Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The Erfurt Latrine Disaster

In central Germany is the town of Erfurt, the capital of the state of Thuringia. Its first mention is in 742 CE when St. Boniface wrote to Pope Zachary to inform him that Boniface had created three dioceses, one of them "in a place called Erphesfurt." The area had been inhabited at least since neolithic times, according to archaeological evidence.

In 1184, King Henry VI of Germany held an informal assembly in the Petersberg Citadel. Petersberg is one of the largest and best-preserved fortresses in Germany. This particular citadel included St. Peter's Church (colored green in the illustration), which had been rebuilt between 1103 and 1147 after a fire burned it down in 1080.

During the rebuilding, they updated the plumbing for dealing with toilets. Rather than divert human waste to the streets or a river (the River Gera was on the outskirts, not near the citadel), they dug a sufficiently large cesspit below the foundation, suitable for holding all the waste necessary.

Nobles across all of Thuringia were invited to the meeting with Henry, held on the second floor of the deanery on 26 July. Just as the meeting began, the wooden floor collapsed from the weight, plummeting the participants not only to the ground floor but through it into the cesspit beneath. King Henry at the end of the room sat in an alcove with a stone support, so was safe. (Some reports say he clung to the iron railing of a window until he could be rescued.)

The cesspit was deep and full. Ladders were brought to help people out; however, at least 60 German nobles drowned in urine and excrement, although there are estimates that say it was closer to 100 participants. German sources refer to this as the Erfurter Latrinensturz ("Erfurt latrine fall" but usually called the "Erfurt latrine disaster").

From poop to politics: what was the reason Henry gathered them all together? It was a dispute between secular and religious authorities, which I'll explain tomorrow.

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