Okay kids. Following up on yesterday’s post, which has garnered a lot of feedback (thanks!), we’re following up with a post about crapping at Versailles. Like, literally. Because, see, there’s been some follow-up discussion on Twitter and elsewhere about people carrying leather umbrellas to protect them from the (literal) shit storm flying out of the windows at Versailles. And, when I went to Versailles a few years back, I was horrified to overhear this conversation:
Tourist: So, where did they go to the bathroom?
Tour Guide: Oh, they just went out in the garden.
Yes, because when Marie-Antoinette had diarrhea at 3am, she wandered out into the garden and perched on a rhododendron*. Sorry, folks. MY NERVES. YOU ARE ALL FORGETTING ABOUT MY NERVES.
Ahem. Anyway. So I decided to look more into this specific topic, and post some information about it. Some reputable information. With sources n’ shit (get what I did there?).
Rose George’s The Big Necessity tells us that there are 18th century accounts of “grand aristocrats regularly soiling the corridors at Versailles and the Palais Royal.” She offers one quote by Turneau de la Morandiere, who calls Versailles “the receptacle of all humanity’s horrors — the passageways, corridors, and courtyards are filled with urine and fecal matter” (1). Similarly, Alain Corbin provides a longer quote from the same source, which reads, “The unpleasant odors in the park, gardens, even the chateau, make one’s gorge rise. The communicating passages, courtyards, buildings in the wings, corridors, are full of urine and feces…” (2).
However, more detailed examinations of the topic can provide us with a much clearer picture:
Anthony Spaworth’s Versailles: A Biography of a Palace informs us, “In the eighteenth century there were public latrines placed in the corridors and stairwells of the palace [of Versailles], the Grand Commons, and the other annexes: these latrines consisted of a room with a wooden seat, or lunette, closed by a cover in a vain attempt to shut in the odors, and connected by a waste pipe to a cesspit. Some were kept locked and the key distributed to nearby residents” (3). So, here you go: latrines. Waste pipes. Cesspits. Stinky latrines, while I’m sure no picnic, are not the same as feces in the hall. The author does go on to say, “If people found the latrines closed, they would relieve themselves in the public corridor, as happened in 1741 after a privy in the attics of the north wing was converted into a lodging” (okay, I don’t want that apartment) (4). However, this sounds much more like 1) urine, not feces, and 2) something unusual enough to be remarked.
Since some of the discussion seems to be of the “Ew, oldey timey people were gross!” variety, it’s worth noting that there were multiple complaints about stinky latrines. Madame Adelaide (Louis XV’s daughter) demanded new rooms for a lady-in-waiting who was lodged “far too near the privy” (5). The Comte de Compans complained about passersby and kitchen boys who urinated in an inner courtyard (note: outside!).
Joan DeJean’s The Age of Comfort discusses sanitation at Versailles and in France more generally. She writes that for centuries, “The basic installation and the only one available to the less privileged was the latrine (a wooden shelf with a circular cutout placed over a shaft in the wall or directly over some form of cesspool or pit)” (6). The well-to-do, including kings and aristocracy had a closestool, a chair with a removable chamber pot, which they felt comfortable using in the limited public view of servants and attendants. Spaworth writes, “… noble lodgers generally possessed at least their own closestool, a chair with an upholstered seat and a receptacle that could be emptied and cleaned. They were still in use at Versailles in the 1780s, no doubt widely, since they crop up in the possessions of people as different in standing as a lady-in-waiting of the comtesse d’Artois and a captain in the french Guards” (7).
Flush toilets date from the very early 18th century, and in 1738 one was installed in Louis XV’s dressing room. Madame de Pompadour, the king’s official mistress, created a scandal when she awarded a large pension to the furniture designer who created her flush toilet at Versailles (8). Marie-Antoinette had one.
And what of the umbrellas protecting people from raining shit (insert video of Weather Girls cover, “It’s Raining Shit! Hallelujah?”)? Thus far, the only “source” I can find for this is a book from 1907, which states (without evidence), “And the palace of Versailles… knew that the high ‘chair’ in which the great king presided over his ‘morning affaires’; [was] still a rare specimen in being reserved for the greatest; for the others, the windows were more convenient than favorable to the cleanliness of the court so that one traversed them sheltered under large leather umbrellas” (9). That being said, Spaworth writes, “At Versailles chamber pots were common as well, if not universal, and in the eighteenth century, despite attempts to stop the practice, servants on the upper stories frequently emptied them into the interior courts below. The dauphine Marie-Antoinette was once hit as she crossed the king’s inner courtyards beneath the numerous windows of the king’s mistress, Madame du Barry. Since she and the mistress were scarcely on speaking terms, an indignant Marie-Antoinette suspected foul play and complained to Louis XV— pointlessly, for obvious reasons” (10).
* Probably not a historically accurate plant. See, I don’t purport to know about stuff I don’t know about!
1. Rose George. The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters. Macmillan, 2009. Pg. 23.
2. Alain Corbin. The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination. Harvard University Press, 1986. Pg. 27.
3. Anthony Spawforth. Versailles: A Biography of a Palace. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008. Kindle edition, so no page numbers.
6. Joan DeJean. The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual–and the Modern Home Began. Bloomsbury, 2009. Pg. 81.
7. Spaworth, Versailles.
8. DeJean, Age of Comfort, pg. 87.
9. Gaston Gros. L’impôt sur le Revenu: Essai d’Economie Financière. L. Larose & L. Tenin, 1907. Pg. 22. Of course, it was typical of this era to not cite specific sources, but that makes them very suspect to me. And, note that this is an “essay on financial economy,” not a history.
10. Spaworth, Versailles.