The Comforts of the Throne

In the days when hunting was a more common pursuit than it is today, those involved in the job cultivated a taxonomy for the various droppings they might encounter and use for tracking. Thus, rather than merely looking out for scat, those stalking deer would keep an eye peeled for ‘fewmets’ or ‘fewmishings’, while those willing to risk a boar-hunt would hope to happen upon ‘friants’, and ‘waggyings’ indicated the presence of fox.

Hunters did not, however, appear to have had a special word for the droppings of a monarch. When it comes to hunting history, this is unfortunate, as it turns out that a king’s bowel movements can actually be quite handy for tracing his other movements. Medieval monarchs and noblemen wandered from castle to castle fairly regularly, and it can be difficult to know exactly where one was on a given date, diaries not being much of a feature of the period and official chronicles not getting down to that level of detail. For historians, this can be a problem, as knowing where someone was is often useful information for their investigations. Fortunately, a castle’s household account books can help, as Ian Mortimer discovered when researching the life of England’s Henry IV. Among his discoveries, Mortimer noted that a servant of Henry’s family who wrote a book about how to run a proper aristocratic household insisted that the lord’s privy should be furnished with “blanket, cotyn or lynyn to wipe the nethur ende”. As Mortimer points out,

“Cotton […] was expensive – at 4½d or 5d per pound too expensive for common men to use for wiping the ‘nether end’ – so where we find payments for “cotton for the lords stool’, or ‘cotton and urinals’, it indicates that Henry was present (or expected soon to arrive) at the places where the cotton was bought. It means that we end up tracing the movements of the future king in the most undignified way–like an animal, by his droppings–but biographers must sometimes stoop to such levels.”

Henry’s preference for the medieval equivalent of triple-ply may perhaps have something to do with the fact that he was a noted jouster and spent a great deal of time on horseback, which may well have left him with a suitably majestic case of hemorrhoids.

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This entry originally appeared at www.damninteresting.com/curio/the-comforts-of-the-throne, and may be a summary or abridged version.