Sunday, 29 April 2012

Danger, Danger: Medieval Toilets

After our recent unstructured ranting, we thought it was time for some more intellectual content. Hence we thought we'd have a look at some Viking toilets (or, for those of you who give a damn and want a more accurate description, 10th-11th-century Icelandic toilets). The Hurstwic site provides this fascinating glimpse of a medieval latrine, from the medieval farmstead at Stöng, in Iceland:

Image from Hurstwic

According to Hurstwic,

"The trenches pass through the rear wall of the room to the outside of the house. It seems likely that this room was a latrine. The trenches served as gutters to carry wastes out of the house. It's quite possible that wooden benches with holes cut in them were set over the trenches on which people sat. It's also possible that a simple wooden pole (stöng) was placed above the trenches on which people sat.
Stone slabs set into the floor on either end of the trenches (left and right) in the Stöng farmhouse ruins have notches cut out of them that would nicely hold a pole in such a position.

When the saga literature describes someone relieving himself, that person does so outdoors, or in an outbuilding. For instance, in chapter 47 of Læxdala saga, it is said that at the time of the saga (10th century), it was fashionable to have outdoor toilets some distance from the farmhouse. In addition, it seems unlikely, based on the archaeological remains, that a house like Eiríksstaðir (built in the 10th century) had an indoor lavatory.

The 10th century farm at Hofstaðir in north Iceland had a lavatory in a separate structure a short distance from the longhouse. As at Stöng, a stone-lined trench carried wastes out of the building. Traces of human feces found in the trench make it clear that this structure was a latrine. The building had space for three (and possibly more) people to sit over the trench.
On the other hand, episodes in the sagas show the advantage of an indoor lavatory. Attacks could be made on men making an nighttime visit to an outhouse, such as the attack on Snorri goði described in chapter 26 of Eyrbyggja saga. It's possible that by the time Stöng was built, late in the Viking era, indoor lavatories were more common.

The lavatory at Stöng seems to be an enormous structure for its intended purpose. It almost appears big enough to have permitted every member of the Stöng household to relieve themselves simultaneously. While I make the statement in jest, the sagas suggest that, in fact, groups of men did socialize while in the privy. Chapter 25 of Flóamanna saga says that while some men were sitting in the privy, others stood nearby, and they all talked and compared their accomplishments. The privy might have been a good place to hold a private conversation, something that would have been impossible in the open longhouse.
It's even been suggested that the farm at Stöng took its name from the long poles (stöng) used as seats in its fine and imposing lavatory."

Do you suddenly feel grateful that nobody has as yet taken advantage of your vulnerability while on the bog, and tried to kill you?

For more information on Viking toilets from the archive, have a gander at this.

Related Reading
Who Knew That Going to the Toilet Could Be So Dangerous?

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