Royalty Stinks

by Don Boudreaux on July 17, 2009

in History, Standard of Living

The typical medieval monarch and his (often very sizable) retinue routinely roamed his country, spending time at the castle of one of his lords, then a few weeks later going on to grace with his majestic company the castle of another of his lords — and then moving on yet again to yet another lord's castle.

No doubt such itinerant living served several royal purposes.  The historian Thomas Cahill explains one of these:

Plumbing was unknown….  Because individual bathing in a copper basin in a drafty castle could lead so easily to chill, then to fever and death, kings and queens seldom bathed more than once a month, those with neither washerwoman nor ewerer at their command scarcely more than once or twice a year.  Despite their silks and linens, their frequent changes of costume, their liberal burning of Arabian incense, the royals stank, as did their retinues.  More than this, the chamber pot was the sole device for receiving human waste.  A small castle – or even a large one – might become downright uninhabitable after many weeks of residence by such a throng.

This quotation appears on pages 123-124 of Cahill's very enjoyable Mysteries of the Middle Ages (Anchor Books, 2007).

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Max July 17, 2009 at 6:29 am

The funny thing is, not much has changed! I mean, yes, we now are not as filthy as those guys, but regard those big-wig politicians. How many men does the President of the US of A need to travel from one place to another, let alone a different country!

And you tell me that we don't have modern day kings and queens =)

Colin Keesee July 17, 2009 at 6:48 am

Fleeing one's own excrement is a novel theory, I have my doubts. As someone who majored in economics and history, I have grown to be skepetical of almost anything involving the Middle Ages, since so little was written down in the period (and most of that was copying of classical manuscripts not tracts about one's present situation).

The fleeing of one's own excrement and stink argument has some major flaws. For one thing, the problems with human waste and stench in general lasted well into the 19th century yet in Medieval Europe, many Kings stopped their practice of revolving residence by the 11th or 12th centuries. Furthermore, premodern places like Versailles (suburban Paris) and Edo (Tokyo) were actually requiring that nobles actually come to those cities and spend at least half of their time living in the shadow of the Sun King or Shogun.

Staying in the castles of one's lords seems to mostly be a means of holding onto power and in the case of Louis XIV and the Tokugawa Shogunate, making the nobles spend most of their time in your Capital City and not in their own castles (organizing uprising) enhanced your power even more than the practice of revolving residence. Both Versailles and Edo became holding pens for nobles well before decent plumbing became widely available so political power and not sanitation seem to be the deciding in the residental habits of the sovereign and his lords.

I do agree with the premise of the entry though, the Middle Ages were terrible in terms of economic policies and results. The High and Late Middle Ages (about AD 1000 to AD 1500) serve as an example of the triumph of the human spirite and of the creativity of the merchant, by the 13th century most large transactions were done without gold or silver on hand, would involve parties eperated by hundreds of miles and were rather complex (usually futures in wool and other goods that would not be finished for years).

The same period also serves as an example of the damages caused by price controls, famines that could have been prevented were made worse by price caps in regions with a crop failure; disrespect for property rights, the whims of princes and barons discouraged investment in labor saving devices and delayed the industrial revolution by centuries and finally the Middle Ages show us how trade makes life better. The Early Middle Ages (or Dark Ages) were largely a result of Germanic barbarians on land and Muslim pirates at Sea making trade almost impossible and the increased standards of living in the High and Late Middle Ages were the result of growing zone of international and interregional trade.

Gil July 17, 2009 at 7:52 am

So what? This could contrasted with relative cleanliness of the Ancient Romans. It is said that advent of Christianity caused the end of bathing as people reject outward signs of worldliness. Not to mention people in those times hadn't any idea of what actually caused disease and either thought to be due to astrological alignments or God's wrath.

Which in turn reminds of a gag from Blackadder II where Edmund is trying to sell his house:

"What about the privies?"

"When the master craftsman, who created this home, was looking into sewage, he said to himself 'Romeo, for t'was his name, Romeo let's make 'em functional and comfortable'."

"Oh my, that seems nice, doesn't it dear?"

"I think we understand each other, sir! So sir then, a drink?"

"Well what about the privies?!"

"Well what we're talking about in, um, privy terms is the very latest in front wall, fresh air orifices combined with a wide-capacity gutter installation below."

"You mean you crap out of a 'window'?"


"Well, in that case, we'll definitely take it! I can't stand those dirty indoor things!"

Dane July 17, 2009 at 9:13 am

Courts probably moved for a number of reasons, among them being:

1) Supporting a large cohort of aristocratic visitors was very expensive for the hosts

2) (As Colin writes, above) visiting multiple locations helped a ruler solidify relations with those he/she visited

3) Change of view, weather, entertainment, food

John July 17, 2009 at 9:24 am
DAVE July 17, 2009 at 9:57 am

Thanks. I needed that mental image. I'll go grab breakfast now.

vidyohs July 17, 2009 at 10:05 am

One of the greatest things about being old means that one has likely gained some experience that frequently trumps book knowledge.

Colin above expresses skepticism about the appallingly poor sanitary conditions of the Dark Ages right through, in most cases, to the 19th century if we be honest about it. Fleeing a stench is quite likely, but what about those who could not flee, those who lived in the stench and were tied to the spot?

As a young man, even in the military, it would happen that someone I knew just did not have the same commitment to bathing that those around them did. One question we asked to ourselves was, "Doesn't he know, how can he stand himself?"

By the time I had put in a year or two in the flooring business after my military retirement I had the answer. The answer is that they do not know, they are conditioned to their own stench and do not notice it.

