Holy Crap! The Erfurt Latrine Disaster of 1184

“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”

This old Mel Brooks quote feels especially apropos when considering an event known to history as the Erfurt Latrine Disaster — in which the Holy Roman Empire’s collected nobility fell through several church floors and straight into the latrine cesspit that waited below.

In the original German sources, helpfully recorded for us by presumably giggling scribes, it’s called the Erfurter Latrinensturz — literally “Erfurt latrine fall.” German is a wonderfully direct language.

Open curtain. The date: July 26, 1184. The scene: Erfurt, a town in what is now central Germany. At the time, it was just another walled city in the Holy Roman Empire, a more-impressive-sounding-than-it-really-was political entity originally cobbled together by Charlemagne nearly 400 years earlier. That’s an oversimplification, but our real story involves nobles of said empire tumbling into poop, so let’s just move on.

an illustration of St. Peter's church

The church where it all went down. Illustration: Wikimedia Commons


Never let a good meeting go to waste

King Henry VI — then King of Germany, soon to be Holy Roman Emperor — was in town to mediate an ongoing feud between Louis III of Thuringia and Archbishop Conrad of Mainz. Never one to let a good meeting go to waste, Henry invited nobles from across the Empire to participate.

We’ll let the scribe who chronicled the event — his name is lost to history — take it from here.

“As he was sitting in council surrounded by many in an upper room, trying to establish peace between [the nobles], the building suddenly collapsed and many fell into the cesspool below,” the scribe wrote. “Some of [the nobles] were rescued with difficulty, while others suffocated in the morass.”

Other sources list the final death toll as anywhere between 60 and 100 people crushed, drowned, or suffocated by the fumes.

The nameless scribe lists the important nobles who drowned in the filth, then finishes with an ice cold “and [there died] others of lesser name on July 26th a miserable death.”

The Middle Ages. Not a great time to have a “lesser name.”

Where are they now?

King Henry VI survived. One source indicates he avoided falling into the latrine because he was seated in an alcove built into the wall. He was later rescued using ladders, the source says.

Henry didn’t let the close call slow him down. He went on to become the most powerful monarch in Europe at the time. At one point, he even held Richard the Lionheart captive. But unlike the nameless scribe who chronicled the Erfurter Latrinensturz, microbes don’t care how noble your name is. Henry VI died of a “chill” he caught while hunting. Scholars believe the cause might have been malaria or, possibly, poison.

Interestingly enough, the men originally responsible for the ill-fated meeting — Louis III of Thuringia and Archbishop Conrad of Mainz — both survived. File that under the observation that fate, while sometimes blessed with a sense of humor, is very rarely fair.

Newly bound by a close brush with fecal-related death, the question of whether the two men put their feud behind them is, alas, lost to the mists of time.

Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall is an award-winning painter, photographer, and freelance writer. Andrew’s essays, illustrations, photographs, and poems can be found scattered across the web and in a variety of extremely low-paying literary journals.
You can find more of his work at www.andrewmarshallimages.com, @andrewmarshallimages on Instagram and Facebook, and @pawn_andrew on Twitter (for as long as that lasts).