Privies, Pollution, and the Plague

Here is a crusty medieval toilet.

By Houston Dillingham
March 26, 2017

Did you know that people in Middle Ages weren’t as dirty as you thought? Despite the fact that people of the time did some dirty stuff, they did their best to try to be clean. But, there was no plumbing, sanitation, or medical knowledge during the Medieval Period. Although even commoners had access to toilets, waste disposal wasn’t held in high regard. Water was often used for hygiene, but getting it could be an arduous task, so other practices were employed, too. These unsanitary conditions, as well as general poor health, contributed to the spread of the Black Death.

If you were in a castle and had to go to the bathroom, you might have to journey far away, down an extensive hallway, till you found a “garderobe,” which is French for “clothes closet.” People of the time thought that fetid odors repelled moths, so they often hung their garments within the garderobe. Upon entering, you would sit on a raised platform made of smooth wood or clammy stone. Below you was a hole through which your excrement would fall and drain into the moat. Cleaning yourself would entail using “torche-cols,” a handful of straw, or a “gomphus,” a curved wooden stick. Medieval commoners had outdoor privies, whose walls were lined with “wattle-and-daub,” a mix of dung and clay. The waste would drop into a cesspit lined with stone, although the urine would simply seep into the ground. Unfortunate people with the reeking job of “gong farmers” would clean out the solid debris at night causing a rancid smell. However, city dwellers would just empty their chamber pots out windows. “Gardez l’eau!” which means, “Look out, water!” was commonly heard when walking through the noxious streets of Paris.

Obviously, the people of the Middle Ages didn’t have plumbing, but they tried to stay clean as best as possible. Nobility bathed in soothing warm water brought to them by servants and put in a wooden barrel, while commoners had to gather their own water, which was a major chore. Another perturbing thing was the water was always cold and the whole family used the same water. How repugnant! Despite the taxing effort. Regardless of the toil. Most people bathed weekly. In the summer, folks washed in bodies of water and some villages even had public bathhouses. Ladies and lords also regularly clean their hands. If you visited a medieval castle, you’d hear a trumpet blare and a servant yell, “corner l’aiue,” which meant “blow the water.” Before a meal, guests then washed their hands in “lavers” found at the entrance of the royal dinning hall. There, you’d find a stone basin, water, and fragrant soap from the Far East. During the feast, however, people didn’t drink water because it was too polluted. Instead, nobles consumed wine abundantly, and everyone chugged massive quantities of ale.perturbing thing was the water was always cold and the whole family used the same water. How repugnant! Despite the taxing effort. Regardless of the toil. Most people bathed weekly. In the summer, folks washed in bodies of water and some villages even had public bathhouses. Ladies and lords also regularly clean their hands. If you visited a medieval castle, you’d hear a trumpet blare and a servant yell, “corner l’aiue,” which meant “blow the water.” Before a meal, guests then washed their hands in “lavers” found at the entrance of the royal dinning hall. There, you’d find a stone basin, water, and fragrant soap from the Far East. During the feast, however, people didn’t drink water because it was too polluted. Instead, nobles consumed wine abundantly, and everyone chugged massive quantities of ale.

Because people of the Middle Ages drank too much alcohol and not enough water, they had a weak immune system. This, coupled with their lacking personal hygiene, unsanitary living conditions, and limited medical knowledge, sickness abounded. Despite people’s best efforts, a myriad of diseases, such as typhoid, dysentery, smallpox, and influenza, ravaged the medieval population. Of course, the Black Death proved most fatal, killing one out of every three Europeans. In fact, this plague, which lasted from 1347-1350, tragically ended the lives of 800 people a day in France alone! It was like a nasty barbarian army of death! The life expectancy was a stunning thirty years old. People began to perceive that there was a relationship between everything – from using the bathroom, dealing with waste management, having proper hygiene, to drinking clean water – preventing maladies. They had a lightbulb moment!

Both the medieval poor and the nobility definitely appreciated their garderobes, yet they didn’t fully understand the substantial significance of sanitation. Because life was so hard back then, people got creative with their water usage and hygiene practices. Due to the fact they lacked knowledge in these areas, it’s no wonder the Black Death was extremely fatal for Europe. Most significantly, plague survivors discovered their was a link between illness and disease and their personal and environmental health standards. They began to realize that cleanliness is next to godliness. Nevertheless, people of the Middle Ages had to endure suffering, stink, and sickness to a degree that is unimaginable. It was a horribly foul time.

