Where’s the Latrine?

March 1st, 2007

I’m doing research for the next project. The next project (hereafter NP) is set around 1050 CE in coastal Italy, which is not easy to research (there’s a difference between hard-to-research and not-easy). When I’m researching a period I know very little about there are specific things I need to know–many of which will never appear on my page. What are the names and sizes of the local currency? Styles of address? What’s the prevailing religious belief system? What is the legal system, and does it affect everyone equally? How do they handle human waste? This last is particularly important–you could be a peasant who never saw a piece of money, you could be an agnostic paying lipservice to the accepted religious system…but, to paraphrase Sesame Street, everybody poops. And I’m not just interested in the specific details of latrines and chamberpots, but about things like smell. Was a slight septic smell just a fact of life? Was the waste used to fertilize the fields? Was that likely to cause health problems? Were there people whose livelihood depended on waste-management? The thing is, I’m unlikely to dwell on this kind of stuff in NP, but I need to know it, so that I have a sense of the texture of the place and how daily life was managed.

At the same time that I’m doing this research, I’m reading a book set in a non-specific Fantasy When-n-Where. And what this book sorely needs is latrines. Not literally, exactly; there are occasional shots of men relieving themselves in the streets (intended to demonstrate what a sordid, nasty place this is) and mention is made of sewers (intended to establish a stench, thus demonstrating what a sordid, nasty place this is). None of this gives the reader a hand figuring out what the technological level of the place is, which would be one reason to mention waste-management. The book is set in a city, where waste-management would be very different from the countryside, but I have no idea in what way different. What the author has done is to neglect local texture and the sense that his characters have a life beyond the pages of the book, that everyone has household chores and needs to pee on occasion, not because it’s nasty but because they’re human.

The thing about world-building is that everything is connected to everything else. When you’re working to build a believable fantasy or science-fictional world, the agriculture connects to diet connects to waste connects to technology and who-knows-what-all. Very little of this should show up on the page, but you have to know about the latrines.

33 Responses to “Where’s the Latrine?”

  1. kateelliotton 01 Mar 2007 at 8:04 pm

    What the author has done is to neglect local texture and the sense that his characters have a life beyond the pages of the book, that everyone has household chores and needs to pee on occasion, not because it’s nasty but because they’re human.

    I’d be interested in hearing you expand on this, Mad.

  2. Lois Tiltonon 01 Mar 2007 at 10:01 pm

    The function of sewers is supposed to be to reduce the stench, to carry the waste away.

  3. […] 8 – Where’s the Latrine? “At the same time that I’m doing this research, I’m reading a book set in a non-specific Fantasy When-n-Where. And what this book sorely needs is latrines.” Madeleine Roberts on research for novelists. (tags: detail research worldbuilding setting stories books fiction writing) […]

  4. Madeleine Robinson 02 Mar 2007 at 2:47 am

    Will try to oblige, Kate.

    The book is written without a sense of time or place: it’s a Potemkin Village, a poorly imagined and clichéd backlot set (the temple is massive, the inns are bustling, the government is corrupt, the religion is not only corrupt but so outre that I wasn’t sure it wasn’t satire). I was particularly bothered by the priest of the book’s religion, who is not only corrupt but chattily, moustache-twirlingly evil. Which pitched me headlong out of the book, because there was nothing to the religion except an idol and some loose “repent and pay up” talk. I would have been readier to believe the priest’s corruption if I had first seen someone who believed–and seen a little something about the belief system itself. Not much; I really don’t want a travelogue. I want quick details that convince me that I’m moving rapidly through a real place.

    In the same way, the characters seemed to exist wholly for the author to play with. They have physical descriptions–sometimes very complete, but as human beings they are totally lacking. If you have (for example) a queen who plays at intrigue and politics, I’d like to hear a word on the fly about why she does so. Is it because it’s her nature to intrigue? Was she, like Marie Antoinette, a naif when she arrived in the kingdom, and did she have to learn to intrigue in order to survive? Because these characters seem to have no other purpose than to move the plot forward in some wise, once they’re off stage they’re forgettable. If one of them thought in passing about what to get the wife for her birthday or what he’d have for dinner or why his sciatica was acting up, I’d remember more.

