In our modern world, there is a side to human nature which we sanitise, we perfume, we try to disguise with fluffy towels and nice thoughts. The toilet – a room that has become a hymn to white porcelain, bleaches and anything necessary to conceal the horror of bodily functions.
However, until fairly recently, going to the loo – specifically pissing, wasn’t seen as something slightly embarrassing, but a vital support for the pre-chemical world.
The ancient Romans would collect urine from communal toilets and sell it to cloth merchants and cleaners. Medieval Brits would collect it and supply it to weavers and saltpetre manufacturers.
Urine was important, and valuable.
It can be used to fix vegetable dyes, so that the colour stops developing at a set point. When fermented for a while, urine makes for an excellent floor cleaner. Urine was the Flash of its day.
Lanted Ale would be flavoured with stale urine – something for a microbrewer to try again?
Wattle and daub can be stabilised with urine. Animal hides would be soaked in urine to weaken the hairs on the skin prior to being scraped off.
Not to forget that Hennig Brand discovered phosphorus while trying to extract gold from urine.
However, what made me write this down?
I am currently drinking an awful lot of water due to a persistent cough – and that amount of fluid going in at one end of necessity dilutes the waste coming out of the other end.
A thought struck me, just as water consumption affects urine potency, so does our food and drink. Anyone who eats asparagus will know the dubious after effect that can cause.
But, our modern diets are very different to the medieval diet. We (usually) eat far more vegetables than our medieval cousins, who would have existed largely on fish, meats, breads and fruits. Due to their manual lifestyle, the average person also consumed vastly more than we do today. Well, more than most of us that is.
So the question going through my mind is – what is the comparative impact of diet on medieval urine compared to modern day urine?
Would fermented urine today be as good at cleaning floors as its medieval variant? If someone wanted to produce modern Lanted Ale, would they need to lock a human away and force feed a medieval diet or can they pop down to the local public loos and use that?
There’s a scientific study in this question just waiting to be carried out!
It could win an Ig Nobel prize, or inspire an episode of Horizon.