Crappy History

Crappy History

Steven D Reschly, Truman State University


A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away—in more mundane words, while I was in graduate school—I was standing in front of the department mailboxes, more or less innocently. A visiting professor walked in and, in a classic non sequitur, suddenly said, “I think I will write the history of shit.” I said, “Umm, OK.” He said, “Think about it. Louis XVI was captured while fleeing from Paris because he stopped his carriage to take a dump in the woods.” Leaving aside for the moment whether or not that particular anecdote is even true, I have thought about his idea now and then during the many moons since grad school, and I think he was onto something. There are two possible angles: human waste, and human and animal waste used as fertilizing manure in agriculture. Eventually, not to bury the lead, I will stake a claim that the modern nation-state is founded on shit, which seems only appropriate given the damage that nationalism has done to people and planet.

First, human waste. The technology to deliver water to a permanent settlement of humans, and to remove human waste from that settlement, should be in lock-step with any definition of “civilization,” or human existence in cities. Of course, language, writing, social stratification, labor differentiation and specialization, surplus production, political structures, and all the other building blocks count as well. In ancient usage, civilization meant people who were not nomadic or rural. Archaeological evidence shows methods to remove waste from cities as earlier as Babylon, and probably earlier.

There were underground sewage pipes in ancient Athens. As Metro lines were built or extended prior to the 2004 Olympics, excavations in Athens unearthed many artifacts. Several of the new stations display the findings from that specific construction, and some stations contain more ancient Greek relics than many museums with Greek collections in the rest of the world. This is a sewage pipe displayed at the Platia Syntagmatos (Constitution Square) at the center of Athens in the large Metro station, located in front of the Parliament building (photos by author).

sewage pipe behind glass

Sewage pipe displayed at the Platia Syntagmatos (Constitution Square), Athens. Photo by author.



At the Evangelismos Metro station, on the line to the airport, one pipe is behind glass with another left in situ.

sewer line in situ

Sewer pipes in case and in situ, Evangelismos Metro station, Athens. Photo by author.


Ancient Corinth in the Peloponnesus, actually the Roman city since the Greek city was destroyed by the Roman general Mummius in 146 BCE, contains these very attractive toilet seats just inside the city gate, with channels for a nearby spring.

toilet seats

Toilet seats, ancient Corinth. Photo by author.


Dealing with human waste has clearly been a fundamental part of urban organization for many centuries.


In and near my home town in southeast Iowa, I remember many outhouses. I recall, and used, one at my maternal grandmother’s farm. My father used to tell stories about mischievous young men moving outhouses off the latrine hole at night, though I doubt anyone actually fell in, like I would do now as an old guy in the middle of the night. It certainly had to be a challenge to move the little building back to its intended location.

As far as the history of human excrement, a quick search turned up only one book by French psychoanalyst Dominique Laporte, Histoire de la merde (1978). I was admittedly not anal enough to track it down. There is abundant awareness and processing of shit in human history, but not much discussion. Where is Freud when we need him? Civilization itself is built on shit.

On the other hand, the history of manure is extensive. Recent archaeological findings estimate intentional human use of human and animal feces as fertilizer dates to at least 10,000 BCE. The history of human excrement as manure, which acquired the euphemism “night soil,” also includes ancient Athens. Those underground pipes led to a nearby river valley for use as manure.

Manure intersects in important ways with my research interests in Amish/Anabaptist/Mennonite history. Anabaptists, since their beginnings in the sixteenth-century city-states of Zürich and Bern, and in the northwest of continental Europe, were persecuted as heretics and traitors. They suffered imprisonment, torture, execution, confiscation of property, and deportation as both Catholic and Protestant authorities attempted to exterminate the misfits. After the Wars of Religion and the Thirty Years War, central Europe was largely destroyed and depopulated. Meanwhile, although they began among highly educated urban humanists who were loyal to reformer Ulrich Zwingli in Zürich, Anabaptist dissenters became rural and developed a reputation as expert agriculturalists. They managed to negotiate limited toleration, after expulsion from Swiss regions, in Alsace, Germanic regions along the Rhine, and sometimes temporary neglect in the Emme river valley (Emmental) in Bernese territory. After 1648, their farming skills became particularly valuable in central Europe, and some local rulers invited Anabaptist farmers to bring land back into production. By the early eighteenth century, after the Swiss Brethren division of the 1690s resulted in Amish and Mennonite branches of Swiss and South German Anabaptism, Amish and Mennonite farmers were considered the most progressive and important farmers in Alsace and Lorraine.

