This week’s article comes to you from glorious Southern Germany, by the Bodensee, where you will find Meersburg Old Castle. This excellently preserved and restored Medieval building, largely 15th century and the oldest continuously occupied castle in Germany, is worth visiting, not least because in at least 3 of the 30 rooms that you can view there is clear evidence of how the wealthy used to be able to bathe, relieve themselves and wash their hands.

There was no need for these upper class denizens to throw their own slops out into the central drain in the street below – although their servants probably did so. The owners enjoyed the provision of not one but three private privies (one pictured) whose wooden seat was probably a welcome and relatively warm feature in the cold stone castle. The waste was taken away down an early pipework system to avoid staining the castle walls. We tend to assume that recognisable toilets began with the Victorians, but not so. Another very early example of toilet plumbing forethought was that they built in a stench pipe system – a ventilation shaft to above the toilet level, to release the foul odours. This of course is now a legal requirement in modern houses.

And when they wished to bathe, they were able to enjoy a hip bath laid on by serving wenches. Contemporary paintings reveal a gaily-painted room, not maybe up to the sybaritic standards of an Arab bathhouse, but quite entertaining and relaxing none the less. The bathing was attended by the Barber-Surgeon, who made sure every need was attended to, administered healing herbs, and cut hair and trimmed beards when required. How civilised. Much like my own bathhouse…

The kitchen at Meersburg gives us a glimpse of the way that washing water was handled – a stone sink (seen here) would not be out of place in a modern minimalist design scheme, but it evacuates through the wall, under the window to the ground way below – not recommended today, but effective enough in its time.

The same kitchen shows how hot water was generated – a fire heats metal vessels of water suspended above, and a quite modern-looking boxed ventilation extractor takes the smoke out through the roof. The fire’s rear flue backs on to room heaters, big boxes of porcelain-faced metal, which warmed the air in the living spaces. Elsewhere these had their own under-heater woodburning fires.

Whence came the water? Well… Let us remember this was a real castle, and provision had to be made for siege conditions. So it was that they dug a dizzyingly deep well to reach the level of water in the nearby Bodensee (otherwise known as Lake Constance) which had limitless fresh water, to avoid the inhabitants being poisoned by their enemies. Today the same function is fulfilled by mains water, although in some places one sometimes wonders…

This all reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all had advanced heating and water provision for the purpose of bathing, and although things may have taken a downward turn for the masses in the Dark Ages, by the Medieval period we see here and elsewhere that the rich at least were able to keep themselves moderately clean and fresh.

So next time a cowboy builder tells you your old plumbing is medieval, thank him for the compliment…

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