    It’s very easy to set dress with urine and feces if you’re trying to create an nasty setting. It’s far more interesting to acknowledge that urine and feces are part of daily life in a relatively pleasant setting. One of my favorite throw-away moments in the film version of Sense and Sensibility is when the Dashwoods and Mrs. Jenkins are going to a party in London. As they step out of their carriage, Mrs. Jenkins says “Watch your feet, girls; the horses have been here.” The point of the scene is that they’re going to a party where Marianne Dashwood is going to have her heart broken, but that one line reminds us that the streets of London were a mine-field for a woman in silk dancing slippers. I’d have loved to see this writer create a truly unpleasant city with a whole different kind of set-dressing. Sinister orchids, maybe?

  5. Sengei Tawnon 02 Mar 2007 at 11:28 am

    Description of latrines in a book is very interesting. Does tell a lot about the culture.
    For example, latrines of the Romans often attracted bees.
    Most of the population were type II diabetic because of their rich diet and lifestyle.
    Would make an interesting description for a fictional culture (assuming physiology is similar to humans).

  6. Evanon 02 Mar 2007 at 12:12 pm

    That’s interesting about the bees Sengei, I didn’t know that. Although it makes sense, because I’ve certainly seen a lot of bees around American outhouses, in campgrounds and the like. Or were they yellowjackets? Anyway.

    There are a lot of interesting details about ancient cultures that a historian or an enthusiastic amateur might know, but that don’t fit into the relatively simplistic picture that most people have. (These people include myself. But I’m learning!) The world must *feel* real, and yes, you don’t want your characters plopping down on the road at the end of the day to eat stew. But I think you’ve got to be careful with surprising details, even if they are historically accurate, or risk throwing readers out of the story. Or there’s the alternative: “As you know Bob, the people of the Empire of Valeria enjoy a rich diet…”

  7. Madeleine Robinson 02 Mar 2007 at 1:27 pm

    That’s always a risk–my favorite example is the word “dude,” which was in use in Regency England, but would stretch the credulity of a modern reader. (“Dude, where’s my phaeton?”) You don’t want to have to explain why things are so all the way through.

    One of the coolest responses I’ve ever gotten to a piece I’d written was when I did a reading from Point of Honour. At one point early in the book, Our Heroine’s aunt, who runs a brothel, is lamenting on the expenses of the house, and says “what I spend in sea sponges and vinegar is not to be believed.” I threw that in because (long before Seinfeld) sponges were used as a form of birth control. Half a dozen people in the audience burst out laughing; the people who didn’t get it didn’t get it but also weren’t bothered by it. In the same way, my second favorite moment in Shakespeare in Love comes when the awful teenage boy who’s been killing rats and enjoying the gory parts of the plays he sees, identifies himself as John Webster (future author of The Duchess of Malfi). It was a kind of lovely in-board Easter Egg for English majors, but didn’t slow the action down.

  8. Kate Elliotton 02 Mar 2007 at 3:52 pm

    I was the only one in the theater who laughed at the John Webster line. And I remember the throwaway line about sea sponges and vineager! But I didn’t know ‘dude’ was used in Regency England. That is too funny. I will never read anything set in the Regency Period the same way again.

  9. Diana Pharaoh Francison 02 Mar 2007 at 7:13 pm

    In my Path books, in the coastal city, I had midden wagons that picked up waste from chamberpots in homes (for fees of course) and then took them out and dumped them in the ocean.

    I think a lot depends on the technology your city has developed–i.e. sewage pipes and then how are they accessible for dumping into and where do they dump out to? I’d guess coastal cities likely would dump right into the water. I’d guess that would mean some nastiness on the beaches. You can be certain there would be a constant smell. Everytime I think of Victorian England it reminds me of what some of my NY friends said about the city in the winter–smells good now, but in the summer, whew! So of course temperatures would have an impact.

