Ancient and Renaissance bathrooms were very different from our own
Proceeding to carry a message from secret supporters in the city, [Clement] came to the camp on August 1  and was admitted to see the king, who was sitting on the toilet at the time—a common way for royals to receive visitors. [emphasis added] Clement pulled out a dagger and just had time to stab the scared king in the abdomen before he himself was killed by the guards.
In addition to noticing a striking parallel to the Biblical story of the assassination of the Moabite king Eglon (Judges 3:15–25) (which forms the subject of Shanks’s First Person column in the March/April issue of BAR), Shanks wondered just how common it was for European royalty of the Renaissance to receive visitors while doing their business. And if it was common practice, what were the reasons behind it?To answer these questions, he turned to Louise Raimond-Waarts of Leiden University, who is, among other things, an expert in European Renaissance toilet history and customs. Below is her informative response to his inquiries.
Thank you for posing such an interesting question before me. Although my research is focused on bathing in Renaissance Rome in the period of the end of the 15th and early 16th centuries (until the Sacco di Roma in 1527), I do recognize the custom you mentioned in connection with Montaigne’s recordings.
[It is] important to remember the difference regarding privacy, which was practically non-existent in the 15th-century Italy and only started in some places to come into practice in Rome and Italy in the beginning of the 16th century and, later in that century, elsewhere in Europe. It was in medieval times quite customary for the pope as well as kings and princes to lay down on a daybed and hold an audience, even when they felt sick or were otherwise incapacitated. I do know Pope Julius II (1503–1513) did so when he was rather ill in 1512. These princes were always surrounded by their personal attendants and, if nature called, they were accommodated with their private “secret” toilet brought to them in order to relieve themselves. Pope Julius II was one of the first to have a private bathroom and separate toilet facility installed in the Vatican palace next to his bedroom (1507), but for medical purposes mainly.
One of the reasons for less secrecy around the now very private custom was that doctors had to be able to continually observe the body movements of the pope, king or prince, in order to safeguard their health, so each deposit was examined by them. They still operated according to the Hippocratic theory based on the movement of “humores” and body elements, which prevailed well into the 18th century. Of course nobody was allowed to tamper with royal or papal bodily fluids that were thus discharged from the body, or to substitute them for somebody else’s [fluids]. This could also be a reason for sitting on the toilet in [the] company of others.
The custom is not strange if you remember that the Romans used to sit next to each other in public toilets [pictured], raising such a necessary visit to a social meeting place. No embarrassment there, neither in 16th-century Europe. In the second half of the 15th century, for example, Duke Federigo de Montefeltro had toilet facilities installed in his palace in Urbino, about ten seats in a row, so his courtiers and visitors could sit next to each other whilst doing their call of nature, just like the Romans did.The change in attitude with regard to the custom of going to the toilet in all privacy as we now know only happened after the decisions of the Council of Trent (1545–1563) were turned into regulation, which accounted for a lot of changes with regard to customs related to the body, but [these regulations] were not put into action overnight. Customs which had prevailed for thousands of years apparently do not change so easily. The Biblical passage you refer to [Judges 3:15–25] seems to me to fit into the Roman custom, which lasted well into the 16th century in Europe. Especially as the Romans adopted a lot of Greek customs and presumably they were not so different from other people living in the eastern Mediterranean area. And wasn’t Bathsheba bathing in full view to King David [2 Samuel 11:2], [and] Susanna watched by the Elders [Susanna (Chapter 13 of the Greek version of Daniel):7–8]? There was not such a difference between bathing and the toilet.
So, [we should] try to lose our present view, [which is] blocked by the “counter-reform, Calvinistic, Victorian” way of thinking, and imagine a time when the body was considered a gift of God and not [something] to be ashamed of, even when its natural functions needed to be relieved (and revealed) in the presence of others.
Louise L. Raimond-Waarts
* Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (Other, 2010).
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