Why Bathing Was Uncommon in Medieval Europe

Mark R. asks: Why didn’t people in the middle ages ever bathe?

To begin with, it is something of a common misconception to say people never bathed in the Middle Ages (or centuries around it). In fact, in some regions, bathing regularly (in some form or other) wasn’t really all that different than today. And even in regions where it wasn’t as common as today overall, there were still certainly many people who regularly indulged. That said, there were certain groups that actively avoided bathing around this era, give or take a few centuries.  So what was their problem with bathing?

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 some lower class citizens, particularly men, this resulted in them largely forgoing bathing whenever possible.  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.

Some 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 regularly, relatively speaking.  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. Of course, in both cases, they are perhaps forgetting many times when their parents may have had their servants bathe them as children. And given certain moral attitudes of the day, it may be that they were just saying they never bathed, rather than this literally being the case.  Whatever the case, once adults, both individuals claimed to abstain from bathing.

To get around the water/disease and sinful nature of bathing, many aristocrats around this era 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 relative lack of personal hygiene in certain pockets of Europe lingered among some groups 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. (This was actually a problem in some regions until very recently in history- see The Great Stench of 1858)
  • 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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64 comments

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

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

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

  • 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

      @Heather: Nobody said there wasn’t. 🙂 We are talking about why there were certain people who didn’t like to use them.

  • 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.

    • 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

        @Amy: It’s not that there weren’t bathhouses (and people who liked to use them), it was simply that it was generally recommended by certain groups against using them. Although, as stated, this varied from region to region and individual to individual.

      • That’s because as we found out that the Moors were not just in Spain, but also in France, Germany and many other european countries. You can find lots of evidence in Germany right now that shows the Moors ruled there. I’ve been to Germany when I was in the Army and didn’t know then what I was looking at, but they have Muurish statues hidden in plain site all over the country!

    • @ Michael: Actually, the hyena is a hunter by nature, while the lionesses (not the lions) steal from the hyenas, chasing the smaller animals away from their kills. Don’t believe everything you see in The Lion King.

  • ”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!!

    • 19th century is 1800’s, not 1900’s

      • GH statement is correct – yours is irrelevant. GH visited France after the point at which regular bathing was supposed to have become common place, ie he visited in the period starting mid-19th century to today. I second GH’s anecdotal observations, and, at the same time, the doubts as to the extent of this no-wash belief in Europe. I see no evidence for it’s widespread application in popular culture, art or language (bear in mind Britain’s rainfall is a shower from God every day whether you want it or not). On the contrary, I understood they thought the black death was spread by odour which is why they isolated themselves from unwashed people…

  • 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.

    • lack of melanin is what cause that you have explained and that’s why by the Europeans nature they hardly bath, but the truth hurts.

      • What? I don’t understand your comment. It sounds like you’re saying that lack of melanin takes away protective oils in the skin and leads to skin irritation so that’s why Europeans did bath a lot, but that makes no sense so could you please clarify?

        • sorry, meant to say ” It sounds like you’re saying that lack of melanin takes away protective oils in the skin and leads to skin irritation so that’s why Europeans DID NOT bathe a lot.” Again, can you clarify?

  • I think this article mixes up “Christianity” with “Catholicism”

    The Christian Bible speaks of good hygiene. It was the Roman Catholic Church that made bathing an issue and a perversion.

    I think it’s key that this is pointed out for the sake of historical clarity.

    • After reading about Calvin’s insane dictatorship of Geneva I’d skip bathing instead:

      “Just as in Catholic territories, heresy was an insult to God and treason to the state. Heretics would not be tolerated. During Calvin’s tenure, 76 persons were banished from Geneva, and 58 killed. One year,
      charges were brought against 14 witches who conspired with Satan to bring the plague to Geneva, the
      Council burned them all. There’s no record to show if this improved the plague.
      Never before or since, has a city’s virtue been so thoroughly enforced. Geneva was cleansed of
      drunkenness, dancing, immoral songs, excess entertainment, extravagance, and immodest dress. The
      law specified the color of clothing and the number of dishes at a meal. Theater was first limited to
      religious plays; then these too were banned. Calvinists often focused on the old Testament of the Bible,
      therefore many of their children were named for Bible characters. One father was commanded to name his son Abraham, he preferred the boy be named Claude, for this sin he spent four days in jail.
      The Geneva press was completely censored by Calvin, who had his own index of forbidden books. And it was a crime to speak disrespectfully of Calvin. Failure to comply was treated with a specified sequence of punishments. First came reprimand, then fines, imprisonment, or banishment. Fornicators might be exiled or drowned. Adulterers, blasphemers and idolaters were killed. One child was beheaded for striking his parents. As was the general custom, confessions were obtained by torture.
      Geneva was reportedly free of prostitution, of lewdness and even of rouge. There were no lawsuits.
      There were also no church bells and no organs. Actually, control may not have been that complete. There are records of illegitimate children, of abandoned infants, and forced marriages. Calvin’s own
      stepdaughter and son-in-law were condemned for adultery.”

