A 13th c. Jewish Bathroom
A few days ago David Assaf of Tel Aviv University reported (Hebrew) on his blog, Oneg Shabbat, about a most interesting archaeological find in the German city of Köln/Cologne. Köln was know to have an established Jewish community in the Middle Ages, and while digging in the Jewish Quarter, archaeologists discovered among other things a mikveh and a a doorpost with the following Hebrew inscription: זה החלון להוציא צואה דרך שם (This is the window through which one should take out excrement).
Below is the doorpost after it was cleaned and the original condition and location in which it was found. The photo is from David Assaf’s website.
David Assaf brings the following description from Elizabeth Hollander, who is researching this find:
The context is: The owner of the house east of the courtyard of the synagogue, built around 1266, had the cesspit for his house dug not on his property but in the courtyard of the synagogue. Medieval cesspits were usually pretty large and opened only every 10-20 years to extract the excrements and any garbage thrown into the cesspit.
Usually they were opened from the top. In this case, the community had not been able to stop the (rather rich) owner of the cesspit to build it in the courtyard of the synagogue (not only reshut harabbim but also a place where one would expect special purity, since we are talking medieval Ashkenaz), but apparently they were able to prevent him from emptying his cesspit from the top, i.e. through the courtyard. So he had to have this ‘window’ built in the basement of his house, with a (usually sealed) opening to the cesspit through which the excrements could be taken out.
This is basically the information included in the German text on the page. It is part of the official website of the Cologne excavations. (They have some other exciting finds …) I’m actually planning a scholarly publication of this inscription, discussing the situation of the community that could not prevent someone from trespassing on the common property, but seem to have been able to prevent him from trespassing even further. In addition to being highly entertaining, this inscription is also a beautiful example to the fact that Hebrew was a living language in 13th century Ashkenaz.
After bringing a few Talmudic sources about the disposal of excrement, Assaf brings the following from Hollander.
The cesspit does concur to Rashi’s description: it is a deep pit that is far from the actual bet kisse: the room from where excrements and garbage were disposed into the cesspit (what you would call sherutim in Modern Hebrew) was probably on the ground floor of the building. A type of wide tube, build from stone, let from the sherutim to the cesspit. The remnants of it can still be seen. That room is not the one where the inscription was placed. The inscription is in the basement and its function is only to indicate where the wall can be broken in order to reach the cesspit when it needs to be emptied (and the waste dropped into the river or somewhere else far away from human habitation). From inside the cesspit one can see a kind of “patch” near the top, fitting the “window” with the inscription, where the wall was broken in order to reach the contents of the cesspit and rebuild afterwards. That probably happened every 10-20 years, maybe even less frequent. The owner of the house would pay for the services of people whose job it was to empty cesspits, but they would be used to opening the cesspit from the top, which was impossible in this case since the top was in/under the courtyard on the south-east side of the Synagogue. Thus “lehotsi” in this case really means “to take out”, but out of the cesspit, not out of the house. The question remains, why the (comparatively rich) owner of the house decided to write in stone that this is where one opens the cesspit to take out the waste, and did not find a less expensive option. Also, the people who eventually did empty the cesspit were not Jews; the inscription in all its glory didn’t help them. I don’t have ready answers to these questions. Who would think that modern scholars of medieval Jewish culture have to think about the architecture of medieval cesspits one day
Another interesting aspect of this archaeological news is that this morning Haaretz has a report about this find that is based upon David Assaf’s blog post. It includes a link to his blog post and is entirely sourced from there. A nice example of the fruitful interaction between more established media outlets and newer mediums.
Assaf also notes the irony that the name of the city, Cologne, is the source of the name for the pleasant cologne water/cologne.