    Likely there aren’t public restrooms so you’ll get a lot of people walking into alleys and leaving behind waste, or possibly you’ll have some sort of pay toilets for people to use and then of course have to figure out how to dump them.

    Is there a history of human waste out there somewhere? I think someone needs to write it if not.



  10. gabe chouinardon 02 Mar 2007 at 10:52 pm


    The rest of the links at the top of the page are quite indepth as well.


  11. Madeleine Robinson 03 Mar 2007 at 2:16 am

    I know there are a couple of books out there on waste management through the ages. (I once missed out on a chance to acquire a biography of the inventor of the flush toilet, called Crapper.)

    The thing that bothered me in this book was that waste–and filth and fat and everything the author clearly finds esthetically displeasing–seemed to be there as shorthand for Bad, Evil, Corrupt. I would have given money to see a fat character who was a good guy, just to see if he could manage it. The thing is, if your city is built by the sea (the city in the book is) and its sewage systems empty into the water and there is a stench to the city…that’s not a moral problem, it’s a fact of life. At least in a society not technologically advanced enough to do something about it.

    Now, if you wanted to write a book in which the city deliberately pollutes its waters with waste, the whys and wherefores of that would be interesting,

  12. gabeon 03 Mar 2007 at 11:27 am

    I think equally interesting would be the society that is in the transition from having the stench/pollution and deciding to get rid of it. What’s the spur? How would they go about it? What are the social and political ramifications of, say, a segment that says “We don’t want this anymore”?

  13. kateelliotton 03 Mar 2007 at 1:30 pm

    The thing that bothered me in this book was that waste–and filth and fat and everything the author clearly finds esthetically displeasing–seemed to be there as shorthand for Bad, Evil, Corrupt.

    And did the evil people have bad acne, too – or only their hapless minions?

    You know, there’s a subset of fiction that women of a certain age who have done a fair bit of caretaking seem unanimously to find, well, rather immature, while those who write it (and read it) seem to think it is edgy and cool. I’m always intrigued by the issue of what we bring as readers to the narrative.

    Meanwhile, London Under London, by Richard Trench and Ellis Hillman, has a chapter on sewers.

    Now I want to write the sewage-in-transition book!

  14. Madeleine Robinson 03 Mar 2007 at 2:20 pm

    I remember a point in my reading–it may have been New Wave (New Wave and I hit at about the same time) fiction–where the thing that was cool was stories that were depressing and hopeless, hinting at human depravity; sex (mostly depraved) and ugliness. Because these things were true and realistic. It took me years to realize that I wasn’t necessarily selling out if my world-view was different or if my stories didn’t end up with a body count higher than Hamlet’s. I have very little patience for that sort of thing now.

  15. Constance Ashon 03 Mar 2007 at 2:21 pm

    A sewer system or whatever other mode of managing a community’s waste (a community includes a single-family farm as much as a town) is why our fantasy worlds to succeed have a political dimension that is at least, internal to the author.

    If one’s city is a canal city, or by a lake or river or a port city on a sea, that is one way of handling such things, and that too informs the political dimension of the inhabitants in some manner.

    A couple of years ago, while in New Orleans, I did an enormous research project via law and gov dox as my primary source material, on the history and current state of  public drinking water supply and sewer systems — you don’t have a public water supply without an accompanying sewer system, was the first thing I learned.  The next thing I learned was that it was hardly possible for urban communities to have these without the a certain economic development, that involves bond issues, which led also to an inevitable percentage of corruption.

