In Medieval castles, protruding masonry walls called garderobes were actually bathrooms because they are similar in size and shape to wardrobes. The room protruded from the castle walls so that the deposits one made upon relieving themselves in the garderobe could fall through a hole into the moat. Depending on the castle’s occupancy size, moats may have developed quite a stench.
Public sewer systems were not a thing in the Middle Ages. They were completely absent. When the Roman Empire fell, so did aqueducts, sewage systems, and basic sanitation. In fact, it took centuries for Medieval cities and towns to transition to working urban sanitation systems, and that did not happen until the Enlightenment.
Shaving Was Not a Thing in the Middle Ages
Short of mirrors and razors, most peasants did not shave. Some were shaved once a week at the barber, although that wasn’t free, and peasants lived in poverty. Besides, beards were trending in the Middle Ages. A full face, of course, hair was a sign of virility. Shaving was very inconvenient. Mirrors were made of polished metal or blackened glass, which was not conducive to shaving. Maybe that’s one of the reasons monks would shave each other.
Modernity challenges everything. Now that beards are back in vogue, a 2016 study found that clean-shaven men are three times more likely to be harboring the harmful bacteria methicillin-resistant staph aureus on their cheeks than bearded men. It even suggests new penicillin might be made from beard bacteria!
Most Medieval Europeans Slept in Squalor
Those of the wealthy aristocracy owned splendid beds with protective canopies stuffed with feathers and covered with fine linens. Landowners also slept in clean peace. Peasants knew no such indulgence. Recall the flooring made of straw and infested by pests. The bedding was also made of straw, piled up into a mattress, which was sometimes woven tightly into a bed. Not all beds lay flat. Medieval commoners often slept on a sloping bed, like a recliner.
It sounds comfy enough at first glance, but the mattress—which was only changed and replaced yearly—was teeming with fleas, lice, and bed bugs. Fur covers, and feather bedding, while warm, also attracted parasitic pests like fleas.
A Peek Inside a Garderobe
Let's take a closer look at the Garderobe latrine, a fascinating historical feature. This peculiar toilet design is quite intriguing. Instead of flushing, a hole is present, leading directly to the surrounding moat. Surprisingly, the accumulated excrement played a vital role in deterring enemy infiltrations, an often overlooked aspect of a moat's military defense strategy.
Interestingly, monasteries had similar-looking toilets, although the number of potty holes would usually not exceed 45. On the other hand, commoners shared public latrines, just like the monks, without any privacy whatsoever. These public facilities were regularly emptied into a cesspit, occasionally repurposed as fertilizer for agricultural needs.
The Chamber Pot
Tip: don't eat while reading this. Besides public toilets, people used chamber pots inside their homes, usually stored under beds. It’s a disgusting but true fact that these chamber pots were not uncommonly dumped out windows onto walkways.
At night, the smelly excrement stayed under the bed. In the morning, watch out! From upper stories, passersby walking beneath had to be careful. Toilet paper was not invented yet, so, moss, leaves, grass or straw might do the trick. In fact, toilet paper would only be invented in 1857, and consumers would have to wait til 1890 for it to be commercially available.