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Welcome to Episode 151 of That Shakespeare Life, the show that takes you behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare.

For Shakespeare’s entire lifetime, and many years prior, sanitation and cleanliness was misunderstood, sometimes feared, and certainly not well practiced in 16th C England. The sanitation of Shakespeare’s lifetime functions as an example of when technology did not continue to progress past the Romans, but instead, absolutely digressed to truly gross levels. Excrement was collected in chamber pots, or sometimes just in an open area, whenever someone happened to find the need to relieve themselves. Once collected, it would be disposed of by throwing it out the window and into the street below (It was not uncommon for passersby to be hit with the falling urine or feces if they weren’t careful). 

In 1591, a godson of Elizabeth I, and a member of her royal court, proposed a new idea. Sir John Harington would write The Metamorphosis of Ajax (A jakes is slang term for a place to go to the bathroom) in which he included detailed engineering diagrams and instructions for applicable use on the first ever flush toilet in England. 

Here today to tell us about the history of chamber pots in England, John Harington’s design, and how this revolutionary piece of technology was received during Shakespeare’s lifetime, is our guest, Bob Cromwell. 

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Bob Cromwell is the author of the article, The History of the Flush Toilet and lead historian at toilet-guru.com. Bob’s work has led him to document plumbing in 24 countries, through the Neolithic era to spacecraft and several writers and artists in addition to Shakespeare. Bob holds a PhD, and has worked as a consultant for the Folger Shakespeare Library. Find more about Bob in the show notes for today’s episode

 

In this episode, I’ll be asking Bob Cromwell about :

  • When an Elizabethan used a chamber pot, was this an item they kept in their homes or did they take it with them when they travelled as well?
  • In Henry IV part 1 Act II Scene 1, the Second Carrier speaks a line saying that if they aren’t provided a jordan (which is a slang term for chamber pot), then they will use the chimney for their bathroom. Bob, was this a common practice for men to urinate in the fireplace of a home?
  • While the book, Metamorphosis of Ajax, was perhaps intentionally an attacking allegory against Robert Dudley at the time it was written, the design presented included engineering diagrams down to a minutia of detail, illustrations of which we will include in today’s show notes. When we look at the drawings, it does appear that this flush toilet could be functional. Bob, was this design for a flush toilet actually installed at Harington’s home, as the book claims?

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    Why, they will allow us ne'er a jordan, and then we

    leak in your chimney; and your chamber-lie breeds

    fleas like a loach.

    Second Carrier

    Henry IV Part 1, (II.1)

    witch feeding familiars 1604

    Room at the Edman’s Museum showing a room with a Bible and a Chamberpot (Jordan) as would have been set up, potentially for travellers, in 1530 | Image used under CCBYA4.0

    A Jordan was a Toilet

    The jordan being a kind of chamberpot, and an expected part of inn-keeping provisions for the traveller, was not the only bit of cultural history to unearth in this line. Bob points out that “chamber-lie” is also another term for ashes or soot that was found in the bottom of the chimney.

    The cultural understanding of the time for where lye came from and how it was used made using the chimney as your bathroom a logical choice, as opposed to purely an act of rebellion as we are apt to consider it were we to stage Henry IV Part 1 in theaters today. Bob explains the term, “Chamber-lie”:

     

    A Physician-Alchemist Examining a Urine Flask | David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) | Public Domain | Image Source

    That’s a specialized term for a chamber pot specifically for collecting urine. Used for cleaning and laundry. Somewhere like an inn that has many guests, there’s lots of sheets to clean,so you need lots of pee to clean them, so chamber-lye allowed people to collect urine for cleaning. Lye was a broad term for Shakespeare’s lifetime. Urine with a lot of ammonia was used for cleaning and anything used for cleaning was called lye.

    Related Episode

    Foh! prithee, stand away: a paper from fortune's

    close-stool to give to a nobleman! Look, here he

    comes himself.

    Clown

    Alls Well That Ends Well (V.2)

    william strachey mermaid tavern group

    Close Stool (Commode) | Circa 1650 | Hampton Court Collection, United Kingdomn | Public Domain | Image Source

    A Close Stool Toilet

    Bob’s research cites a line from  All's Well That Ends Well Act 5 Scene 2 where the clown talks about Parolle’s letter smelling like used toilet paper. Since the 16th century English did not use toilets, this line made me wonder what they used for toilet paper. Bob explains, 

    Maybe the King or the very wealthy. Paper was still an artisanal rather than industrial product. Paper was enormously expensive. Cheapest thing was water and your hand, possibly old rags or plant material, tree bark, or whatever. The way the Romans built their toilets, you sit on a long bench (very communal, in there with 20 other people) it’s a hang out/gossip place. You sat over a channel of moving water, so the waste was taken away. They weren’t nasty smelling placed.At your feet was a gutter, cut down into the stone house and water flowed through that. That was the water for cleaning after you went to the bathroom in which they kept sticks with sponges on them.

