The Big Necessity

profile-toilet-largeI sometimes find, when I’m reading, that I’ve picked up a book (or two or ten) with a particular theme for no specific reason–only to discover, a little way down the line, that there was a reason, only I didn’t know it yet. It’s like I’m researching before I realize what–or why–I’m researching. Example: before I started working on the current project, which is set in medieval Italy* I found myself rereading The Name of the Rose, The Doomsday Book, and several of Sharan Newman’s excellent Catherine LeVendeur mysteries. Only later did I realize that I wanted to see how other writers handled the day-to-day of medieval life and, in particular, day-to-day faith.

So: in the last month I have read Chasing Clean, Suellen Hoy’s lovely history of the pursuit of cleanliness in America (so glad I didn’t live in pre-Civil War America. So glad) and am now reading Rose George’s The Big Necessity, a riveting look at the history, engineering, and health management aspects of, um, human waste. It’s fascinating, not least because I’m reminded of how much I take for granted every time I flush the toilet and wash my hands. There’s a wonderful anecdote at the beginning of The Big Necessity in which the author, asking for a bathroom at a restaurant in the Ivory Coast, is shown to a hut–a small, white tiled room. No light, no toilet, drain, no hole, nothing: just find your spot and go. She’s taken aback, and goes out to check with the waiter who had shown her to the, um, facitilities. “Do it on the floor. What did you expect? This isn’t America!” And the author, who would have used the bushes or a one-holer, takes care of business, having been reminded of how privileged she is. Because it is a privilege to have an outhouse, or even a chair to sit on (as in a memorable scene from Slumdog Millionaire) while one does ones’ business.

Not to mention what becomes of all that effluvia. Okay, I don’t mean to gross anyone out; you’re likely drinking coffee and getting a start on your day. But Rose George’s point is that where there are people there are these issues, and they matter. And have mattered throughout human history.

I do wonder why I am reading these books right now. I don’t know. Partly, they came my way (well, the Hoy book did–a friend loaned it to me; I saw a review of the George and got it for myself as a Christmas present–I’m such a romantic). But I also found myself eying Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity when I came across it the other day. There’s a theme cooking in my brain.

I hope my brain will tell me, soon, what the theme is. I’m really quite curious.

*Medieval Italy=a term which has no real meaning, as what we call Italy wasn’t until well into modern times, and in the medieval age was really a battlefield for Lombards, Arabs, and as far as I can tell, Sino-Celtic traveling salesmen.



About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


The Big Necessity — 14 Comments

  1. They attribute the drop in the death rate in the past century or so, not to medical advances or the spread of vaccinations, but simply to water and sewage infrastructure. Build a water system to keep the water clean as it comes in to the consumers, and a waste system to carry everything else away. if you can keep the two streams separate, huge numbers of illnesses are prevented. It’s as simple as that.

  2. “It’s as simple as that.”

    Except that it is not a simplw thing at all.

    Think lead poisoning from early lead pipea.

    The fights over adding chlorine or flourine.

    The tax burden of maintaining or building waste and water treatment plants,

    Oh yes and figuring out why any of this stuff matters.

    Evil spirits anyone?

  3. Hey, the first pipes (of which, I believe, some few are still in service) were hollowed out logs.

    Victoria–thanks. I always like to know what the plumbing (or lack thereof) is. There’s a plot point in Petty Treason that depends on it…

  4. I am sure a rich literary vein could be mined here. Remember that Miles Vorkosigan got his start in a sewer system, and is still famous for attacking plumbing stoppages.

  5. Many Medieval castles – like ours here in Kuressaare, Estonia – had waste shafts for the removal of used beer. Part of the knights contract included 2 liters of beer a day. There are 2 main disposal shafts, one from the refectory or knights living quarters and one from the top of the main defensive tower. It’s not clear what the Bishop did with his excretia. The urine was collected in barrels on the ground level and used to fix the colours in dyes and, heated, to the discourage the locals from climbing over the castle walls

  6. Urine is actually an important chemical in fulling and dyeing. Fullers used to keep barrels outside their doors, so that (male) passersby could contribute. Further proof, if any were needed, that there were no homeowner associations or downtown redevelopment commissions in the past.

  7. When I lived in Mexico, I remember visiting one village outside Tehuantapec, in Oaxaca. In most of the villages, people would have an area in back of the house, roughly screened off for privacy by cane or shrubs, and sort of a pit that they shoveled dirt over periodically. (If I’m not mistaken, the military calls this sort of thing a trench latrine.)

    But in this village, when we asked where to go, we were taken with pride to a neighbor’s house. Out in back was a small adobe building, and inside a cement floor and, in solitary grandeur, a commode. The owner of that house had put it in after working for a few years in the US, and it was the pride of the village. There was even toilet paper!

    That last commodity, btw, is by no means the least of our luxuries. We always took some with us when visiting out in the villages, because it wouldn’t be provided, and unfamiliar leaves can prove dangerous. I know one person who had a Very Close Encounter with a shrub called malamujer (“bad woman”… sexist name) that had an effect similar to poison oak.

  8. Absolutely fascinating. The whole thing is a big fraught for Americans though. I myself, firmly believe that flush toilets and the production, on demand, of nearly limitless supplies of hot water are 2 of the great glories of western civ. Note, that until I was past 6 years old, I did not live in a house with indoor plumbing or running water. We were Very Poor in rural OK in the 50s. I *know* what it’s like to live without those things.


  9. Oh, also meant to mention that when I took Reference Materials in Lib School, one of the questions nearly everyone missed on a problem set was, “How did John come to refer to toilet?” The one woman who got it worked in the History of Science Collection (for which OU’s lib is mildly famous) and came across a pamphlet about some of the early sanitary engineers — one of who was named John. Then, of course, there’s Thomas Crapper…


  10. Mr. Crapper apparently did not invent the toilet (as I believed for years) but did make improvements, and advertise his patented devices in the papers.

    One of the early chapters in The Big Necessity deals with the ultra modern toilets of Japan (which feature heated seats, a bidet feature, and even piped in music!) and why the bidet has never seemed to catch on in the US, despite the apparent fact that water does a much better job than toilet paper of cleaning up after the fact, as it were.

    You know, I thought about titling this post “Shit! No Shit!” but decided to go for class over crass.

    Also: isn’t urine used for tanning, also?

  11. Yes, it is. Dog poop is (or was) used to achieve the color and texture of cordovan leather. The tanners would pay boys to collect it. “Mom, I have an after-school job!”

  12. OHMIGAWD!! Japanese toilet seats really are incredible. I wish we could have them here. Our first trip to Tokyo we stayed in a rather ritzy hotel and the toilet had a warm seat, separate streams for hot and cold water, and warm air for blow drying. They mostly play music in public toilets I think, because otherwise, someone might *hear* you tinkle. Apparently this bothers some people. I’m “meh” about that, but the hot and cold water sprays and blow dryers are da bomb.