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Welcome to Episode #178 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

There may not have been indoor plumbing in Shakespeare’s lifetime, but going to the bathroom still involved cleaning up. One aspect you may be surprised to learn you share with William Shakespeare is that he, too, used various kinds of paper to go to the restroom. Shakespeare’s plays provide references to the jacques, jordan, and chamber pot, all options for using the restroom in Tudor England, and it turns out, we can also find references to what Shakespeare may have used in those restrooms for handling the necessary business in the lavatory, as well. Our guest this week, Tiffany Stern, is here to share with us her research into the alternatives to paper that were often used as toilet tissue for early modern London. 

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Tiffany Stern is a professor at the Shakespeare Institute, at the University of Birmingham. She is an author, speaker, and historian. Her current work takes a look at plague history of early modern England to examine whether the phenomenon we witnessed during the Covid-19 outbreak of people scrambling to buy toilet paper was true of plague times for Shakespeare. In her research, she explores what materials might have been used for toilet paper in Shakespeare’s lifetime as well as the commerce and industry around the distribution of that product. Her recent projects include a book on early modern theatre and popular entertainment, Playing Fair, exploring the cultural exchanges between playhouses and fairgrounds, a book on Shakespeare Beyond Performance, looking at the theatrical documents produced in the light of a play’s performance – ballads, chapbooks, commonplace books, ‘noted’ texts – and an edition of Shakespeare’s Tempest.

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In this episode, I’ll be asking Tiffany Stern about :

  • Anthony Wood, in 1675, writes in a parliamentary petition that he found a particular piece of paper (that he is presumably now displaying as evidence for his petition) inside a “privy house.” Tiffany, explain what a privy house is for the uninitiated. We recognize “privy” as a bathroom, but is this just a hole in the ground or a formal structure for bathroom going?
  • With Mr. Wood’s petition and subsequent display of the paper he found in the Privy House, are we to assume that his example demonstrates that official papers were used as toilet paper, or that the Privy House was a great place to toss papers you didn’t want discovered due to the gross nature of the location, no one would want to fish it back out?
  • Tiffany cites Alexander Brome from 1660 publishing a word titled “Bumm-Fodder or Wastepaper: Proper to wipe the nation’s bum with or your own.” Tiffany, I’m going to assume there’s a broader satirical message in that work based on the title, but can we infer from the title that the nation in 17th century England did, indeed, wipe their bums with paper as a matter of course? 
  • … and more!

Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • Image of Agas Map of London, 1572: London’s only public lavatory, Wittington’s Longhouse
  • Image of the early 18th century privy from Townsend House, Leominster
  • French Revolutionary Caricature, 1792: Depicts the French population using the Monarchist Brunswick Manifesto as toilet paper
  • 18th Century Print of London, satirizing the questionable tastes of London society
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