    Similar to the line from Henry V, there’s more than one historical tidbit to pick up from this reference. The Clown also mentions a “close stool” which refers to a particular kind of chamberpot available usually to the wealthy. Bob explains, 

    It would be the thing that anybody would want. It’s a pot that sits on the floor. It’s difficult. You need good balance and it’s a strain on your knees. So a close stool is a box on the floor, the chamber pot would go into that box (the close stool) and if you didn’t want to or weren’t able to clean it right away, the box keeps it contained. The King’s [close stool] was a big deal. There was a person whose job it was to keep that clean [known as] “The groom of the King’s close stool” the most powerful non royal person in the kingdom. You sat with the King while he say on the toilet. Completely trusted, very close to the King, and helped the King with the toilet and to get him into his underwear. Another set of servants helped with the King’s outerwear. If the King went on a trip, his close stool and the Groom came as part of the entourage.

    Related Episode

     I will tread this unbolted villain into

    mortar and daub the walls of a jakes with him

    Earl of Kent

    King Lear (II.2)

    Southampton portrait wriothesley

    Sir John Harington | Hieronimo Custodis | Public Domain | Image Source

    John Harington Invents a Better Way to Go

    Not everyone was well pleased with the chamber pot or stool setup for bathroom goings, and that includes one of Elizabeth I’s godchildren, Sir John Harington, who in 1596, wrote a book describing what has been called the design for the first flush toilet. 

    Harington’s design was described as] a washdown. Instead of a hole with a water channel or even just a pit, he had a thing called a cistern (Tank on the back of the toilet) it washed into this kind of funnel under the seat. It could potentially be alot cleaner. 

    Bob’s research indicates that the toilet was not called a toilet in the 16th century, but that Harington’s design was known as “a wash down bowl” and that  Elizabeth I, despite her seeming indignation at the allegorical meaning, did have one of these wash down bowls installed at her palace in Richmond.

    This Episode Has a Complete Lesson Pack

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     You will be scraped out of

    the painted cloth for this: your lion, that holds

    his poll-axe sitting on a close-stool, will be given

    to Ajax

    Costard

    Love’s Labour’s Lost (V.2)

    Waste disposal | Harington's flush toilet descibred in A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax | 1596 | Author Sir John Harington | Public Domain | Image Source

    Toilets did not catch on in England

    While the book, Metamorphosis of Ajax, was perhaps intentionally an attacking allegory against Robert Dudley at the time it was written, the design presented included engineering diagrams down to a minutia of detail, illustrations of which we will include in today’s show notes. When we look at the drawings, it does appear that this flush toilet could be functional. Bob explains that both the Queen and her godson tried out the design in their homes, but it did not inspire confidence among the general public:

    His and his godmother (Queen Elizabeth) had a form of it installed. A form of it became successful in France. It was going to be limited in terms of how popular it became because there wasn’t the infrastructure to support the design. There wasn’t a way to take the waste away. 

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    Books & Resources Bob Cromwell Recommends

    Learn More Resources:

    The edited volume of Why James Should be the Next King

    Orlando Furioso, the original is out there on Project Gutenburg but they started making available things from the 1800s when people were more squeamish. If you want a copy that leaves the original content, you’ll need harington’s copy

    Nugæ Antiquæ is a compilation of various writings by both

    father and son.  The sonnets the father wrote to Isabella

    while still married to Etheldreda, and lots of letters by

    the son, including the simply amazing and hilarious

    description of a drunken multi-day party he attended along

    with King James and his brother-in-law King Christian of

    Denmark.  Both were heavy drinkers and most of their courtiers

    couldn't keep up.  By the end, neither could the kings.  This

    specific page is the start of that story:

    https://archive.org/details/nugantiqubeinga03harigoog/page/n374/mode/2up

    That's an 1804 reprint in the NYPL collection.

