Deepest Middle Ages: The peculiar, yet true story of the royal fall into the loo

Ludwig Bechstein was a German writer, well known for his collection of tales in the German Saga Book. It was first published in 1853 and contains over 500 German folk tales, legends, and sagas that Bechstein collected from various sources. Many of them have a verifiable background.

Two of the most well-known tales in the collection are “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” and “The Lorelei”. Another one of his tales is however a specially peculiar one: The story of the royal meeting’s fall into the cesspool.

The ancient saga

Bechtstein writes the following:

Once upon a time there lived a count of Schwarzburg, called Heinrich the Seventh, who had an ugly saying in his mouth when he presumed upon something high, and said: “If I do that, I shall be drowned in the cesspool!”

And it happened that this count, a manly gentleman who attended many imperial congresses and tournaments, was with Emperor Henry VI at the imperial congress in Erfurt in 1184, where Landgrave Ludwig of Thuringia and Archbishop Konrad of Mainz also came, who had long quarreled with each other and devastated each other’s lands.

There, in the presence of the emperor and many noble princes, counts and lords, peace was to be made between these two in a hall of St. Peter’s Monastery, and because the floor of this hall was old and rotten, it suddenly collapsed under the weight of so many people. Below, however, there was a cesspit in which all the refuse from the secret chambers flowed together, into which Count Heinrich of Schwarzburg and Friedrich Count of Arnsberg fell and suffocated miserably. Gosmar Count of Hesse, Gottfried Count of Ziegenhain, Burgrave Friedrich of Kirchberg, Beringer of Meldingen and others also met their deaths.

The emperor and the bishop had been standing in conversation in a window alcove. They held tightly to the iron grating and were saved. The Thuringian landgrave shared the misfortune, but escaped without injury. Thus, the Schwarzburger’s oath was fulfilled in a very sad way.

The Historical Background

The historical event on which this legend is based has gone down in the history of the city under the name Erfurt Latrine Fall (Erfurter Latrinensturz). While it is debated, whether it was indeed a latrine that everyone fell into, and wether it was the St. Peter’s Monastery that was place of the event, everyone agrees that the accident took place.

In 1184, at the time of Emperor Barbarossa, the Archbishop of Mainz, Conrad I, and the Landgrave of Thuringia, Ludwig III, fought indeed over the economically and strategically important city of Erfurt, located in the middle of Germany. Frederick Barbarossa could not afford to upset either of the two contenders. Konrad of Mainz was his arch-chancellor and Ludwig his nephew.

The emperor therefore commissioned his son Henry VI to travel to Erfurt and settle the dispute with diplomatic skill. The 19-year-old Henry had already been appointed co-king at a young age, even if he was not yet an Emperor (a usual procedure at the time) and he was no longer politically inexperienced. When later he became Emperor, he kidnapped Richard Lionheart and became infamous for his cruelty having red-hot crowns nailed to the head of enemies. But that is another story…

At the time that we speak of here, he was young and promising, was on his way to Poland to wage war and stopped over in Erfurt, as asked by his father.

The place

The place where his court was held is disputed. Two possibilities come into question: the Petersberg or the Cathedral’s provostry of the Marienstift.

The Petersberg (Mount St. Peter) on the edge of Erfurt’s old town was originally a place of worship, refuge and is thought to also have housed a royal palace. In 1060, a canon’s monastery there was converted into the Benedictine monastery of St. Peter and Paul. Between 1103 and 1147, after a fire, the Romanesque St. Peter’s Church was rebuilt, the shining crown of the city next to the cathedral hill. The St. Peter’s monastery rose to become one of the most important in Thuringia. Emperor Frederick I Babarossa held there five imperial diets and Henry the Lion probably submitted to him in this place in 1181. Hence, it is likely that this would have been the place chosen by the young king.

St. Peter’s in Erfurt
The Provost of the Cathedral
Ancient Erfurt, Germany
Erfurt 1493, Hartmann Schedel (*1440 – †1514), left the cathedral and the provost, upper right hand, St. Peter’s Monastery

There is however also the possibility that the cathedral provostry of the Marienstift hosted the event. Its bad construction problems were notorious and it is written that the church broke into pieces already in 1153. Indeed, building weaknesses often caused collapses in medieval Germany. During the Middle Ages, constructions were typically made using materials such as wood, stone, and clay. These were sturdy, but prone to decay. There are records of several building collapses in the Erfurt during the Middle Ages, including also a collapse of the city wall in 1226 and the break-down of several buildings during a fire in 1312.

In both places archaeological research has brought many strucutral elements to light, yet no gigantic cesspools. However, as the Peter’s Monastery has been built over with a fortress, even deep lying foundations have in many instances been destroyed. Moreover, wider research would be needed.

The audience and the events

Who was presented at the unhappy latrine fall, is still quite known.

The question of whether the city should be ruled in future by ecclesiastical or secular hands was of enormous importance for the nobility and the high clergy of the wider area. Therefore, is is only logic that a large number of princes and bishops attended the event. Historical sources say that the room on the second floor of the concerned building was so full that the beams could not bear the load any longer.

So the accident was certainly a surprise, but a likely one. And apparently, it cost the live of 60 people.

Luckily, the archbishop and King Henry had been in the moment of the fall in one of the window-niches, which saved their lives. While the floor beams broke and most of the assembly fell to the floor below, they were able to cling on. Due to the force and impact of the people and the building material, the dilapidated beams of the first floor also broke and the participants of the assembly fell – according to legend – into the “secret chamber” below, the cloaca. Henry found himself in an unfortunate situation and had to be rescued with ladders. His audience, however, met a much more unhappy fate.

Many lost their lives by falling beams and stones. Some drowned and suffocated in the faeces. Landgrave Ludwig survived the incident and was saved, yet severaly shaken.

Heinrich left in shock immediately after being rescued from this striking situation, leaving the locals to take care of rescue and emergency help.

Interesting is not only the context and the accident, but also the place that is usually hardly mentioned in historiography: the “secret chamber”.

A gigantic loo?

Some doubt the legend’s account of the deadly cloaca, but huge privy pits were indeed the rule in the Middle Ages. Almost every household had such a place below or behind its property. Thus we find distance regulations in the Sachsenspiegel, the applicable law book. This served to avoid disputes about the odour nuisance.

Sometimes the space used was a trench behind the houses, sometimes a canal and sometimes a gigantic hole.

Today, such latter medieval cesspits provide researchers with information about the eating habits and hygiene standards of the time. A whole branch of archaeology has developped around this. Thus, it has been found, for example, that almost all people at the time suffered from intestinal parasites because of these latrines. The worm eggs in the faeces got into the groundwater and from there into the wells. Cleaning the pits was time-consuming and expensive, as it could only be done in winter and at night. That is why people waited as long as possible to call the disposal contractors of the Middle Ages. In some towns, the executioner was responsible for this task. Sometimes also water was deviated and led through the city to take care of the problem. Old account books show howeever that some facilities were not emptied for decades.

While the famous Erfurt latrine has not been preserved, it is thus likely that it indeed existed.

King Heinrich, who was lucky at the time of the accident, died later not yet 32 years old, in Messina in 1197 – after fever and severe diarrhea. No wonder, given the hygiene problems of the time, one might say.

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