Middle Ages – 9th and 10th centuries CE

© Bob Denton, 2016
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Khmer Civilization 802

Angkor Wat
© Bob Denton

The Khmer culture in the Lower Mekong Basin of today’s Cambodia from the 8th-13th centuries CE, evolved to build its capital Angkor beside the Tonle Sap (Great Lake). This was a complex of temples. It is often referenced as the first mega city, it is the largest religious monument in the world. It certainly managed water to support its population.

Map of Angkor
Image source: ancientwatertechnologies.com

The Angkor urban area spread across some 900-1,100 square kilometres, places it half-way between today’s New York City (784 sq kms) and Greater London (1569 sq kms). Though it was lightly populated.

The Mekong flows from China and Tibet and regularly floods the area, when these subside the Great Lake then flows down to the Delta area. The Eastern Baray (37m cubic metres) appears to be an irrigation to hold water for the population and its agriculture. The later Western Baray (48m cubic metres) , a large reservoir, was built in the 11th century presumably for the same purpose. Smaller versions. There are two smaller Barays, Jayatataka (2.9m cu m) and Indratataka (2.5m cu m).

Angkor Wat ornamental lake
Image source: ancientwatertechnologies.com
Angkor Wat moat
Image source: ancientwatertechnologies.com

The reservoirs fed canals, moats and ornamental lakes. Angkor Wat and Angor Thom both have moats, though Angkor Thom’s is now dry.

The first beauty institute?

A famous polymath, court musician and singer Abu al-Hassan from Baghdad (789-857CE), nicknamed Ziryab (jay bird) or Pájaro Negro (blackbird) moved from Baghdad to Cordoba. In Al-Andakus and joined the court of Abd ar-Rahman II ruler of the Moor’s Umayyad Dynasty and a notable patron of the arts.

Ziryab at work
Image source: thedailystar.net

Zirjab was an innovative guy, adding a fifth string to his Oud, and using quills or an eagle’s beak to pluck the strings. His playing style influenced Andalusian musical traditions.

For our tale, he is said to have started a vogue of changing clothes to suit the weather and the seasons. He even had different attire for mornings, afternoons and evenings. Though some historians suggest he was just one following a trend, others believe he was the originator.

He certainly created a new type of deodorant. He promoted morning and evening baths and a regime of personal hygiene. He is also thought to have invented a toothpaste which took off across Moorish Iberia, no details of its ingredients have been discovered, but it was said to be pleasant to use. He popularised shaving, wearing hair shorter and fringes, this was at a time when both men and women used central partings with log hair at either side. Royalty used rose water to wash their hair, but he introduced the use of salt and oils to condition the hair.

He is also claimed to have opened the world’s first beauty institute for the Cordoban elite. His students learned the secrets of hair removal as well as how to use cosmetics, deodorants and toothpowder, plus the basics of hairdressing.

Not content with these notions, he also popularised new fruit and vegetables, he proposed meals as three course (soup, main and dessert), served on leather tablecloths and platters, he preferred crystal goblets to the prevalent metal ones.

Medieval toilets

In this period there were several sorts of formal toilet – the privy, the garderobes and the closed stool – of course there was still the woods and the rivers as the informal options. The privy, derived from the word ‘privacy’ and consisted of a wooden seat set above a cesspit. The garderobes was created in large buildings like castles, monasteries, manor houses and palaces and has a much simpler approach, chutes projected the excreta out of your building into the street, a moat, river or the sea.

The Privy

A privy design
Image source: wikimedia.org

This approach required minimal construction, a pit was dug and the material allowed to accumulate in it. The theory was that the fluids would be absorbed into the surrounding soil and the solids compact down and dry. The solids would then be cleared out, in some cases used for fertilizer.

The flaw was that the waste could be transmitted through the solid to water sources where it would cause pollution and disease.

Close Stool

Close stool
Image source: en.wikipedia.org

It is the close stool that is responsible for our use of the world ‘stool’ for faeces. This was a box with a hole in it with a bucket or pail placed inside. This had the benefit that the output was able to be carried away from the scene and disposed of elsewhere.

The disposal was usually tossed in to streams and rivers, but at many times throughout the year there would not be suitable tides and floods to cleanse the river. Large rivers and large populations conspired to make rivers like the Thames and the Seine into open sewers.