    The challenge was to keep the percentage of skimming and so on at an absorbable level, while still constructing systems that worked and had longtime functionality.  These two parts have been forgotten in these fallen times, as one big public project after another runs way over inital projected costs and construction time, and fails generally before it even starts.  For example, the New! Improved! Bigger! Better!  water and sewage and gas pipelines one on Houston here, a major Capital NYC project that has cost the city billions by now.  And we need it desperately as the system is over a century old. It was finally finished, at least 2 years later than projected, and then — it blew up.  There’s the Big Dig in Boston too, for instance.  The new airport built to serve the Denver Hub.  And many, many more.

    Gack. I’ll be quiet now.

    Love, C.

  16. Nicole L.on 03 Mar 2007 at 2:31 pm

    Here’s a total tyro question and I’m kind of embarrassed to ask it: How do you do your research?

    Let me narrow it down a bit though. It seems like if you want to find out how Europeans lived, or people in societies that have been studied by Europeans because they were expected to die out (i.e. Native Americans in the United States) it’s fairly easy to find books or anthropological studies. But if you want to find out how ordinary people lived at different times, say in Guajarit, India, and I’m talking about human waste and what they cooked on and stuff like that, it’s really hard to find information.

    I personally like architecture books, you can get a great visual image as well as some additional info you didn’t expect, but what about all those other details? What other resources do you turn to?

  17. Madeleine Robinson 03 Mar 2007 at 3:24 pm

    That’s always the tough question. Right now I’m researching a period in Western history that is curiously hard to find stuff on–Italy between the Roman Empire and the Renaissance (data on either side of that divide is thick on the ground, but between 600 and 1200 CE, not so much). So I look everywhere. I look sideways. Architecture books are great, as are art history books. Checking in university libraries for doctoral theses on obscure topics, written by people who were able to do work with primary sources is good. Reading fiction/poetry/epics written in the era is important–if only to get the mindset of the people I’m writing about. Biographies, likewise. Generalist books (“Medieval Life”) are a good jumping off point.

    I also belong to a great listserve, Joys of Research, which has many people with diverse backgrounds of knowledge. You never know what sorts of things people will know, until you ask.

    Finally, I never pass up a chance to go into a good used bookstore (the Strand, in New York; Green Apple here in San Francisco, the blessed Powells in Portland) and see what sorts of books they have that I might need later.

    Anyone else?

  18. Constance Ashon 03 Mar 2007 at 5:53 pm

    Archeology is where you look for that stuff.

    Enormous amounts of archeological work is the midden, the latrine, etc.

    They’ve just done a whole lot with certain fortresses that supposedly Wallace made during his rebellion.

    The problem is — language. It’s there, but maybe not in a language you know. Italian for Italy, etc.

    Love, C.

  19. James Engeon 03 Mar 2007 at 6:18 pm

    Sengei Tawn wrote (in part): For example, latrines of the Romans often attracted bees.
    Most of the population were type II diabetic because of their rich diet and lifestyle.


    Not to be truculent, but:

    a.) A Roman latrina would be put over a sewer line and the waste carried away by the flow of waste water. The Romans were pretty good water engineers. This doesn’t seem like a bee-tractive situation. Can you cite your source? Maybe we’re thinking of different things.

    b.) Most of the people in the Roman period were poor and did not have a “rich diet” or a sedentary lifestyle.

    c.) We have very little direct evidence about the health of the ancient Romans. But I don’t think that what we do have (from forensic archaeology done at Herculaneum, for instance) would support the assertion above that most ancient Romans were diabetic. No doubt some were–no doubt some of every large population are.

  20. kateelliotton 03 Mar 2007 at 9:27 pm

    Nicole, yeah, it’s hard. University libraries, magazine articles, monographs. As Mad says, start general, and work your way to the specific via bibliographies. As Constance says, archaeology, and also anthropological monographs, often have good info.

    Mad, you have Liudprand of Cremona’s Antapodosis (Tit for Tat), right? Although it’s really about the noble class and their shenanigans. It’s a hoot. There’s an Everyman edition that includes The Embassy to Constantinople.

    James, thanks. I love Roman engineering.

    Constance, obviously if I do the sewer book, I’ll have to consult you.

