Bathroom Reading Habits (Geneva, 1561)

Half of what I know, I learned while reading on the john. That’s probably an understatement, but I’m not sure of how to accurately assess the true number.

I don’t want to bore anyone with my hygiene habits, but it does raise a burning question for early-modern historians: did denizens of Jean Calvin’s Geneva read on the pot?

We know that a handful of elites like Calvin had studies to retire to for their reading and writing. We also know that Calvin spent a lot more time writing than he did reading, depending on his fabulous memory to draw on the storehouse of knowledge acquired from the reading he did as a young man.

But what about the average marginally literate person who didn’t have a home office? Of course, the registers of the Geneva Consistory, font of all wisdom and knowledge, have the answer:

Martin Canard was asked where he found the book of charms that was [later] found in the hands of Roland Taccon. Answers that he found it in the privy in the Fusterie. Martin Canard. Interrogué où il a trouvé le livre de charmes qui fut trouvé ès mains de Roland Taccon. Respond qu’il le trouva aux privéz de la Fusterie. [1]

Now, here I come up against a glaring gap in my knowledge of the historical geography of Geneva. I don’t really know anything about the privies of the Fusterie.

The Fusterie itself was, and still is, one of the major squares of downtown Geneva, a place where merchants and customers bustled and bought. We can imagine that it was then, like today, frequented by people far enough from their home base privy to need to use a public one. We may assume, however, that unlike today they were not lit with eery blue-purple lighting in order to make it harder for addicts to find their veins.

That said, it would appear that the reading material was more interesting. Rather than the flyers of sales and the GHI classified ads one finds in the public restrooms of downtown Geneva in our times, one could apparently find genuine books of magic spells, useful for all occasions.

[1] R.Consist. 18, f. 161 (20 november 1561).

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