Why Bathing Was Uncommon in Medieval Europe

Julia May 3, 2011 33

Today I Found Out that why bathing was uncommon in Medieval Europe.

Before the Middle Ages, public baths were very common, as was the general public regularly taking time to bathe in one way or another. Even during the 4th and 5th centuries, Christian authorities allowed people to bathe for cleanliness and health, but condemned attendance to public bath houses for pleasure and condemned women going to bath houses that had mixed facilities. However, over time, more and more restrictions appeared. Eventually, Christians were prohibited from bathing naked and, overall, the church began to not approve an “excessive” indulgence in the habit of bathing. This culminated in the Medieval church authorities proclaiming that public bathing led to immorality, promiscuous sex, and diseases.

This latter “disease” point was very common; it was believed in many parts of Europe that water could carry disease into the body through the pores in the skin. According to one medical treaty of the 16th century, “Water baths warm the body, but weaken the organism and widen pores.  That’s why they can be dangerous and cause different diseases, even death.”  It wasn’t just diseases from the water itself they were worried about.  They also felt that with the pores widened after a bath, this resulted in infections of the air having easier access to the body. Hence, bathing became connected with spread of diseases, not just immorality.

For most lower class citizens, particularly men, this resulted in them completely forgoing bathing.  During this time, people tended to restrict their hygienic arrangements to just washing hands, parts of the face, and rinsing their mouths. Washing one’s entire face was thought to be dangerous as it was believed to cause catarrh and weaken the eyesight, so even this was infrequent.

Members of the upper classes, on the other hand, rather than completely forgo bathing, tended to cut down their full body bathing habits down to around a few times per year, striking a balance between risk of acquiring a disease from the bath vs. body stench.

This wasn’t always the case though.  As one Russian ambassador to France noted “His Majesty [Louis XIV] stunk like a wild animal.”  Russians were not so finicky about bathing and tended to bathe fairly regularly, relatively speaking, generally at least once a month.  Because of this, they were considered perverts by many Europeans.  King Louis XIV stench came from the fact that his physicians advised him to bathe as infrequently as possible to maintain good health.  He also stated he found the act of bathing disturbing.  Because of this, he is said to have only bathed twice in his lifetime.  Another in this “gruesome two-some” class among the aristocracy was Queen Isabel I of Spain who once confessed that she had taken a bath only twice in her lifetime, when she was first born and when she got married.

To get around the water/disease and sinful nature of bathing, many aristocrats during the Middle Ages replaced bathing with scented rags to rub the body and heavy use of perfumes to mask their stench. Men wore small bags with fragrant herbs between the shirt and waistcoat, while women used fragrant powders.

Amazingly, this complete lack of personal hygiene in most of Europe lingered until around the mid-19th century.

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Bonus Facts:

  • If most of the entire populace smelling rancid wasn’t enough, during Medieval times in Europe, the streets of cities tended to be coated in feces and urine thanks to people tossing the contents of their chamber pots into the streets.  As one 16th century nobleman noted “the streets resembled a fetid stream of turbid water.”  He also noted that he had to keep a scented handkerchief held under his nose in order to keep himself from vomiting when walking the streets.  If that wasn’t enough, butchers slaughtered animals in the streets and would leave the unusable bits and blood right on the ground. One can only imagine how people survived the stench on sun-baked summer days.
  • Interestingly, during the Middle Ages, people surprisingly did pay some attention to dental hygiene. Teeth were cleaned by rubbing them with a cloth and mixtures of herbs including the ashes of burnt rosemary.
  • The Ancient Greeks adopted the idea of bathing from the Hindus who were familiar with the benefits of bathing as early as 3,000 years ago.

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33 Comments »

  1. Momo April 18, 2013 at 11:30 am - Reply

    And yet they called the africans and indians savages -_-

    • Deepthy November 8, 2013 at 7:56 am - Reply

      Spot on!!!

  2. LOVEPAREEK September 2, 2013 at 8:01 am - Reply

    WOW JULIA, THAT WAS INTERESTING. AND THE LOUIS XIV PART WAS OUTRIGHT LOL, “STANK LIKE AN ANIMAL”. WE AWAIT MORE FROM U. RGDS. LOVEPAREEK.

    • Squidbilly September 5, 2013 at 9:04 pm - Reply

      LOVEPAREEK!! Stop shouting!!!

  3. doug September 12, 2013 at 7:26 am - Reply

    I work in a public library. It’s still uncommon.

  4. Heather December 2, 2013 at 11:32 am - Reply

    Very inaccurate, sorry. While the church wasn’t happy about some of the bathhouses, there were in fact many bathhouses all over Europe in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey December 2, 2013 at 1:25 pm - Reply

      @Heather: sources? Also, the fact that there were bathouses doesn’t say anything about how the church felt about them.

  5. Michael December 28, 2013 at 5:44 pm - Reply

    Heather, the article is right on the money. The assertion of “bathhouses all over Europe in the Middle Ages” points to the Moorish bathhouses (public baths) in Medieval Spain, which some can seen today. In fact, there was 300 of public baths in Medieval Spain alone. Irrigated water and water fountains saturated every Moorish palace in Medieval Spain. In fact, water and cleanliness were associated with the Moors. The famous Moorish expression is “Godliness is next to cleanliness” (an expression that every modern-day Muslim uses). Unfortunately, we all have become educational victims of the public school system, which is rooted in Western thought. However, there are new schools of thought that are challenging the many false teachings of Western education. Personally, my school of thought comes from the hunted lion not the two-legged hunter. The hunted lion is now telling “his story” (history). Let us all remember that the lion is a hunter by nature. Thank you.

    • Amy February 10, 2014 at 5:01 pm - Reply

      Um, no. There were bathhouses ALL OVER Europe in the Middle Ages. The notion that bathing was unpopular is a ridiculous myth. Paris alone had 32 bathhouses in the 13th century.

      • Daven Hiskey
        Daven Hiskey February 10, 2014 at 8:52 pm - Reply

        @Amy: It’s not that there weren’t bathhouses (and people who liked to use them), it was simply that it was generally recommended against in many regions and the practice of bathing regularly was not common, though as stated, this varied from region to region and among certain groups.
        .
        “The notion that bathing was unpopular is a ridiculous myth.” Sources please?

        • clay April 12, 2014 at 1:54 pm - Reply

          Where are the sources that prove this article is 100% correct?

          • Daven Hiskey
            Daven Hiskey April 13, 2014 at 11:21 am -

            @clay: References are below the articles

  6. GH January 2, 2014 at 4:46 pm - Reply

    ”complete lack of personal hygiene in most of Europe lingered until around the mid-19th century”

    Having been to france since the mid-19th century I question your facts sir!!

    • StelarCF January 12, 2014 at 2:27 am - Reply

      19th century is 1800′s, not 1900′s

  7. 300Spartans April 5, 2014 at 3:16 am - Reply

    On the other side of the pendulum, the current habit of bathing daily is at best unnecessary and at worst mildly unhealthy. It certainly doesn’t cause cancer but frequent bathing can cause skin irritations by taking away protective oils our bodies secrete. As I’ve read it, the late 19th Century concept of “a bath once a month whether you need it or not” is a bit closer to optimal.

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