Today we see the word garderobe (guard robe) as from the French suggesting an armoire or cloakroom where visitors’ coats might be stored. But it originallyderives from the name applied to a medieval storeroom for clothing and valuables. The term was variously applied to mean any private room usually adjacent to a bedroom, then later still it meant a bedroom and finally as the room containing a bench with a hole in it either to a pail or aligned to the chute that would propel it beyond the walls. The toilet-garderobe was still used to store clothes because there was a belief that the smell warded off moths – origin of wardrobe?

Early garderobes proved to be a security risk when several castles were successfully taken by individuals using the chute as a rather messy yet effective means of entry. The insertion of iron bars soon became a standard feature.

Garderobe, Bodiam Castle in Sussex
Image source: www.flickr.com

In Herefordshire the late 11th century Goodrich Castle, near Ross-on-Wye, has a long history. Goodrich originally relied on a courtyard well for its water but later it was piped to the castle from a nearby spring.  In the English Civil War the Royalists were besieged here, their pipe to the spring was cut, their courtyard cisterns destroyed by exploding shells. Eventually reduced to two barrels of gunpowder and thirty of beer, they surrendered when threatened with a powerful Roundhead mortar – today it houses the last remaining Civil War mortar known as ‘Roaring Meg’.

Roaring Meg mortar at Goodrich Castle
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

But it also has a rare garderobe tower, a whole tower dedicated to defecation! The tower could be entered via three doors to ‘cubicles’ that appear to have been for coincident multiple users.

Garderobes at Goodrich Castle
Image source: www.blog.english-heritage.org.uk

The 11th century Portchester Castle, at the mouth of Portsmouth harbour, Hampshire was built upon the site of a 3rd century (285-290 CE) Roman fort, many of its features being reused. Former Roman castles were called ceasters, this one port ceaster hence its name. The Romans built it as a series of castles to protect against pirate attacks, the Saxons later used it to defend against Viking attacks. In the early 12th century Augustinian monks built a church inside the walls, but later that century they moved on as it was taken as a royal residence. The monks built nine garderobes chutes in to the wall so that they vented onto the beach below, the debris was therefore washed away at high tide.

Portchester Castle Garderobes
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Monasteries also used garderobes. In Western Europe were constructed with a necessarium built away from their chapel – usually to the east of the sleeping quarters, the dorter, or to the east of the cloister. These were essentially garderobes, with seats set above chutes that dumped the waste into a drain or stream. These later became known as reredortersrere- meaning behind.

Lewes Priory of St Pancras in Sussex in the 11th century built a rather sophisticated reredorter. It had a communal ten-seater latrine with chutes dropping into a flowing sewer. While there was little privacy they room had windows for light and ventilation. There is some suggestion that there was also a bath house.

Lewes Priory Monks’ 11th c toilet
Illustration by Andy Gammon ©
Image source: www.lewespriory.org.uk

In the late 12th century the original reredorter was upgraded as the Priory had grown in size. The toilets were placed on the first floor and there were 59 of them, again venting into a flowing sewer.

Lewes Priory Monks’ 11th c toilet
Illustration by Andy Gammon ©
Image source: www.lewespriory.org.uk

The Priory was deliberately destroyed during the Reformation in 1538 and its materials reused for new buildings. But the 12th century toilet block has survived because it was converted into a malt house.

Lewes Priory Monks’ 12th c toilet block today
Image source: www.geograph.org.uk

A 12th century castle in Suffolk, Orford Castle near the coast and close to Woodbridge, presents a sanitation oddity. This was built for Henry II to guard the port of Orford. The official in charge of the castle, the Constable, had private quarters that were supplied not with a garderobe, but with a urinal for his personal convenience.

Urinal in Orford Castle
Images source: www.blog.english-heritage.org.uk
Garderobe at Peveril Castle, Derbyshire
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Old Sarum, near Salisbury, dates back to the Iron Age with earth ramparts. The Normans built their castle on top of this. The main bedrooms were built with garderobes that vented in to two 5-metre deep cesspits below. To clear them out the gong farmer was lowered into the pits at the end of a rope.

Cesspits beneath Old Sarum, Wiltshire
Campen castle garderobe
Image source: www.mobile-history.eu

Campen Castle, near Brunswick in Lower Saxony has a rather ornate looking garderobes though the outcome is just the sme.

Garderobes at Château de Tonquédec
Image source: www.flickr.com

Intriguing staggered garderobe chutes at Château de Tonquédec.

© Bob Denton, 2016
Forward to 11th and 12th centuries   –   Back to 5th to 8th centuries
Advance to Discovery, Enlightenment, Revolution   –  Back to Classical Era
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