Going into homes day after day, giving bids, measuring floors, cleaning up, going in to simply clean, etc. gave me ample evidence that most people will adapt to their surroundings and the stench that goes with it and will not notice what has become common to them.

It was common in many places in Europe and across Asia for a man to build his home and his stables sharing a joint space and roof. It provided more body heat to survive those long hard winters. The stench of animal waste mingled with the stench of human waste, and they adapted to accept it as all normal. They did not notice.

In the flooring business I walked into scenarios that made me leave the place temporarily to go outside and clear my lungs and conquer my gag reflex. I am dead serious. I have seen human feces on the walls of children's rooms, cat and dog crap and urine throughout the rest of the house, piles of dirty clothes as high as your waist that had to be moldy on the bottom layer, and a stench that was unbelievable…..all with the family living apparently in total ignorance of the stench and filth.

Furthermore these were not just rare random incidents, it happened with appalling frequency.

So, sir Colin, don't be so quick to dismiss the idea. I can take you places today that show it was quite likely reality.

That being said, the politics of roving royalty and the comments regarding it I pretty much agree with (opinion) as to cause and effect.

dg lesvic July 17, 2009 at 10:16 am


Brilliant history!

Gil July 17, 2009 at 11:17 am

Duh vidyohs! Of course individuals can't properly smell their own stench. You can easily tell who let go of a 'silent but deadly' fart because he's the one who's got the stupid grin on his face whilst everyone else is trying to get out of the room.

However I can't help but point out the way the 'miasma' theory of disease lasted well into the 1800s.

Another aside however (in the interest of hygiene) is the question of whether toilets should of the 'sitting' kind or the 'squatting' kind. Westerners with their preference for the sitting toilet get to sit on a seat that has been used by others hence the dunny seat can be a source for the transmission of disease. Whereas the squatting toilet as used elsewhere merely requires the user to squat over a hole and let nature do the rest. It has even been pointed out that the squatting toilet is not only more hygienic due to less physical contact but being in a squatting position is a more natural pose for pooping than sitting and may be more beneficial in the long run. Room for improvement, eh?

Then there's a problem with those who are coprophiliacs/coprophagiacs. (You think that wouldn't happen in this day and age but it does. 8( )

Greg Ransom July 17, 2009 at 11:33 am

This is bogus medical science:

"individual bathing in a copper basin in a drafty castle could lead so easily to chill, then to fever and death"

Bob Kozman July 17, 2009 at 12:08 pm

Wonderful post, Colin.

As for the comment that "kings and queens seldom bathed more than once a month," that might have been considered "frequent bathing" for the period. A favorite anecdote of mine comes from the book "Rats, Lice and History" by Hans Zinnser, which cites that at the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, the vermin crawling out–"like water in a simmering cauldron"–from the woolen garments covering the body of Thomas à Beckett, as he lies in state in Canterbury Cathedral.

Another popular reason for royalty to visit around the country was to control the financial power of the lords they felt were getting too powerful. It took huge amounts of money to entertain and feed the king and his retinue, and no self-respecting lord would do a less-than-spectacular job if it. A king could ruin a lord by staying several weeks before moving on.

DanT July 17, 2009 at 2:01 pm

Cahill's story doesn't work. The human waste problem is easy to solve; any knight can order any peasant to haul it off or bury it. The problem would have been food.

At the time, food was hunted or harvested with very limited storage technology.

It is easy to move around the kingdom to where the hunting or harvesting was good, while the game in the King's forest multiplied and the food stores were stocked. During winter, the game was hunted down and the food stores consumed.

Kings who could organize a food provisioning infrastructure could stay in one place. Given the rarity of that organizational capability today, it shouldn't surprise you that most kings couldn't do it. Those that could are remembered as powerful: if you can organize food for a stationary court, you can probably organize an army better than your neighbors.

Ray Gardner July 18, 2009 at 1:07 am

The first thing I thought of was Rome as well, and how they had relatively advanced plumbing, and then how civilization backtracked for 1000 years.

But the Christians did not bring about the end of bathing. That's absurd. Jewish traditions were very strong in the first centuries of the Christian church before the advent of the trinity, and the adoption of the church by Constantine.

fundamentalist July 18, 2009 at 11:13 am

Reminds me of a history of the Ottoman Empire that I read. The Turks considered Europeans to be unclean savages, much as the Europeans viewed the tribal people of North Ameica. Citizens of the Ottoman Empire took weekly baths and enjoyed a medical science that Europeans considered witchcraft.

Gil July 18, 2009 at 11:57 am

Early Christian values did see the closing of public baths as well as adopting the value of 'uncleanliness'. There's a historic quote in a book that says just that if I could find the darn thing. 'Cleanliness is next to Godliness' is a rather late concept.

Ray Gardner July 18, 2009 at 2:23 pm

Public baths weren't clean Gil.

Holding on to the Jewish standards for the first 300 years or so meant that "clean" and "unclean" carried deeper spiritual meanings.

The evolution of the trinity was the result of the amalgamation of the Christian faith with the prevalent philosophy of the day. This is where both the Jewish traditions finally faded for good, and a corresponding rise in anti-Semitism was seen.

vidyohs July 19, 2009 at 10:11 pm

If I may quote Moctezuma, Aztec Prince, who said after fighting the conquistadors between Vera Cruz and Mexico City, "Those guys aren't just dirty assholes, the dirt is over their entire bodies, they flat out stink!"

Gotta go with the reports from the ground where the action is.

FC July 23, 2009 at 11:36 am

Commoners stink. That's those untitled Americans have been moving around their continent for 400 years.


A. European Monarch, Esq.

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