12thC-Hole-art - 8/22/04
"A 12th Century Hole; A Speculative Reconstruction" by Ld. Daniel Raoul Le Vascon du Navarre' (mka) Daniel C. Phelps.
A reconstruction of the hole in a period toilet seat.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set
of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at:
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be
reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first
or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
This article was originally published in 1999 in the Trimarian A/S publication "The Triskel".
A 12th Century Hole; A Speculative Reconstruction
Ld. Daniel Raoul Le Vascon du Navarre'
While the history of man is replete with holes used for various purposes, some confusion has been attached to the term. For the purpose of this project, I will be using The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) definition number 7 for the word hole when used as a noun. The applicable OED definition is as follows:
n(noun): An aperture passing through anything; a perforation, opening
It takes but little thought to see that we can classify holes into two categories: natural and anthropogenic. While the study of the influence of natural holes on the history of man in the 12th century could be quite interesting; caves, sinkholes, calderas, and meteoric craters all have their special appeal, as they are, by their very nature, natural and thus lack human input into their creation, I humbly submit that they quite properly fall outside of our general area of interest. Anthropogenic holes conversely are an entirely different kettle of fish. Anthropogenic holes of the 12th century can be divided into the two sub-categories of those holes whose sole function is either to contain some object however briefly, and those intended to remain a void. Much has been made of holes which contained objects; archaeologists have hypothesized at length upon patterns of holes which may have contained the posts of ancient edifices and thus have resurrected, if only in their imaginations, towering wooden structures which have long since turned to dust. As the scale of such recreations does not lend itself to our arts and sciences competitions I will pass them over, important though they may be, and thus leave their recreation to those more ambitious than I. This brings us to holes which, for a myriad of purposes, were designed to remain a void. These artifacts of 12th century man can be further subdivided into partially and fully penetrating holes. While the reconstruction of partially penetrating holes, as for decorative purposes, can be quite informative I will leave that to another time. It is my purpose to document the reconstruction of a historically accurate fully penetrating 12th century hole. The hole which I have chosen to reconstruct was originally constructed in a wooden plank at the 12th century medieval City of York located in the present day United Kingdom of Great Britain. I, by primary documentation, will show that this specific hole was intended by its creator to be non-ornamental and fully functional. I will attempt to become one with its 12th century creator and thus go through some of the very same thought processes which would have motivated that hole's design and creation.
Page 127 of Mr. Hall's book "The Viking Dig", see Appendix I, shows a picture of a plank perforated in its middle by a single large slightly elliptical hole which the author has successfully dated to the 12th century. As the plank was found in what was identified by its contents to be a 12th century cess pit and the hole the plank contains was of the proper dimensions his analysis of the artifact and its surroundings strongly suggested to him its function. Mr. Hall states that the eggs of gut worms with which the whole population of York was infested were found in huge numbers, mainly in cess-pits, (italics added) during the dig. Additional evidence regarding the excretory nature of the materials within the specific pit in question further confirmed its purpose. The author thus identified the plank to be a privy seat which had apparently been originally placed over the cess pit in which it was found and then, due to misadventure, lost into its stygian and presumably odoriferously pungent depths. The hole in the plank would thus be, by extension, the hole over which persons of either sex sat and expelled bodily waste through the plank into the cess pit below. David MaCaulay in his book "Castle" reconstructs this use of such fully penetrating holes on pages 42 and 43 of that text. His illustrations, regarding a hypothetical late 13th century castle's domestic waste disposal system, see appendix II; depict cess pits, privy seats and privy seat holes in their proper relationship within several garderobes. While the period Mr. MaCaulay researched for his speculative reconstruction post dates, by approximately 100 years, the privy seat hole at York and his castle's hypothetical privy was in Wales, it is my conjecture that fashion in privy seat hole design and the science of domestic waste engineering itself probably had not altered appreciably either in the intervening century or across the distance. To borrow a phase, it is a matter of a rose by any other name still having its scent. Form in such mundane matters can indeed be expected to follow function and thus I submit that Mr. MaCaulay's research should be valid for my recreation as well.
The 12th century privy seat hole in question and its attendant plank, together with several like artifacts found in similar circumstances during the excavation at York are unique in their preservation. To my knowledge all other extant contemporaneous privy seat holes and the many examples which come to us from the earlier periods, to include some quite excellent examples of dished Roman keyhole shaped privy seat holes and the Welsh example provided by Master Evan as shown in appendix III, were made through stone. The reason for this pattern of selective preservation is obvious: wood rots while stone does not.