     

    “The Harington Family” by Ian Grimble, 1957, is a genealogy

    that goes back at least to the 1200s, and contains more than

    I've seen anywhere else about the two generations of interest

    to our conversation.  280 pages, 243 references.

    https://archive.org/details/haringtonfamily00grim/mode/2up

    “An Apologie of Poetrie” was a prefix to his “Orlando Furioso”

    translation, Harington on Poetry, it's available here:

    https://archive.org/details/ancientcritical00haslgoog/page/n155/mode/2up

    Among John's writings he used to solicit patrons:

    A 4-volume set of his epigrams:

    “The most elegant and witty epigrams of Sir Iohn Harrington, Knight,

    digested into foure bookes: three vvhereof neuer before published”

    http://name.umdl.umich.edu/A02647.0001.001

     

    “A Tract on the Succession to the Crowne”

    (When he saw Elizabeth's death approaching, in which he argues

    to all of “Papists, Protestants, and Puritans” that James should

    succeed her, of course James received a copy)

    https://archive.org/details/cu31924030506319/page/n9/mode/2up

     

    “A Short View of the State of Ireland”, 1605:

    https://archive.org/details/ashortviewstate01harigoog

     

    “The Letters and Epigrams of Sir John Harington, together

    with ‘The Prayse of Private Life'”:

    https://archive.org/details/lettersepigramso00hari

     

    “Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum” or the “Health Regimen of the

    School of Salernum”

    (probably his last significant translation work)

    1624 edition, shortly after his death, which seems to be the

    result of someone editing together different writer's

    contributions:

    https://www.gutenberg.org/files/24790/24790-h/nurture.html

    1920 reprint with current notes:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=FKs-AAAAYAAJ

     

    And, of course, the Metamorphosis of Ajax:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=xP5NAAAAcAAJ&printsec=frontcover

     

    And that together with “An apology — Ulysses upon Ajax”,

    which purports to be a response but is likely also by him:

    https://archive.org/details/McGillLibrary-osl_metamorphosis-ajax_h2815m1814-19673/mode/2up

     

    Orlando Furioso in the original:

    http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3747

    There are free online English versions, but they're from the

    1800s and translators simply left out what they saw as the

    dirty parts.

     

    Harrington's translation was in print at least into the 1960s.

    In the 1970s current translations began to appear.  Now, of

    course, with Amazon and print-on-demand, you can buy through

    Amazon the result of printing and binding public-domain content

    found at Google Books, archive.org, and elsewhere.  And so you

    could claim that his translation is still in print, although

    with an obvious asterix.

    Most books about toilets and related topics are rather lowbrow, but

    exceptions include:

     

    “Between two stools: Scatology and its representations in English literature,

    Chaucer to Swift” includes Shakespeare.  It's by a reader in Renaissance

    Literature at Nottingham Trent University, published by Manchester

    University Press.

     

    As for the 19th century popularization of what we see as modern

    plumbing, the US experience is covered by “All the Modern Conveniences:

    American Household Plumbing, 1840-1890″.

     

    “Bogs, Baths and Basins” is much more focused on Britain.

     

    Shakespeare connected but on a very different topic:  I have recently

    been recommending “The Woman Who Smashed Codes”, a biography of

    Elizebeth Friedman.  She met her husband William when they were

    assigned to a project attempting to prove the Baconian authorship

    of Shakespeare's work.  They left to do cryptanalysis for the

    US Government, the book makes it clear that she was the better

    cryptanalyst of the pair.

     

    While I was working at the Folger, they had a special exhibit on

    the cryptography of Shakespeare's time.

     

    After the Friedmans retired they finished “The Shakespearean Ciphers

    Examined”, a merciless beat-down of crackpot theories and the

    psychological reasons people perpetuate them.  It's a free download:

    https://www.marshallfoundation.org/library/digital-archive/shakespearean-ciphers-examined/

    “Shakespeare connected but on a very different topic:  I have recently

    been recommending “The Woman Who Smashed Codes”, a biography of

    Elizebeth Friedman.  She met her husband William when they were

    assigned to a project attempting to prove the Baconian authorship

    of Shakespeare's work.  They left to do cryptanalysis for the

    US Government, the book makes it clear that she was the better

    cryptanalyst of the pair.

    While I was working at the Folger, they had a special exhibit on

    the cryptography of Shakespeare's time.

    After the Friedmans retired they finished “The Shakespearean Ciphers

    Examined”, a merciless beat-down of crackpot theories and the

    psychological reasons people perpetuate them.  It's a free download:

    https://www.marshallfoundation.org/library/digital-archive/shakespearean-ciphers-examined/

    This text is from an email this week's guest sent to That Shakespeare Life listeners. The “I” is from Bob Cromwell. If you find the information he sent over useful, please post him a thank you in the comments. 🙂 

    Get the free History Guide for this Episode

    Download a free 10 page history guide to The First Flush Toilets in England by joining the email list of That Shakespeare Life. Use the form right below this picture to tell us where to send your guide. Unsubscribe at anytime and keep the entire guide all about chamber pots, jordans, gong farmers, and more! Sign up here:

      Turn this guide into a full lesson plan: Get the Complete Lesson Pack for Flush Toilets in Elizabethan England. If you are teaching Shakespeare history and want an entire library of education resources including lesson plans, activity kits, and printable worksheets, consider becoming a member of That Shakespeare Life.

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