  • Orthodox Jews bathed often (and still do), and ritually wash their hands several times a day. As a result, they didn’t get sick as often.

    This led people in the Middle Ages to think that Jews were in league with the Devil, and given some sort of unholy protection from diseases like the Plague.

    Those crafty Jews! How dare they not get sick like the rest of us! Burn them!

    • Jews suffered less from the plague?Really? Israel would have suffered from the plague before the rest of Europe as it started in Mongolia before reaching the Mediterranean ports where Jews would have been trading like everyone else. Washing does not protect you from the fleas that carried the plague, they just have to be able to bite the skin. The fleas came primarily with the rats on boats transporting grain. Only people that did not traditionally use or trade in grains (eg the Sami of Scandinavia) could claim that they escaped the consequences less than any other group.

  • The Hindus have bathed and maintained hygiene for more than 9000 years. It is incorrectly given as 3000 yrs. The written and recorded history only dates back to 9000 yrs, before which it was hear-say and historic events and moments were only recorded verbally. Each and every Hindu, even today bathes early in the morning before consuming food. OUTER PURITY IS AS MUCH IMPORTANT AS INNER PURITY.

  • ALL the examples above are from the 16th century.
    This is not Middle Ages, this is Renaissance.
    In the Middle Ages, people were clean.

  • The article seems to be superficial in its research. I stumbled upon this one while doing a quick google search for research purposes, and another article I came upon was this one:

    http://www.medievalists.net/2013/04/13/did-people-in-the-middle-ages-take-baths/

    It consists of significantly more source material, artists’ paintings, written guidelines found in manuscripts, etc.

    I think another reply here was quite accurate when it claims that this article seems to focus on the 16th century and later, which was *not* the middle age. In fact, the claims this article makes also appear in the other article, but only at the end of the 16th century.

    Thought that might be an interesting comparison.

  • Agree with anonymous JAL and Michael, the belief that bathing was bad for health seems to have been a health fad from some time after the middle ages. There is a suggestion in Michael’s link that it was after the outbreaks of plague and syphilis in Europe. As many bath houses were actually disguised brothels, it is understandable that some people would make the erroneous connection between bathing and diseases such as syphilis.

    According to the link King John travelled with a bathtub, although I remember a claim that he never even washed his hands, merely dabbed them on a cloth.

    Medieval people bathed as often as was practical and comfortable. I have lived without hot running water, in considerably more comfortable conditions than those of medieval peasants. When you have to carry water in buckets over large distances and heat it on a fire, you tend to wash your entire body rather less frequently than is common nowadays, especially in cold weather. Bathing under these conditions is a luxury, greatly appreciated.

  • Dirty Europeans had the nerve to look down on Africans. Africans been practicing good hygiene for millenniums. Most of you only know His-story, and neglect DaTroof because its to much for you to accept

  • Jews always bathed frequently. At least once a week everyone bathed for the Sabbath. Women who got their monthlies had to bathe before attending the mikvah (ritual bath) 7 days after their period stopped. First thing in the morning Jews must wash their hands and before eating or praying also.

    • Sorry, Hannah, if you think only Jewesses bathed after having their monthlies, you clearly have never had one. Dried blood can be used for paint – unless you washed it off it is so strong and durable it would bind the skin together requiring an surgical operation to fix.

  • europeans started bathing after the arabs made soap for them . ok …

  • Europeans started to learn from muslims after they invaded andulsia spain now and the many arabic hamams baths in all indalusia hygine in essential for 5 times prayers.

    • All ancient civilised cultures had public baths. These preceded Islam by a couple thousand years. myth, in Islam, you do not necessarily wash with water in the modern sense… according to the Koran you can use dry dirt to complete the ritual. Public bathing was also thought to be a risk to muslim women getting pregnant by sitting where a man had sat – in Morocco, it was used as their defence for many centuries.

  • You quote up until the 4th and 5th century and then use writing from the 16th century to prove that everything after that was filth. What happened to the thousand years in between?

    Louis XIV =/= middle ages.
    16th century =/= middle ages.
    That’s like saying Operation Desert Storm and the Civil War happened under the same circumstances and with the same kind of mindset in the same kind of society.

  • Hell you can go to Europe right now and still smell the old ways living strong! Some europeans bathe twice a week right now! I know because I’ve been there and asked about why they smell so bad! While stationed in Germany back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I dated some German girls, they bathed everyday, but their parent ands grandparents didn’t!

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