constructed by the Knights Hospitaller who provided medical care and refuge to pilgrims in the Holy Land. As a result, their castles contained a hospital wing or ward. Very wisely, when designing Crac, they located the bank of toilets very close to the ward where they would receive great use.
One of the most famous toilet castle legends dates to the siege of Chateau Gaillard. According to this story, after having taken the Outer Bailey, Philippe Augustus’ men probed the perimeter of the castle looking for a weakness by which they could enter the Inner Bailey. Apparently, the only opening they found was a latrine chute. The two intrepid soldiers climbed the chute and set fire to the Chapel. In the resulting chaos, the French were able to gain access to the Inner Bailey. Researchers have since argued that it was a window into the Chapel itself (installed by King John) that allowed the French to take their objective. This story certainly begs for some psychoanalysis, but we’ll leave that to you.
Castle builders took note, however, and the toilets at Conwy were built to keep attackers out.
Overall, my favourite example of medieval plumbing must come from Malbork Castle as a case study for German engineering. The Teutonic Knights built a series of castles in the region, most on a similar plan. Malbork was larger than the rest, but each one had a distinctive toilet tower called a Danske. The direction to the latrine was indicated by this little devil, who obviously has to go.
The corridor to the Danske was bright and beautiful and leads you well away from the castle structure, once again isolating people from their hazardous waste.
A view of the Danske toilet tower from the High Castle.
We were told a great story about the Danske which Dan shares here:
This toilet was constructed to empty into the moat. At Malbork, the moat was river fed which would act to flush the sewage away from the castle. This area under the toilet has proved to be a rich one for archaeologists and to this day, sharp eyes can still easily pick out pieces of broken clay pipes and other throw away items.
Perhaps most remarkable about the Danske was that it was constructed as a fortified tower. For a castle without a Donjon from which to make a final stand, should the High Castle at Malbork have been taken, defenders could have retreated to the Danske, to launch a counter attack or at least wait for help to arrive. It was so much more than just a toilet.