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.