In an ironic twist of history, Anabaptist farmers aided rulers in replacing medieval agriculture and thus undermining local village autonomy and authority. Local autonomy was already severely stressed by war and was vulnerable to aggressive change. A core characteristic of late medieval agriculture was the Three Field System (Dreifelderwirtschaft), in which one-quarter to one-third of available arable land was left fallow every year to recover fertility. Local decision-makers determined what would be grown where and what fields would not be cultivated. Anabaptist farmers kept all land in production every year. Facing weakened villages and rural deprivation, rulers established separate farms, or Höfe, and the outsider status of Anabaptists made them inviting candidates to rent these farms. They were not allowed to own land, which freed capital for investment in equipment, and their social isolation permitted experimentation. In effect, they traded their agricultural skills and promises not to proselytize for independent farms and military exemptions.

Elements of this integrated agricultural system included intensive wheat cultivation, stall-feeding of livestock, artificial clover meadows supported by lime fertilizer, field irrigation, liquid manure, reforestation of marginal land or transforming poor land to permanent meadow, distilling from potato crops, intensive crop rotation with manure fertilizer, family labor, and plowing immediately after a grain rotation.  To an objection from poor renters that clover agriculture robbed them of bread, a noble replied in 1774 with the cycle introduced by Mennonite farmers: first clover, then forage, livestock, manure for fertilizer, and finally more grain for all.

In the Palatinate, Mennonites and Amish stood at the forefront of innovation and developed the same reputation as expert farmers and desirable tenants as in Alsace and Lorraine. Mennonite David Möllinger (1709-1787) is often named the “father of Palatinate agriculture” due to his agricultural innovations, imitated by other farmers in the region. F. C. Medicus emphasized their manure usage in 1771:

The Anabaptists practiced until now copious fertilizing and for that reason people declare them to be masters in farming but without determining the reason of their greater success. Fertilizer was the main-spring of the zeal with which they raised cattle, which created for them abundant manure. With the manure they constantly maintained their fields, but our usual farming only robbed the soil.

State economist Christian W. Dohn wrote in 1778, “Germany’s most accomplished farmers are the palatine Mennonites.”


anabaptist almanac cover

Cover of the 1818 edition of the almanac L’Anabaptiste ou le Cultivateur par Expérience (The Anabaptist or the Experienced Cultivator)


Reducing local autonomy and increasing agricultural production that provided a stable food supply catalyzed construction of the modern, patriarchal, centralized, militaristic, often authoritarian nation-state. Ambitious monarchs supported their centralizing power by creating analogies between male household authority and male ruling authority. I am thinking of Sarah Hanley’s research[i] and Hausvater ideology in Germanic regions, the latter dating to comments by Luther. The father of the household represented and supported the father of the country; the ruler of the house equaled the ruler of the country; the monarch of the nation carried the same familial authority as the male monarch of the house.

There were many other building blocks for the construction of the nation-state, of course. Family interests; military adventurism; taxes; bureaucracy; a constructed ideology of homogeneous ethnicity, language, and religion (I am thinking of Peasants into Frenchmen by Eugen Weber, 1976); and enforced political sovereignty all contributed. The shift from Three Field Agriculture to intensive agriculture with manure as a critical ingredient led indirectly, but meaningfully, to the patriarchal state. In a word, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the nation-state is founded on shit.


For Further Reading:

Parasites from medieval latrines unlock secrets of human history


[i] Sarah Hanley, “Engendering the State: Family Formation and State Building in Early Modern France,” French Historical Studies (Spring 1989); Hanley, “The Family, The State, and the Law in Seventeenth-and Eighteenth-Century France: The Political Ideology of Male Right versus an Early Theory of Natural Rights,” Journal of Modern History (June 2006).

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