The picture in Mr. Hall's book shows a 20 cm. scale bar. Using that bar as a reference the hole can be shown to be slightly elliptical. The long axis of the ellipse is oriented parallel to the grain of the wood and is approximately 24 cm. (9.4") long while the short axis is at right angles to the grain and approximately 22 cm. (8.7") long. The plank itself is approximately 1 meter (39.4") in length and approximately 34 cm. (13.4") wide with the hole centered on both its width and length. The hole appears to taper inward on the surface shown, presumably so as to not present a sharp edge to nether parts. The hole's dimensions and the apparent thickness of the board are in keeping with the norms of human physiology as they pertain to the hole's presumed intended use. To state the case simply, the hole is not so large that the average adult human rump of the 12th century would slide through it nor so small that proper positioning to facilitate its intended function would be a problem. It is presumed that the plank was supported on either end and thus formed a bench. To utilize the privy a person would have sat over the hole perpendicular to the length of the plank. While no measurement of the plank's thickness was provided by Hall, it is intuitively obvious that the plank would not have been so thin that it would break or even deflect significantly under the weight of the average adult of the 12th century. The grain of the wood runs parallel to the length of the plank and the surface in view is relatively smooth. Signs of wear on the plank in the vicinity of the hole are perpendicular to the grain. The patterns of wear noted and the apparent orientation of the grain to both minimize painful and embarrassing splinters and to maximize its strength against a load placed over the hole in its center are thus in keeping with the plank's and thus the hole's presumed original orientation and purpose. The orientation of the long axis of the hole's ellipse would also lend support to this hypothesis in that the long axis of the pelvi of persons utilizing the hole for its presumed purpose would be parallel to the long axis of the hole's ellipse. While this runs counter to modern toilet seat hole design it is conjectured that as the use of toilet paper, also know as bog rolls in certain circles in the modern British Isles, apparently post dates the 12th century at York; easy access to one's neither regions while seated over the York hole was apparently not deemed essential. Experiential experimentation in the use of my recreated hole suggests that, with regard to the functional purpose of the York hole's shape, a slight but significant separating effect upon one's nether cheeks was noted by some persons utilizing my recreation. This phenomenon is presumed to be resultant from both the hole's broadest axis and its distinct conical taper ergonometrically interacting with one of the more fundamental features of human physiology.
No determination was provided by Hall regarding the plank's wood or how the plank or the hole through it were constructed. It is my conjecture that the original plank was probably produced in the following fashion. Its original source tree was felled, delimbed and either pit sawn or split with mallets and wedges into rough planks. Straight parallel scorings on face of one end of the plank, which appear to be almost perpendicular to the grain of the wood, strongly support the pit sawn hypothesis as Mr. Sloan in his book "Reverence for Wood" (see appendix IV) states that such markings are generally considered diagnostic of pit sawn lumber. Please note that Mr. Sloan's book dealt only with examples from the eastern seaboard of the United States and that the earliest examples he examined date from the 16th century. Mr. Daniel Diehl in his book "Medieval Furniture" suggests that, "...the woods most commonly used for construction of furniture were oak and pine." Sloan additionally suggests that when you see crisp saw marks in old wood, "...you can be pretty sure the wood is oak." I, in my research, can do no better than to suggest that if I were sitting, communing with nature, on a wooden privy seat of uncertain thickness over an open cess pit, I would want that seat to be made of sturdy oak.
The plank was then cut to length and perhaps planed with either a shave or draw knife and then smoothed with a scraper. Mr. Diehl in the "Finishes" section of the above referenced book states that a "...finished piece (of furniture) was made smooth by scraping the surface with the edge of a flat piece of metal and was immediately put into service...".
The hole itself was most probably formed utilizing one or more of the following tools and techniques: It was either chopped out with an adze as in the manner of making large tubs from logs, chiseled out with concave bladed chisels, or gouged out with a scorp as in the manner of the construction of some wooden bowls. Of the three the latter is thought the most likely considering the size of the hole. Alternatively, an ellipse of holes could have been drilled or reamed in the plank, and the final hole completed with chisels or even a small saw. In any case, the edge of the hole would have been rounded with shaves or rasps and smoothed with scrapers.
