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Impearls: Medieval constipation advice for travelers

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Earthdate 2002-12-21

Medieval constipation advice for travelers

Dominican friar Felix Faber from the German city of Ulm twice traveled as a pilgrim to the Holy Land during the latter part of the 15th century.  Faber offered up this dry advice for travelers on long Mediterranean boat voyages of his day: 1

As the poet says, “A ripe turd is an unbearable burden” [ut dicitur metrice: maturum stercus est importabile pondus].  A few words on the manner of urinating and shitting on a boat.

Each pilgrim has near his bed a urinal — a vessel of terracotta, a small bottle — into which he urinates and vomits.  But since the quarters are cramped for the number of people, and dark besides, and since there is much coming and going, it is seldom that these vessels are not overturned before dawn.  Quite regularly in fact, driven by a pressing urge that obliges him to get up, some clumsy fellow will knock over five or six urinals in passing, giving rise to an intolerable stench.

In the morning, when the pilgrims get up and their stomachs ask for grace, they climb the bridge and head for the prow, where on either side of the spit privies have been provided.  Sometimes as many as thirteen people or more will line up for a turn at the seat, and when someone takes too long it is not embarrassment but irritation that is expressed [nec est ibi verecundia sed potius iracundia].  I would compare the wait to that which people must endure when they confess during Lent, when they are forced to stand and become irritated at the interminable confessions and await their turn in a foul mood.

At night, it is a difficult business to approach the privies owing to the huge number of people lying or sleeping on the decks from one end of the galley to the other.  Anyone who wants to go must climb over more than forty people, stepping on them as he goes; with every step he risks kicking a fellow passenger or falling on top of a sleeping body.  If he bumps into someone along the way, insults fly.  Those without fear or vertigo can climb up to the prow along the ship's gunwales, pushing themselves along from rope to rope, which I often did despite the risk and the danger.  By climbing out the hatches to the oars, one can slide along in a sitting position from oar to oar, but this is not for the faint of heart, for straddling the oars is dangerous, and even the sailors do not like it.

But the difficulties become really serious in bad weather, when the privies are constantly inundated by waves and the oars are shipped and laid across the benches.  To go to the seat in the middle of a storm is thus to risk being completely soaked, so that many passengers remove their clothing and go stark naked.  But in this, modesty [verecundia] suffers greatly, which only stirs the shameful [verecunda] parts even more.  Those who do not wish to be seen this way go squat in other places, which they soil, causing tempers to flare and fights to break out, discrediting even honorable people.  Some even fill their vessels near their beds, which is disgusting and poisons the neighbors and can be tolerated only in invalids, who cannot be blamed: a few words are not enough to recount what I was forced to endure on account of a sick bedmate.

The pilgrim must be careful not to hold back on account of false modesty and not relieve the stomach; to do so is most harmful to the traveler.  At sea it is easy to become constipated.  Here is good advice for the pilgrim: go to the privies three or four times every day, even when there is no natural urge, in order to promote evacuation by discreet efforts; and do not lose hope if nothing comes on the third or fourth try.  Go often, loosen your belt, untie all the knots of your clothes over chest and stomach, and evacuation will occur even if your intestines are filled with stones.  This advice was given me by an old sailor once when I had been terribly constipated for several days.  At sea, moreover, it is not safe to use pills or suppositories [pilulas aut suppositoria accipere], because to purge oneself too much can cause worse trouble than constipation.

Probably good advice for any time and place.

1 Quoted from A History of Private Life: Vol. II – Revelations of the Medieval World, edited by Georges Duby, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1988; pp. 587-588.

Quote of the day, from the same volume (p. 589):

Felix conjunctio!  (“Happy coupling”)  —Carmina Burana (10th to 13th century)

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