  21. Madeleine Robinson 03 Mar 2007 at 10:10 pm


    Mad, you have Liudprand of Cremona’s Antapodosis (Tit for Tat), right?

    Not yet, but it’s just moved up to the top of the list…

  22. kateelliotton 03 Mar 2007 at 10:47 pm

    In the 21st century, Liudprand would be the snarky*, catty*, a little mean* and often very very funny gay commentator. Not that I have an opinion one way or the other about Liudprand, and not that it matters, but that’s the tone – he would fit in well in Tales of the City.

    *although never ever about Otto the Great, who appears in the later part of the narrative.

  23. Sengei Tawnon 04 Mar 2007 at 10:53 am

    You are quite correct to push me for evidence. Trust that I am sleuthing away on that self-appointed task.

    In that task I have come across a most fascinating archeological mystery surrounding the poor health of the Qumran men (Biblical times; Essene Culture; Dead Sea Scrolls), which could have been due to their latrine behavior and a penchant for microorganisms to hang around in soil and water. Seems they had a rule of bathing in a closed pool after using the latrine. Though the article did not explain why women were not required to follow the same behavior.

    Of course, the same area could have been used by other peoples in later times! An on-going debate can be read on James D. Tabor’s blog, The Jesus Dynasty and the Tomb of Jesus controversy which is currently raging.

    Diabetics in any historical age could draw bees (and wasps, too) to their sweet-smelling urine. Granted, the highly technological waterworks of the Romans…but what about the cleanliness of those latrines? Was the cleanliness of men’s public latrines different than women’s? This suggests yet another investigation on the cleaning behavior of rich Roman citizens (yes, likely only the rich would have diabetes). Would bees have had the opportunity to crawl over the urine spattered marble?

    Take a look at the LacusCurtius (all one word) Ostia Antica Roman latrines. One would have to have very good aim, indeed! The men, that is. Notice the open drain sewer/water channel in front of the benches. Apparently, the Romans used a sponge tied to the end of a stick in lieu of toilet paper. Did they share?

    Sanitation engineering certainly helps in the quest.

    Direct evidence of diabetes? Can bones show evidence of the destruction that diabetes causes? Another line of investigation.

    Another hot lead is the writings of the doctors of that time, Galen and Dioscorides. Ah! Just a bit more sleuthing that may require a library visit.

  24. Lois Tiltonon 04 Mar 2007 at 3:04 pm

    At least in the latrines in the military barracks, it does seem that they shared the sponge.

    It was kept in a pot of water, to which I hope had been added some sort of disinfectant/deodorizers, like vinegar.

  25. Constance Ashon 04 Mar 2007 at 6:08 pm

    Search strings can come up with useful information, like this out of google:

    Straws in the Wind: Medieval Urban Environmental Law–The Case of Northern Italy – Page 63
    by Ronald Edward Zupko, Robert Anthony Laures – 1996 – 152 pages
    … during stormy periods.14 Medieval Water and Sewer Systems The dissolution of the
    … were located in low-lying areas near latrines and cesspools. …
    Limited preview – Table of Contents – About this book

    This provides the useful search string, “Medieval Urban Environmental Law.” Legal research opens so many doors ….

    Then the full-text capacity to search out-of-print books on google opens surprising doors. I’m still just in awe of this capacity from home, that wasn’t available on this level even a year ago!

    And now, almost everything in English that is out of print from the 19th century and earlier is full text on google. Which means all those most useful travel books, that contain so much essential information as to how things were with the actual people, that histories don’t include — though historians have now learned to consult them too, though the stricter historians still don’t consider them primary documents. Only texts generated by official figures and institutions are considered ‘primary’ by that sort.

    Just amazing. Just wonderful, what you can find online. Instead of driving to the U of VA you can read the book at home, online, on their library’s site.

    Love, C.

