In 1184, Erfurt, Germany experienced a peculiar catastrophe, one which became known as the Erfurt Latrine disaster. Picture this: a group of powerful nobles eager to please the king gather to help mediate a dispute, blissfully unaware that below them a cesspit full of rotting human waste awaits them.
Cue an unexpected and calamitous collapse, leaving everyone involved in an unexpected predicament. This historical hiccup, both comical and tragic, unveils the surprising perils of both medieval event planning and latrine maintenance. Largely forgotten today, this is a tale that history almost succeeded in flushing away.
A Horrible Way to Go
Erfurt in Germany has been around since the 8th century AD and was once part of the Holy Roman Empire. In the 12th century AD, when the Erfurt Latrine Disaster happened, the city’s crown jewel was the Petersburg Citadel which included St. Peter’s Church.
At the time of the disaster, the region was ruled over by King Henry VI, also known as King Heinrich VI, who hailed from the Hohenstaufen dynasty. This being medieval Europe, Erfurt at the time was stricken with much political turmoil and it was common for the region’s feudal nobles and religious leaders to fall out.
One such particularly problematic feud was between Louis III of Thuringia and Archbishop Conrad of Mainz. Quite why the two men were at each other’s throats has been lost to history, but we do know their feud had begun with the defeat of Henry the Lion in 1180. Over the years the fighting escalated until Henry himself had to step in.
Henry was due to travel through Erfurt while on a military campaign against Poland and decided that while he was in town he might as well try and bring the feud to an end. He called a diet (a type of meeting or assembly) during which he would play the role of mediator. He also invited a number of other high-ranking nobles to try and help with the proceedings.
- The Ball of the Burning Men: How did a Royal Party end in Catastrophe?
- The Urine Tax of Ancient Rome: A Novel Income Stream?
Keen to please the king, nobles from all over the Holy Roman Empire arrived in Erfurt on 25 July 1184 with the diet happening the next day. On 26 July Henry, Louis, and Archbishop Conrad met in the deanery of Petersburg Citadel along with several dozen other nobles and their staff.
Unfortunately, the deanery was old, and its aging wooden floors couldn’t bear the weight of such a crowd. Just as the meeting was getting underway the floor upon which the nobles were sitting collapsed and the men fell through the first floor into the latrine below.
It was a rather unpleasant disaster. It’s believed anywhere between 60 and 100 nobles died. The lucky ones died from the fall and death came near instantly.
Most of them weren’t so lucky, however. Many of the nobles either drowned in the raw human excrement that had been dumped into the latrine or suffocated from the foul fumes coming from the rotting waste. Others were likely crushed to death by falling debris or trampled each other trying to escape.
Important an powerful men like Gozmar III of Ziegenhain, Count Friedrich I of Abenberg, Burgave Friedrich I of Kirchberg, and Count Hansteiner of Liechtenstein all lost their lives. As luck would have it the king survived.
Records indicate that moments before the collapse he had stepped into a stone-floored alcove with Archbishop Conrad of Mainz to discuss the feud. The two men grabbed the iron railings of the alcove’s windows and held on for dear life until they could be rescued with ladders. Louis III also survived but records don’t say how.
How Could it Have Happened?
It was a really bizarre incident. So many people died during the disaster due mainly to how medieval sewage systems worked.
They were pretty basic, a far cry from what we have today, and consisted of building a big hole or pit wherever there was enough space and letting human waste drop into it. These latrines would then need cleaning once in a while to stop dangerous gases from building up from all the rotting waste and to stop the spread of deadly diseases.
- Wartime Sabotage in a Neutral Country? The Black Tom Explosion
- Sparks, Destruction, and Flour: The Tradeston Flour Mills Explosion
The latrines in places like the Petersburg Citadel were a little more advanced. These latrines were built so that they stuck outward from the building’s exterior walls. As they filled up, they could naturally drain into whatever ground or moat they protruded over which meant they didn’t need emptying out/ cleaning manually.
The downside is it also means these cesspits were very rarely, if ever cleaned and always had at least some waste in them. Unfortunately for the nobles attending Henry’s diet the cesspit below them was pretty full. Combine that with the aging building they were sitting in, and tragedy was destined to strike.
Today the Erfurt Latrine Disaster is a largely forgotten but very strange historical footnote. Few records survive that describe it (Henry was likely keen to keep the fact he almost drowned in poop quiet). We don’t even know if Louis and Archbishop Conrad ever kissed and made up.
But the disaster does offer us a tantalizing “what if” scenario. If Henry had died along with his nobles that day much of Europe’s history might have been re-written. In the years following the disaster, Henry went on to become the Holy Roman Emperor, took part in the Third Crusade, captured Richard the Lionheart of England, and took control of Sicily.
By the time Henry died, he was one of the most powerful men in the world, being Holy Roman Emperor, King of Germany, Burgundy, Italy, and Sicily, feudal overlord of the Kings of England, Lesser Armenia, and Cyprus, and tributary lord of Northern African princes. None of which would have happened if he’d drowned in a cesspit in Erfurt while trying to get two locals to stop bickering.
Top Image: The nobles assembled in some numbers, unaware of the dangers the latrine beneat the floor posed, nor how manty would die in the disaster. Source: Unknown Author / Public Domain.