Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Horror on the High Seas: Of Lice and Sailors
In 1480, Friar Felix Faber, a Dominican monk from the Swabian city of Ulm, set out on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This was a popular undertaking at the time what with spiritual favors and dispensations available from the Catholic Church if one made the trip. The popularity of such travel created its own problems, however. People unaccustomed to shipboard life crammed together like olives in a jar was a recipe for personal and public disaster. And Friar Felix wrote it all down for posterity.
On parasites, and lice in particular:
On a boat, too many people travel without a change of clothing; they live in sweat and foul odors, in which vermin thrive, not only in clothing but also in beards and hair. Therefore the pilgrim must not be lax; he must cleanse himself daily. A person who has not a single louse right now can have thousands an hour from now if he has the slightest contact with an infested pilgrim or sailor. Take care of the beard and the hair every day, for if the lice proliferate you will be obliged to shave your beard and thus lose your dignity, for it is scandalous not to wear a beard at sea. On the other hand, it is pointless to keep a long head of hair, as do some nobles unwilling to make the sacrifice. I have seen them so covered with lice that they gave them to all their friends and troubled all their neighbors. A pilgrim should not be ashamed to ask others to scour his beard for lice.
Friar Faber's "zest for the pen," as his translator Arthur Goldhammer puts it in The History of Private Life: Revalations of the Medieval World, actually makes one's skin itch as they read that paragraph. The interesting point, at least to me, is that the good Friar admonishes the pilgrim to "cleanse himself daily," something many historians have previously discounted as even possible aboard ship. But Friar Felix does not spare his reader much if anything in the way of instruction...
On elimination at sea:
Each pilgrim has near his bed a urinal - a vessel of terra-cotta, a small bottle - into which he urinates and vomits. But since the quarters are cramped for the number of people, and dark besides, and since there is much coming and going, it is seldom that these vessels are not overturned before dawn. Quite regularly in facts, driven by a pressing urge the obliges him to get up, some clumsy fellow will knock over five or six urinals in passing, giving rise to an intolerable stench.
In the morning, when the pilgrims get up and their stomachs ask for grace, they climb the bridge and head for the prow, where on either side of the spit privies have been provided. Sometimes as many as thirteen people or more will line up for a turn at the seat, and when someone takes too long it is not embarrassment but irritation that is expressed...
At night, it is a difficult business to approach the privies owing to the huge number of people lying or sleeping on the decks from one end of the galley to the other. Anyone who wants to go must climb over more than forty people, stepping on them as he goes; with every step he risks kicking a fellow passenger or falling on top of a sleeping body. If he bumps into someone along the way, insulst fly. Those without fear or vertigo can climb up to the prow along the ship's gunwales, pushing themselves along from rope to rope, which I often did despite the risk, and the danger. By climbing out the hatches to the oars, one can slide along in a sitting position from oar to oar, but this is not for the faint of heart, for straddling the oars is dangerous, and even the sailors do not like it.
But the difficulties become really serious in bad weather., when the privies are constantly inundated by waves and the oars are shipped and laid across the benches. To go to the seat in the middle of a storm is thus to risk being completely soaked, so that many passengers remove their clothing and go stark naked. But in this, modesty suffers greatly, which only stirs the shameful parts even more. Those who do not wish to be seen this way go squat in other places, which they soil, causing tempers to flare and fights to break out, discrediting even honorable people. Some even fill their vessels near their beds, which is disgusting and poisons the neighbors and can be tolerated only in invalids, who cannot be blamed: a few words are not enough to recount what I was forced to endure on account of a sick bedmate.
Despite all these myriad hardships, Friar Felix is very clear that one should not avoid the privy at sea. In fact, he recommends visiting it three or four times a day "even when there is no natural urge" to avoid constipation. He warns that pills or suppositories to help nature along are not "safe" aboard ship because "to purge oneself too much can cause worse trouble than constipation." It is easy to imagine what type of trouble the Friar implies.
Even with all the hardships, Friar Faber went to the Holy Land twice. One wonders, however, how many of his fellow Dominicans and others who had the privileged to be able to read were discouraged by his conversational and graphic descriptions of the nitty-gritty of sea travel at the time.
Header: Ship of Fools by Pieter van der Heyden c 1559 via Wikimedia