Hygiene in the Middle Ages

As I complained at the beginning of the week, I've been feeling very uninspired about my writing of late and unwilling to force myself to write since this is supposed to be a hobby/recreational pastime. And so ... research. Although I'm darn glad to have left my school days far behind, I do still find it fascinating and enjoyable to revisit the Middle Ages and delve into new areas. This week I started into Maria Dembińska's Food and Drink in Medieval Poland to help with developing the Eastern European FLAVOUR I am working into my current project.

But for today's post I want to harp on one of my pet peeves -- that many people stull believe that mediæval people did not bathe. On the contrary, they not only washed, but they placed a high value on hygiene, and bathing was quite common. The "once a year bath whether you need it or not" canard was foreign to mediæval sensibilities. If such an attitude ever existed, it did in a period I am not familiar with.

Pulling out my old notes, I must make reference to one of my favourite books from universty: The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England by Barbara A. Hanawalt. The author is a liberal university professor, but an honest one at least, who did painstaking research to try to recreate certain aspects of mediæval peasant life. She researched her book by examining coroners' inquests in 14th and 15th century England. In total, she surveyed 3, 118 sudden death inquests.[i]

Of that sample, 35 (just over 1%) cases involved people whose baths ended in drowning. These ranged from bathing in a stream where the current was stronger than the bather believed, to where the unfortunate person slipped and hit their head.[ii] There was also clear evidence that bathing was common even in winter, including a case where an infant died when it was scalded after the tripod broke on a cauldron of bath water that was heating over the fire.[iii]

On top of all this, she found 12 cases where people died while washing laundry. Given that bathing and doing the laundry are hardly dangerous activities, one has no choice but to conclude that people bathed and washed their clothes frequently if this many people died due to fluke accidents while washing.

Beyond Dr. Hanawalt's specific work, there is abundant evidence that soap was very common in the Middle Ages. There are also numerous references in the literature of the time to bathing, wherein it is treated as something commonplace.[iv]

According to 13th century etiquette manuals, mediæval people were expected to always wash their hands before and after meals. Monastic rules included regulations ordaining regular bathing.[v] In the courts of the nobility, there were formal ceremonies that were scrupulously observed in this regard. Many people today don't wash their hands before and after meals. Perfume was also popular, and for the same reasons as today, not to mask bad hygiene as common "wisdom" would have us believe. [vi]

Finally, there is the related myth about Mediæval peoples' dental hygiene: that it was very bad and they had only blackened stumps for teeth. However, when one studies documents written during those horrible "Dark Ages", one finds that there were liquids to whiten teeth, compounds for filling cavities, dentures made of human teeth or cow bone, and even surgical techniques for oral cancer and the repair of fractured jaws.[vii] Scientists who have studied the exhumed remains of mediæval peasants found that they in fact had better teeth than modern people, probably because of better diet. In fact, at one site, not one body buried in the graveyard had tooth decay.[viii]

The true mediæval attitude towards bathing and cleanliness can perhaps be summed up by a common saying from France at the time: "Venari, ludere, lavari, bibere; Hoc est vivere!" (To hunt, to play, to wash, to drink, - This is to live!)[ix]

[i] Hanawalt, Barbara, The Ties that Bound : Peasant Families in Medieval England, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 13
[ii] Ibid., p. 61
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Horvat, Marian, "Refuting the Anti-Catholic Lies of the e-pamphlet 'Life in the 1500's'", Tradition in Action, http://www.traditioninaction.org/History/A_005_Myths1500s.shtml
[v] Ibid.
[vi] "Cosmetics and Beauty Aids" Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages, Ed. Norman F. Cantor, London: Viking, 1999.
[vii] Elliott, Jane, "Medieval Teeth 'Better than Baldrick's", BBC News Online, 8 October, 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/3722598.stm
[viii] "Medieval Peasants Had 'Better Teeth'", Ananova,
[ix] Horvat, Supra at note 4

1 comment:

Sophia's Favorite said...

Regine Pernoud discusses the issue a bit in her "Those Terrible Middle Ages"; aside from similar statistics to the ones you quote, she mentions that 13th century Paris had 3000 bathhouses. Most people, after all, probably wouldn't have had the resources to bathe in their homes, but would rather visit the neighborhood bathhouse—that system's actually still used in much of East Asia, and Confucianism places just as much of a premium on personal cleanliness (it's also one of one's religious duties in Shinto).

As for when hygiene went out of fashion, it was the Renaissance and "Enlightenment"; nobody's quite sure why. But, as Pernoud says, historians were intellectually lazy and just assumed the filthy habits of the 17th century had also existed in the 14th.

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