In the modern city it is not too difficult to find a public washroom – local authorities usually require that a restaurant, shopping mall, or office complex provide easily accessible toilets and sinks. The situation for people in medieval cities would be different. Where could they find a public toilet in the Middle Ages?
Medieval public toilets is one of the topics raised by Carole Rawcliffe in her book Urban Bodies: Communal Health in Late Medieval English Towns and Cities. Rawcliffe looks at the records from London, York, and other English urban areas to see how people dealt with various health, hygiene and environmental issues that they would encounter in their daily lives. This would include how to get treatment for illnesses, having a supply of clean water, making sure that food and drinks were meeting minimum standards.
She begins by noting that people often did just find any place they could to relieve themselves – including along the side of the road – but that this might not be acceptable for their neighbours. In 13o7, for example, one of the King’s Grooms got into a fight with two Londoners when they found him urinating on a side-street – they told the groom “that it would be be more decent to go to the common privies of the City.”
By the Later Middle Ages people were more concerned with health and hygiene issues, and municipal authorities were enacting laws and spending money on keeping their cities clean. In medieval London, this included establishing public latrines, and by the fifteenth-century we know of over a dozen such facilities throughout the city. They would often be placed on bridges, where you could easily have the waste just fall into the waterways. For example, in 1382 the Wardens of London Bridge spent £11 on building a latrine. Besides the Thames River, two other streams went through London – the Walbrook and the Fleet – but the disposal of waste into these waterways was much more managed as they became more polluted.
The colloquially named ‘pissyngholes’ and privies over the Ouse Bridge in York were maintained, like their equivalents in London, by bridge wardens, who were also responsible for cleaning and repairing the domestic privies in their various tenements throughout the city. The contract made in 1544 with a local widow ‘for keping cleyn’ the conveniences on the bridge and allowing ‘none to lye any wodd or other noysaunce in the same, nor caste no fylthe nor other ramell [rubbish] furthe … into watter of Owse’ continued the medieval practice of providing lavatory attendants and adequate lighting…In 1411-12 the treasurers of Norwich recorded a substantial outlay on ‘scouring an making new’ the privies at the fish market and nearby Guildhall, where the mayor’s court met; and over £10 was spent in the 1450s on the gutters leading from another latrine on the north-west approaches to this crowded area.
Rawcliffe finds that there were strong communal efforts on building and maintaining public toilets – in addition to the money spent by civic governments, individuals made donations and bequests to assist in their upkeep.
So, if you happen to find yourself in a medieval city and need to find a toilet, look for the nearest bridge!