Category Archives: Medieval Family

Five Things To Do With Urine In The Middle Ages


This post has been a long time in the making. It has taken so long because I wanted to find proper sources for everything, but I’ve had to accept that if a respected historian says something in a television documentary it will have to do.

The respected historian I’m referring to is Ruth Goodman. She was in all of the historical farm series on BBC Two, but the series that I’m using are The Secrets of the Castle (about building a castle in the thirteenth century), Tudor Monastery Farm (set in 1500) and Tales from the Green Valley (set in 1620), all of which I watched for the third or fourth time in the last few weeks.  Although the last two are not strictly speaking about the Middle Ages, some of the uses people had for urine then were the same as they were in the fourteenth century.  I was originally inspired to write this post by something Ruth Goodman said in the Secrets of the Castle. She said that people in the Middle Ages used urine for everything. Whilst that’s an exaggeration, it isn’t much of one.

Urine was a valuable resource and it was collected. In the fourteenth century there were no indoor toilets, unless you lived in a castle or a monastery, and nobody who needed to get up in the night was going to go outside to the midden (the most basic form of toilet) or the necessary house (a slightly more sophisticated toilet, with walls and a roof). Even if it wasn’t icy, raining or snowing outside, the toilet facilities would be some distance away from the house and the darkness of night was considered dangerous. Instead of going out they used a chamber pot. This was emptied each morning into a storage pot, which was also kept as far away as possible from the house. The pot was covered and the urine left to ferment,  becoming amonia. I’m a bit shaky on the science, so that  might not be quite what happens. Whatever it is that goes on in the storage pot, there is a usable, but very smelly,  product after three weeks.

We saw one of the uses when we were looking at the production of cloth. Stored urine was used in the fulling and bleaching processes. Urine was pounded into the cloth, with with the feet or wooden paddles. The cloth was rinsed and then spread out to dry in the sun. Something similar was done on a domestic scale on washday. Contrary to popular belief, medieval people in general did wash their clothes and bedlinen. It was their underclothes that they washed, however. The outer layer was usually made from woollen cloth, which can be washed, but takes forever to dry, even in the summer. It made sense, therefore, to protect the woollen garments from things that could make them dirty, such as sweat, by not wearing them next to the skin. Garments that touched the skin tended to be made of linen, which could be washed frequently.  These were put into a tub and had the stale urine poured over them. After a bit of of a soak, they were taken to the river where they were rinsed, then beaten with a paddle to get the dirt out. When they were clean they were dried in the sun.

I wrote last week that tanning was such a malodorous process that tanneries were usually built beyond a town’s walls. One of the reasons why it was so bad was that this was another process that used urine. It was one of the substances used to remove hair from the leather. The leather was soaked in a vat of urine until the hairs could be scraped off. Thankfully, the later processes removed the smell, but being a tanner could not have been pleasant.

Urine was also used in dying, where it was a mordant: a substance that fixes the dye to the fibre so that it doesn’t wash out. Woad, for example,  was picked, chopped finely and moulded into balls. Once the balls were dry, they were ground into a powder, to which urine was added. The threads were dipped into the resulting mixture, which was green. When they removed from the liquid, they turned blue. The technique is still used today by some people who use natural dyes.

Medicine also made use of urine for diagnosing illnesses. Much as you can tell today from your urine whether you’re hydrated or not, or that you’ve been eating beetroot or asparagus, a medieval physician could learn much from the colour, smell or taste of his patient’s urine. That’s why you knew without thinking too much about it that the monk at the top of the post is a physician. His patients are bringing him flasks of urine for him to make diagnoses. Just as kings are always depicted wearing their crowns in medieval art (even if they’re in bed) so physicians are depicted with urine flasks.

