Plumbing in the 15th-Century

(by Joan Szechtman)

Garderobe in Medieval Castle in Tower of London

Photograph by Joan Szechtman

While touring the medieval castle at the Tower of London I came upon a real, if not active garderobe. So this is a garderobe. There’s even space for books!

I had stumbled across references of them while investigating what it might have been like to live in a castle in the fifteenth century.

When I began my research, I entered it with certain preconceived notions of the overall cleanliness and creature comforts available to the people of that time. I took the position that I fear most uninformed people today have, in a word–primitive.

Perhaps the best way to describe garderobe is an indoor outhouse. They were carved into the thick castle walls with a hole connected to waste pipes that led to the moat, or, the better designed ones, a cesspool. Nor were garderobes limited to castles. Some of the more well off city dwellers had them off the sleeping room. A chute would carry the waste down to a pit, which would have to be regularly emptied. In some instances, the chutes would lead to a neighbor’s drain or stream, a clear violation of the clean water act. No wonder they’d drink ale for breakfast.

Wastewater saved from the kitchens was sloshed through the pipes to flush away the solid material. It seems the major innovation of our porcelain convenience, is being able to flush the toilet with a flip of the wrist. Some of the castle garderobes were carved into the walls adjoining the fireplace chimneys. Those facilities could be toasty warm little spots–a place to sit in comfort, and conceivably have some quality private time.

On the downside, they had to make do with hay to clean the delicate bits. Ouch!

But that wasn’t the only creature comfort the wealthy had, for they also indulged in regular baths, and even went so far as to carry their tubs with them while traveling about. Of course they had a multitude of servants to fill these tubs. In some castles, the tubs were fed with water from tanks, which could be heated. The piped water to the tubs ended in sculpted brass taps for hot and cold running water, complementing the hot and cold running servants filling the tanks.

Reference: Life in a Medieval City by Joseph and Frances Gies, 1969, Thomas Y. Crowell Company