Thermopylae and the Three Hundred

This is the Battle of Thermopylae

By Houston
October 29, 2018

Did you know that one of the most famous wars in Greek history was the Second Persian War? It all started when the ruthless Persian king Xerxes was resolved to finish the work of his father Darius, who had unsuccessfully tried to conquer Greece in the First Persian War. Xerxes and a colossal force of resolute troops set out for the Greek city-state of Athens. It is difficult to validate, but some historians claim that the army was roughly two million men. Because the Greeks heard the Persians were coming, all the city-states united so they could fend them off. The city-state of Sparta sent 300 men to partake in the war. The Spartans were bold warriors with sure, sharp, and shiny swords. They fought with thousands of other Greek soldiers to block the passageway to Athens called Thermopylae. The courageous Greeks held the Persians off for three bloody, death-ridden days, which gave the people of Athens time to flee. Eventually, they were beaten because a traitor told the Persians of a secret mountain path. Even though there was nobody inside the city, the enemy still burnt Athens to the ground. But that wasn’t the end. A brilliant Greek leader lured the lilting Persian ships into a trap. He pretended to be a traitor and gave Xerxes fatal advice. The cunning Greek navy totally demolished the attacking ships, so the Greeks emerged victorious. “You haven’t seen the last of me!” bellowed the irate Xerxes. Although they lost Thermopylae and the mighty brave 300 Spartans, Greece was triumphant during the historic Second Persian War.

The Gallant “Golden-Mouth”

By Houston Dillingham
April 8, 2019

“It is necessary to make a man better, not by force, but by persuasion,” St. John Chrysostom stated, explaining to Christians that deft evangelism is vital to spread the Gospel. Many Christians today may have never heard of this 4th-century theologian, although he was well-known in his day. One of the reasons for his fame was his rhetorical battle with the Arians, who denied the divinity of Christ and the existence of the Trinity. For instance, the Arian general Gainus was returning from war and asked Emperor Theodosius to have one of the churches set apart for Arian worship. Being that John was the Patriarch of Constantinople at this time, Theodosius conferred with him about Gainus’ plans, but John clearly denied the command. He exalted the cross. He warred against heresy. He was a resolute champion for Christ.

John Chrysostom used elocution to defend the true doctrine. John was born in the year 347 A.D. in Antioch, which is modern-day Turkey. His mother was Anthusa and his father Secundus, who was a high-ranking officer in the army, but sadly passed away when John was just an infant. Anthusa, a devout Christian, taught young John about the Scriptures. She thoughtfully found the best teachers for him, including Libanius. This sage pagan taught John his the amazing skills of dauntless discourse and debate. When John graduated from this prestigious instructor, he decided to devote himself to the practice of law, but once he realized the wickedness within, the talented scholar wished to become a hermit. Pleading to her son, Anthusa begged John not to depart from her until the time of her death. John agreed. So while his mother still lived, he became a church reader. When Anthusa died, he cloistered himself in order to study the Bible without emotion. He also greatly helped the poor, not just with money, but with spiritual guidance. Consequently, in 381 John became a deacon. In 386 he was promoted to the priesthood. In 397 he was elected Bishop of Antioch. Finally, John became Patriarch of Constantinople the following year. His rhetorical training fashioned John into the masterful preacher he was to become.

John Chrysostom was a natural leader, which came at immense risk because of the danger of his age. Chrysostom is Greek for “Golden-mouthed” — a nickname that was extremely explicit. Through his eloquent homilies, John converted many pagans to Christ. John also used polemics to decimate the opposing argument by aggressively debunking their cause, such as speaking against the unjust abuse by church authority. When John challenged the crooked wealthy and corrupt clergy, they called him a blasphemer. In 403, the sinister Empress Eudoxia, who was an Arian, banished him due to his purposeful sermons. Fearlessly, he accepted his punishment without complaint. The people rioted. John returned. He continued preaching. In the year 404, Eudoxia fashioned a monument of herself right outside a church in Constantinople. John irately compared the empress to Herodias, the wife of King Herod, who had John the Baptist put to death. Therefore, she banished him yet again. Eudoxia was ruthlessly intentional that John’s exile was as painful as possible. On his way to Georgia, John requested to stop at a monastery, and the soldiers who’d been sent to make sure the aged priest kept moving, agreed. When John entered, he fell down before the altar and exclaimed these words with his final breath, “Glory be to God for all things, forever and ever! Amen.” Through his God-given skills, it was providential that John was such a principled servant of Christ and died a martyr’s death in those treacherous and tumultuous times.

John Chrysostom is an influence for all Christians. In one way, he was an ascetic and lived a simple life, and in another way, he suffered patiently. John, who is a saint in the Orthodox Church, is also one of the three Holy Hierarchs, along with St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory the Theologian. He is a also saint in the Catholic Church, revered by the Church of England, and was one of the favorite theologians of John Calvin. Revising the normally sung Divine Liturgy at Orthodox Churches, John also authored the Paschal Homilies, which are the sermons recited at Easter. Because of this legacy, there are hymns sung to St. John, both Troparians and Kontakians. Surprisingly, he created the second most surviving early Church writings, while Augustine of Hippo has the most. “The presence of a small Christian community in hostile Islamic Iran is due in part to John’s labors,” remarked one historian. Where would the Church be without John Chrysostom?

John was truly a champion of the faith, which was under attack. Adroitly, he protected Christ’s people. By using his knowledge and words, John led Christians like a shepherd tending to his flock. He’s an astounding example for how Christians should act, especially when times are difficult. Although John did not worry about earthly wealth, he cared for the riches of heaven.  Using his heart and his mind, St. John Chrysostom’s mouth spoke gold for the Lord.