Shakespeare’s World in a 100 Objects: Number 1, a ‘jordan’

When we think of Shakespeare’s world it is of the profound and dramatic, not the ordinary and commonplace.  But like us, his daily life would have consisted of the usual round of eating, drinking, washing, working, paying (or not paying!) taxes and socialising with friends and neighbours in the pub. Embedded in his drama are numerous references to the everyday:

‘The kneading, the making of the cake, the heating of the oven.’

Troilus and Cressida Act I, Scene 1

Over the coming weeks Searching For Shakespeare will feature a series of blogs which will look at  a hundred objects from the Trust’s 16th-and early 17th- century collections.  Many of these items, although outwardly humble, will reveal ‘hidden histories’, special stories that will help us illuminate Shakespeare’s experience of the physical and social world of the period.

Contributions for Shakespeare’s World in a 100 Objects will feature a series of guest posts by doctoral researchers from the History Department and Shakespeare Institute of the University of Birmingham, as well as blogs by the Trust’s Collections Department staff.

So for the first object from Shakespeare’s world, let’s get down to basics.

In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 a carrier complains to his companion about the poor standard of accommodation of an inn in Rochester: that he been bitten badly by fleas there and that theyhave not even been provided with a ‘jordan’.

Why, they will allow us ne’er a jordan, and then we
leak in your chimney; and your chamber-lie breeds
fleas like a loach

What was a ‘jordan’ and how did it get its curious and irreverent nick-name? And why were the men forced to ‘take a leak’ in the hearth?

The ‘jordan’ was popular slang for a chamber-pot or potty, used to urinate in at night in the relative comfort of the bedroom (chamber) without having to resort to a trip to the outside toilet (or privy) or worse, using in the hearth as a urinal.   The origins of this word are obscure but possibly originate from the similarity of urine flasks to the little containers used collect sacred Jordan water brought back from the Holy Land by medieval pilgrims. By Shakespeare’s day the word had been transferred to the humble potty.

The contents of the chamber-pot were normally disposed of into a cess-pit or into the common dung heap. Urine, or ‘chamber lye’, was sometimes collected and used as bleach for laundry and industrial purposes such as leather working.

On display in Shakespeare’s birthplace is pottery chamber pot made of cheap, green-glazed earthenware typical of the sort normally provided in coaching inns in Shakespeare’s time.   The diameter of the pot is quite narrow and no doubt easier to use for men as a ‘piss-pot’ than as a potty for women to sit or squat over. When Shakespeare’s family home became an inn the inventory of Shakespeare’s former tenant, Lewis Hiccox lists numerous chamber pots kept in store for use by guests.

Finally, why was urine thought to breed ‘fleas like a loach’?  A loach is a type of freshwater fish   and in 1601, Philemon Holland’s translation of Pliny’s “Natural History”  stated that fish were infested with fleas, ‘last of all some fishes there be which of themselves are given to breed fleas and lice’.  Such folklore was evidently still believed by many in Shakespeare’s time.

A freely available online exhibition exploring keys aspects of the music in Shakespeare’s plays, as well as music inspired by Shakespeare.