  26. kateelliotton 04 Mar 2007 at 6:48 pm

    Constance, I would love it if you would do a post on searching for out-of-print books on google. Or online searching in general. I’m sure I am still working online searches at a very primitive level.

  27. Madeleine Robinson 05 Mar 2007 at 1:33 am

    Constance: what Kate said. I turn up all sorts of stuff, but not of the level and variety that you seem to be able to find.

  28. Brendan Podgeron 05 Mar 2007 at 6:21 pm

    And of course if you know what the toilets are like you can have a bit action take place there. If it’s enclosed, a mysterious voice can whisper an urgent message(Dyanna Wynn Jones: The Crown of Dalemark); you can be followed out there and accosted(way to many to name). You could even get bold and have a minor character work in the industry. In Terry Pratchett’s “The Truth” one character has the nickname “King of the golden river”. I may never use it but I am glad that now I know what a “tosheroon” is thanks to Mr Pratchett.

  29. Nicole L.on 06 Mar 2007 at 10:13 pm

    Madeline, Kate, Constance: Thank you!

    Constance, I can’t wait to see your post on Google searching.

    A quick Google on “Google search terms” gives you helpful info. I knew you could get definitions using define: and use google as a calculator, but currency conversion?

    And here is the googleguide and tutorial on search operators

  30. Sengei Tawnon 07 Mar 2007 at 9:41 am

    Futurist city planning

    Flush with Progress
    The homeless population of Vancouver, British Columbia, has doubled in recent years. Now high populations of homeless persons and drug abusers have created an unsanitary problem for the city–streets, alleys, and parking lots around the downtown are habitually used as outdoor toilets. The city is now purchasing several new high-tech, self-cleaning bathroom booths–at up to $300,000 apiece–to be installed in critical areas, with an urban anthropologist to pinpoint major problem spots. The city is looking at a stainless steel model that cleans and dries every surface of its interior after each use.

    From the journal: Environmental Health Perspectives

  31. Nicole L.on 08 Mar 2007 at 12:12 am

    I just read today that another city in BC, Canada — can’t remember which — is still pumping its raw sewage into the straits it is located on. They’ve finally committed to joining the 21st Century in terms of sewage by June 2007. Eww!

    This was in the Utne Reader, Feb. 2007 issue. Back to homework. yuck.

  32. sfmartyon 13 Mar 2007 at 7:08 pm

    I didn’t read all of the comments and what I have to say is probably uninteresting, but here is what I have seen.

    In Athens, near the temple of the winds, is a row of stone holes that are obviously toilets. I did not inspect the disposal system as they were in pretty bad shape.

    In Teotitlan, there was a series of troughs leading to a stone with holes in it. Looked like a shower to me. At the bottom of this stone, which was well above my head, there was a trough to lead the water away. Bet they had toilets.

    In Crete, there was a toilet with troughs (in stone) to lead the waste away to pipes. The pipes went thru the city (small city) and thence to the hillside. I imagine whatever was in the pipe just went over the edge. Mind you, a lot of reconstruction went on there, but it looked pretty original to me.

    These sites were all near places of importance so maybe the “regular” people just had to make do.

  33. Fayeon 13 Oct 2007 at 8:18 pm

    Looking a bit more from the reader’s perspective — when I read a story I do want to hear about the latrines, or bathrooms, or privies, or bushes that characters use. It shows that the characters are real and need a bathroom like the rest of us. If a character goes through an entire book without even mentioning the type of bathroom, I probably won’t notice it while I’m reading. (When I read I just tend to go with the flow — it’s when I put the book down that I think about it.) So when I do think about the story and characters, it’ll lose a bit of reality for me — because where are the latrines, don’t those characters ever have to use them?

    I think Sherwood does this very nicely in one of the stories I read off her website. The main character visits another world and runs around with the characters there. Meanwhile, she has to use the bathroom — and it seems like those girls never do. She asks about bathrooms and it turns out there’s a waste spell so bathrooms aren’t needed. It never has to be mentioned again and I don’t wonder about the latrines.

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