Last, but by no means least, urine was used in alchemy. In the fourteenth century alchemy was a respectable science and it wasn’t always about turning lead into gold. In this case, however, it was. One path towards turning one metal into another was to turn one metal into the facsimile of another. The theory was that if you could imitate something you would understand more about how to create it.  Urine, specifially urine from a youth, was used in a process to create an imitation of gold. Just in case you want to give it a go, the recipe is one dram of lime and one dram of ground sulphur. They’re mixed together, then the urine is added and the mixture heated. When it looks like blood, it should be filtered. If you dip a piece of silver into the clear liquid, will take on the appearance of gold.

Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine by Nancy G Siraisi
Tudor Monastery Farm by Peter Ginn, Ruth Goodman and Tom Pinfold
The Secrets of Alchemy by Lawrence M. Principe


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Family, Medieval Life, Medieval Medicine, Medieval Science

A Medieval Childhood


A couple of weeks ago we had a bit of a discussion in the comments about medieval children and their sleeping and playing arrangements. As a result, I’ve been reading about children this week.

One of the things that I already knew is that childhood was precarious. In the fourteenth century, you were just as likely to die before your twentieth birthday as you were to reach it. If you did reach it, you would probably live another twenty-eight years. It wasn’t unknown for people to live into their 80s, but 50 was a good age, regardless of which part of society you belonged to.

If you survived being born, you were already doing well. A pregnancy often ended with the death of mother and/or child. I’ll be looking at pregnancy and birth next year.

The world was a dangerous place for medieval babies. They often shared their parents’ bed and many were suffocated as a result. There are examples of sermons telling parents to put their children into cradles so that they would be safe.  Then, as now, mothers sang lullabies to their babies.  In well-off households older children slept in truckle beds: beds that were stored under their parent’s bed and were pulled out at night.

Medieval babies were swaddled, that is bound in cloths so they couldn’t move. One of my sources said that babies might be left alone all day while the parents went out to work. I suppose they thought there was no chance of them coming to any harm if they couldn’t move.

The high mortality rate and the swaddling and the leaving them alone all day might lead you to think that parents didn’t love their children, but they did. There are heart-breaking accounts of parents searching for lost children, of a father who drowned trying to save a child who had fallen into the river, and of grief at a child’s death. Even the king wasn’t immune. When Edward III’s second daughter, Joan, died during the Black Death at the age of 14, he wrote movingly of her loss.

Another expression of their love was strong discipline. The fourteenth century was a cruel time and children were beaten with sticks, by both parents, to enforce discipline. It was seen as a way of teaching them not to break the law. This was important in an age when a child as young as 7 could be hanged.

Life for most children changed when they reached 7. At that age they were expected to work, although they only payment they earned was their food and a roof over their heads. Boys who were going into a trade would begin their apprenticeship. The sons of noble families went to the household of a maternal uncle to learn how to be knights and the sons of people who lived on the land went into the fields with their fathers.

This is not to say that they hadn’t been working before this. It was the task of young children to keep the birds away from freshly-sown seed and to forage for firewood, nuts, berries and shellfish. Girls were already learning how to spin and boys were learning how to shoot with a bow and arrow.

There was a very basic education for everyone. The parish priest would have a weekly class to teach the children about the seven deadly sins. For most this was the only education they received. The boys from wealthy families could go to one of the many schools attached to cathedrals, Benedictine monasteries, friaries or convents, for which their parents had to pay. The main object of the schools was to teach them Latin. Those going to university went at 14.

Boys came of age at 14 and girls at 12. This was the age at which they could be married, although most girls weren’t expected to consummate their marriage until they were 14.

When the question about medieval children was raised, it was more about how they played and what kind of toys they had. I was surprised to discover that there were toys that could be bought in the fourteenth century. These were mainly spinning-tops and lead knights. Children of the poor played outside in the street, much as I and the other children in my road did in the 60s, when it was still more or less safe to do so. You didn’t really need toys if you had a bit of imagination.

One last point about the cruelty of the age: cock-fighting was regarded as a children’s game.


The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer

A Social History of England – ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:














Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Family, Medieval Life