An Assembly from the Times of Henri de Valois
May, year 1573 - as a result of the first free election, Alexandre Édouard, called Henry, from the French House of Valois, becomes the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. A year later, the King of France dies. The French crown goes to Henry, who in secret, soon abandons the Commonwealth.
A certain anecdote is connected to Henri de Valois. Forks and chamber pots were popular throughout the majority of Europe, but not in France. Therefore, Henri was extremely malcontent when in Poland he was advised to use a fork. An even greater outrage was aroused when asked to use a chamber pot (instead of the fireplace). Luckily, he quickly took to these “inventions”. Later, after having left Poland, he tried to promulgate them in the French court, but was met with resistance.
How much truth is there in this story? It is widely-known that at the court of Louis XIV (17th – 18th century) eating with one’s fingers was preferred and the use of knives was prohibited due to security risks. It is also impossible to hide the fact that the Palace of Versailles, at the time, was not equipped with toilets, and all physiological needs were tended to in corners…
The fork, discovered in 2016 during an archaeological dig by Długie Ogrody Street (Long Gardens Street) in Gdańsk, is dated to have come from the times of Henry’s rule. This brass artefact is an example of cutlery from 16th-century Poland. Earlier forks were simpler and possessed only two long tines. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, the prongs became shorter and examples with three, and later four tines appeared. In the 18th century, forks became more curved and ribbon-like, similar to ones used today.
The Ancient Greeks used forks to hold down meat during portioning, but their hands or a knife to eat. It is supposed that the earliest use of the fork as cutlery was in Byzantium. The empress Theophano (10th century), the Byzantine wife of Otto II, used a fork while dining, causing quite a commotion. When in the 11th century, it became known that the Byzantine utensil could be used to consume spaghetti, the Italians became its greatest exponents. In 13th-century Poland, the fork was used, among others, by St. Kinga, the wife of Bolesław the Chaste. However, for most Europeans, the fork remained a whim until the 18th/19th centuries.
The tin chamber pot was discovered during archaeological research in 2009, by Świętego Ducha Street (Holy Spirit Street) in Gdańsk. The lid did not survive. The royal chamber pot was, without a doubt, much more majestic; this artefact is an example of chamber pots used in the 16th – 17th centuries. Chamber pots could also be ceramic or glass (it was rare to use precious metals), and porcelain pots appeared in the 18th century. Most of these vessels were similar in shape: the outflow leaning outwards, a steady base, a solid handle and the lid.
Ancient Romans already had toilets connected to a sewage system, however, these restrooms were usually located far from the home and for this reasons the chamber pots, which were always on hand, were used. In the early Middle Ages, the sanitary system went into decline. It was mostly Byzantium which retained this idea, which slowly made its way back into Europe. In Poland, the toilets were promulgated by the Jagiellonians, having been brought up in a culture heavily influenced by the Byzantine. It is difficult to explain as to why Renaissance Western Europe stopped using toilets and chamber pots. Historic sources mention that even in royal courts, one’s needs would be fulfilled wherever. In time, this trend started to turn, until finally in the 18th century, the chamber pots became popular. Luckily, by the 19th century, the sewage systems and home toilets were developed.
Curator: Marek Kuik
Text: Marek Kuik
Photography: Joanna Szmit
Graphic Design: Beata Müller
Translation: Paulina Markowska
The Ancient Object of the Month can be viewed in the lobby of the Naturalists’ House at Mariacka Street 25/26 in Gdańsk.
Opening hours: https://archeologia.pl/en/dom-przyrodnikow/opening-hours