As I lack either access to a forest in which I can fell a tree or a pit with its attendant saw, and even short planks of seasoned oak of an appropriate thickness are quite expensive, I attempted to purchase a pine plank of the appropriate dimensions from a local lumber yard. I quickly discovered that the widest board available was 12 inches (30.5 cm.), a width narrower than the original plank. I then purchased an eight foot long 2" (5 cm.) by 12" (30.5 cm.) plank and sawed the plank so that I had two 3 foot (91.4 cm.) long planks plus a 2 foot (60.9 cm.) piece of scrap. I then resolved to edge join the two 3 foot (91.4 cm.) planks together with four dowels. I drilled the planks, inserted the dowels and glued the two planks together. I clamped the glue joint by twisting two sets of ropes "tourniquet" fashion at either end of the composite plank.
Lacking an adze or scorp I created the hole via a simplification of the last construction method described above. I laid out an ellipse of the proper dimensions on the board using string and free hand drawing. I then drilled a single hole in the area of the hole to be created, inserted the saw and cut a conical section out of the plank tapering the hole inward. After creating the hole, I finished it and the plank by sanding. While Mr. Diehl specifically warns that, "If you want your piece to have a truly period look, do not finish the surface with sandpaper"; I decided that any splinters received by a judge's nether regions during operational testing of the hole would both result in a lower score and annoy the attending chirurgeon. To further reduce that possibility and to give the plank a more "period" look, I treated the plank with a combination stain and sealer. I also decided to leave the seat's width at 24" ( 60.9 cm.) rather then cut it down to the approximately 13.4" (34 cm.) width of the original. I kept this broader width to instill confidence in the judges regarding the sturdiness of the plank prior to their test usage of the hole.
Concerned with achieving the proper "ambiance" or "finish" for my hole I initially considered various possible methods for the plank's immersion in human waste. Not currently knowing anyone with a functioning outdoor privy, my first best option was immediately eliminated. I considered the possibility of contacting various waste water treatment plants and getting permission to immerse the plank for a period of time at the head works of such a plant, but that proved impractical as well. Obviously I could bury the plank in horse manure at a stable, but from personal experience I know that the odor of decaying horse manure is distinctly different from that of decomposing human waste. Ultimately I came to the happy realization that; as the hole's plank was, in truth, not intended by its creator to be immersed in a cess pit but only to allow discreet access to it from above and as my recreation of it should reflect its intended use; the hole's plank need not reek offensively.
Regarding the category under which my reconstruction should be entered; I decided, after much thought and consultation with local members, that it should be entered under the category of "domestics" rather that "wood working". I reasoned that it is the hole and it functionality I wished judged, rather than any wood working skills exhibited in the plank containing it. By way of an artistic analogue, I see it as a matter of judging the painting rather than the frame.
As a final note, after careful scrutiny of Mr. Hall's photograph of the plank, no evidence could be discerned to suggest that the hole as originally constructed was intended to be anything but an open void. Thus, as Hall presents no evidence for the existence of lids associated with privy seat holes in 12th century York, although in truth their presence cannot be conclusively ruled out; their existence appears, at least in this occurrence, to post date the artifact I have chosen to recreate. This in turn would suggest, at least insofar as this example from York is concerned, that the beginnings of the currently raging domestic debate regarding leaving the lid up or down also post dates the 12th century.
Regarding future projects in the same vein: I have in the course of my research recently encountered a reference to medieval Chinese toilet paper. Dyed yellow and scented, it was intended exclusively for the use of the Imperial family. I am currently considering its recreation for presentation to visiting royalty. My recreation would be saffron dyed, and rose scented.
In conclusion, it has always been my conjecture that we come the closest to recreating the past when we engage, period fashion, in the little acts of life. Be it spinning yarn with a drop spindle, weaving cloth on a loom, or answering the call; it is in those moments which in truth involve the senses indeed one's whole being most completely that we truly become one with the past.
Diehl, Daniel, 1997 "Constructing Medieval Furniture" Stackpole Books, 5067 Ritter Road, Mechanicsburg, PA 17055
Hall, R., 1984, "The Excavation at York, The Viking Dig" The Bodley Head Ltd., 9 Bow Street, London
gutworms pps. 96 and 97
cesspit p. 127
MaCaulay, David, 1977, "Castle" Houghton Mifflin Co. 2 Park St., Boston, MA 02108
Garderobes pp. 42 and 43.
Sloan, E., 1990 "A Reverence for Wood" Henry Holt and Co., Inc. 115 West 18th Street, New York, New York 10011
Sawmarks pps. 24 and 26
Copyright 1999 by Daniel C. Phelps, 3359B Trafalgar Square, Tallahassee, Florida 32301. email: <phelpsd at gate.net>. Permission is granted for republication in
SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in
the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also
appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being
reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.