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Research Spotlight

Privy Death

by Belle Tuten


When I was a graduate student, frantically reading a long primary source for a class on medieval European history, I ran across a peculiar, colorful story. A greedy monk died of stuffing himself, it seemed, while sitting on the privy. I wasn't sure how to take it: was it a joke or a moralistic tale? See what you think of it:

"It happened that one night... [the monk called] William, of wretched memory, sat on the seat in the privy of the dormitory, Matins forgotten, bowels stuffed, drunk on wine and engorged on food. Therefore, inclining his head, he began to fall asleep, and in in sleeping began loudly and offensively to snore. And thus gradually he began to slip from drunkenness into sleep, and from sleep into sudden death… . And when he had ceased to rumble loudly in his throat, this voice was clearly heard echoing in the privy, where he sat dying: “Take him, Satan, take him, Satan”; and this was clearly heard, by all those brothers who were then in the dormitory, who had remained behind from choir for some reason.  Thus the wretch foully passed his soul along with his excrement."


A bit later, I ran into another example of someone who had died this way, and then another. At the time I was deeply involved in my dissertation research, so I stuck all the examples into a folder in a drawer and only returned to them about a year ago, when I decided to make an effort to track down as many examples as I could and see if there were any threads that tied them together. Surprisingly, there are a number of connections between the cases, most of which contain references to one of two very famous deaths: the death of Judas Iscariot, from Acts chapter 1, and the death of the notorious fourth-century heretic Arius. What I've discovered is that such deaths are presented both as jokes and as moralistic tales, intended to caution readers about the dangers of greed; but there are many more aspects to the stories than I expected.

In the midst of the research I've been obliged to think about a number of strange (and even gross) things, from the language monastic writers used to talk about bodily function to the structure of medieval plumbing. Although I have a draft of a full-length article about the examples, I'm not quite ready to send off the article and see what happens. I keep running into new avenues to explore, which is what makes research so much fun!

Church of St-Sebastien de Plampinet (1510)