Content warning: minor spoilers for Season 7 Episode 1 of Game of Thrones.
Talk about “Same Shit, Different Day”. In the Season 7 opener of Game of Thrones, poor Sam learns the hard way—in a stomach-turning montage—that manure is serious business in Westeros. This is just as it was in the Middle Ages, and, interestingly, continues to be to this very day.
Just as it does in hospitals and nursing homes today, care of the sick and elderly in the Middle Ages involved bedpans. And just like twenty-first century bedpans, medieval bedpans needed to be emptied and cleaned, as we see Sam doing over and over. At least Sam doesn’t appear to also be on diaper duty as well, as medieval wife Margery Kempe was during her husband’s long illness. Lucky Sam.
Without widespread indoor plumbing, handling the necessaries is a constant challenge, and not just in the Middle Ages or in medievalesque places like Westeros. Many homes in some US cities were not connected to city sewers until the 1950s and ‘60s; some parts of rural America (like rural Alaska) still do not have indoor plumbing. Whether in medieval England, Westeros, 1930s Philadelphia, or 2017 outside Chicken, Alaska, wherever chamber pots and outhouses are a reality, somebody’s going to have to empty and clean them out.
But where to put all this crap?
While Sam might not see it that way, since the Citadel doesn’t quite offer deluxe accommodations, he’s got it relatively easy. Why?: he can dump the bedpans into a toilet. Toilets have not changed very much over the centuries, though the plumbing attached to them certainly has.
The earliest surviving wooden toilet seat dates back about two thousand years and was found at a Roman military installation in northern England. While the Roman toilet seat looks a lot like what Sam had to work with, the Roman toilet flushed using a rainwater system. If Sam were to have walked a bit further, he might have found public privies like those mentioned in Lincoln in the Canterbury Tales. Similar public toilets existed in most medieval English cities, some constructed directly over rivers, others over open cesspits. These could be lethal—literally. Toilet seats occasionally rotted and broke, leading to a rather ignoble end, as happened to Richard le Rakiere in 1326.
People longed for private flushing toilets in the Middle Ages. Some Londoners got quite creative in rigging up indoor plumbing. This included one Alice Wade, who was forced to dismantle her home-made flush toilet in 1314 when neighbors complained to the city that her scheme had blocked a gutter.
If Sam were in a large medieval city, an alternative might have been for Sam to walk the pans outside, or to an open window, and dump them into the drainage ditch running down city streets. But one had to be careful about dumping chamber pots—they could definitely annoy one’s neighbor, as Maud Frembaud did in 1369. Even the Tower of London placed its royal privy on the side secluded from public view: no one wanted to see that.
Even though medieval people did not fully understand the disease vector presented by all this excrement, they understood it to be a public nuisance and made efforts to rid themselves of it. Rather than allow such sewers to stagnate, medieval city officials made every effort to flush ditches with channeled rainwater and through carefully controlled local streams, including some of London’s “hidden rivers.”
By the late Middle Ages, London and other English cities had a range of city officials in charge of waste removal to protect citizens’ health and safety. Medieval waste gutters, and even twentieth-century sewers in cities, often emptied into rivers. This raised the risk of contaminated drinking water. The very well-paid waste officials in London and other, smaller, medieval cities worked together with a host of entrepreneurs to clean the streets, gutters, and cesspits that ran around and under public toilets. These workers carted the collected human and animal waste of the city outside the walls where manure and other rubbish could be sorted by type and dumped on mandated piles. From here, manure could be used for a range of purposes: as fertilizer, fuel, an ingredient in making saltpeter, or other things. (Though it was not safe fertilizer unless it was properly processed.)
Sam’s labors in service towards becoming a Maester seem almost monastic. But even he doesn’t consider it work in service to the gods; some medieval people did. Margery Kempe cleaned up after her husband strong in the belief that her service brought her closer to God. Saints, such as St. Catherine of Siena, who took physical care of the sick and dying were revered for cleaning sores and bedpans with (miraculously) glad hearts. Medieval culture even made special room in its spiritual hierarchy for those whose jobs were dirty but necessary for a healthy society, whether that job was muck carter or plowman. As one early textbook young noblemen like Sam, “the plow feeds us all.”
Manure, including human “nightsoil,” remains a grave threat to public health today. Most of twenty-first century America has forgotten the horrors of typhoid and cholera, but there is an ongoing epidemic in Yemen, and one very recently in Haiti. Veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are also well aware of these dangers; believe it or not, the best practices in handling military latrine waste remains a hotly debated topic. And the looming threat of climate change could even pose a threat; with water tables rising and funding for infrastructure falling, wastewater treatment in the US is threatened. Let’s hope we don’t all end up like Sam, scrubbing shit during endless extreme weather.
Kathleen E. Kennedy teaches History and English at Penn State-Brandywine. She writes about medieval history and pop culture for Vice, The Mary Sue, and other media outlets, and about medieval material culture for the academic press. She may be the world’s leading expert on the history of coconuts.