Did People in Medieval Times Really Not Bathe?

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

There are a variety of commonly held ideas about what it was like to live in Medieval times in Europe from a hygienic standpoint- from the idea that people chucked the contents of their chamber pots out their windows on to the streets to that they rarely, if ever, bothered to bathe. But is any of this actually true?

As to the former question, be sure and check out our article Did People in the Middle Ages Really Throw Fecal Matter Out of Their Windows? Moving on to bathing habits, to begin with, when dealing with diverse cultures spanning a large area and time frame like “medieval times”- generally considered to be from around the 5th to the 15th centuries- there is not going to be a definitive, one-size fits all answer.

But that’s not very interesting, so let’s go ahead and give it our best college try, shall we?

It turns out that humans during medieval times were just as keen as humans now to not stink, nor have dirt and grime on themselves. Thus, in the general case, it would seem that, contrary to popular belief, they still had some basic hygienic practices. Towards this end, we know definitively from surviving texts that people did bathe in some form reasonably regularly, generally varying based on their circumstances.

For example, it appears at the minimum washing one’s face, hands, and cleaning one’s teeth was extremely commonly done each morning. On the note of teeth, beyond rags, cleaning twigs were also used. The general method here was to chew one end of a twig for a time, then once it was properly mashed up, use that end as a sort of tooth brush. In fact, in some cases, while they didn’t know it at the time, the twigs or roots used actually contained antibacterial substances, perhaps why certain plants became so popular for this purpose as people observed the effects, even if they didn’t understand why they worked so well at cleaning the mouth and teeth.

Moving on to washing hands, beyond doing so during a morning body scrub down from a basin, they were also usually washed again before and after eating. Remember, this was a time before widespread use of utensils, and the fork at one point was actually viewed as sinful to use anyway for hilarious reasons we’ll get into in the Bonus Facts later.

Beyond eating with one’s hands, particularly those of lower classes also often ate and drank from the same containers as well. From this, it should come as no surprise that getting your hands clean before eating was considered good manners, and cleaning the fingers after was also something of a necessity to get remnants of food off.

Moving back to bathing, at least during medieval times, while some medical professionals did advise against doing it excessively, many others extolled the benefits of bathing regularly at keeping one healthy. For example, Italian physician Magninius Mediolanesis, who functioned as a court physician as well as for a time Regent master at the University of Paris, in the 14th century notes,

The bath cleans the external body parts of dirt left behind from exercise on the outside of the body… if any of the waste products of third digestion are left under the skin that were not resolved by exercise and massage, these will be resolved by the bath.

He also recommended bathing as a means to cure or ease discomfort, such as for the elderly and women who are pregnant.

Of course, when talking full body baths, only the reasonably well off at this point could actually afford to own a bath of some sort and to supply it with hot water, so most relied on bath houses, rivers, lakes, hot springs, etc. Thus, poorest of the poor who could not afford to go to a bath house are generally thought to have had extremely poor hygiene during the winter months, outside of washing using basins.

But for the rest, bath houses were common, particularly after the 11th century when crusaders, who had become accustomed to such and the excellent hygiene habits of Muslim and Jewish peoples, popularized and regularly frequented these establishments not just for bathing purposes, but also to socialize.

In fact, if we fast forward to the 15th century, bathing and eating at bath houses were often combined. As noted in the book: Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity, by Virginia Smith:

By the fifteenth-century, bath feasting in many town bathhouses seems to have been as common as going out to a restaurant was to become four centuries later. German bath etchings from the fifteenth century often feature the town bathhouse, with a long row of bathing couples eating a meal naked in bathtubs, often several to a tub, with other couples seen smiling in beds in the mid-distance.

While this might seem a little odd at first glance through a modern lens, consider that many people today enjoy soaking in a hot tub or pool with their friends while drinking alcoholic beverages, which is not too dissimilar to these former bath house practices, except now usually featuring skimpy bathing suits.

Going back to bath houses, given that many were connected to bakeries in order to use heat from their ovens to warm the water, let’s face it, there’s no way one could sit there in the water smelling freshly baked bread and not develop a voracious appetite.

And speaking of voracious appetites, given that many bath houses were not gender divided and featured naked, now clean people having a good time together, it should also come as no surprise that bath houses were known to be places to go to have a REALLY good time…

For those without a non-paid partner, these establishments were also frequently places to find or engage the services of exceptionally good smelling prostitutes.

As you might have guessed from all this, many church groups looked down on bath houses for that reason. For example, consider this excerpt from an 11th century minister known as Burchard of Worms,

If thou, being a married man, hast shamed the nakedness of any woman, as, I say, her breasts and her shameful parts- if thou hast, thou shalt do penance for five days on bread and water. But if thou art not married, two days on bread and water.

Hast thou washed thyself in the bath with thy wife and other women and seen them nude, and they thee? If thou hast, thou shouldst fast for three days on bread and water.

However, contrary to popular belief, on the whole at this time, it doesn’t seem as if most church organizations had a big problem with the bathing itself, just the perceived immorality exhibited at many bath houses. For example, 6th century Pope Gregory I is known to have encouraged Christians to bathe regularly. And, as alluded to, Muslim and Jewish groups were likewise known to be even more fastidious than their Christian brethren about keeping clean.

As for the Christian church in Europe, to solve the issue of a whole lot of nakedness and lovin’ taking place at bath houses, it became relatively common for bath houses to be built by the various church groups themselves near monasteries. The difference between these bath houses and the other variety was that they were a whole lot less fun… Specifically, separating areas for men and women, instead of mixing them.

Further demonstrating that most church organizations did not really have anything against the act of bathing itself, many monasteries actually piped water into their own, sometimes elaborate baths, and even required the clergy to bathe before many events. For example, at Westminster Abbey, they required their monks to bathe for Christmas, Easter, at the end of June and at the end of September. This doesn’t mean, however, that the monks weren’t bathing elsewise, just that they were required to do so during these periods. In fact, evidence seems to indicate they bathed much more frequently than that, as they seem to have employed a bath-attendant year round at that Abbey.

So if people during medieval times actually did bathe reasonably frequently, where did the perception that they did not come from? This came about thanks to the latter end of this period and beyond where people really did start bathing less.

As to why, to begin with, around the mid-14th century about 60% of the European population died within about seven years or so- not too dissimilar to “The Snap”, but in this case because of the Black Death. This saw the former popular practice of people communing in bath houses together start to become decidedly less popular for a time, though it seems to have picked back up after.

Things went the other way again around the early 16th century when diseases like Syphilis were rearing their ugly heads in Europe. Around this same time, a popular notion arose in some regions of Europe that water could carry disease into the body through the pores in the skin, especially hot water.

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, particularly at bathhouses, became connected with the spread of diseases.

Of course, given countless people were all bathing together in the same warm water, sharing food, and even sometimes having sex, this probably did genuinely invite the spread of disease at these establishments. Further, even in home baths water still was commonly shared with many people, as hauling it all in was no small task, and even much more work and cost if choosing to heat it up as well.

Thus, the popularity of bath houses began to significantly decline around when Syphilis was making the rounds. As noted by Dutch philosopher Erasmus in 1526,

Twenty-five years ago, nothing was more fashionable in Brabant than the public baths. Today there are none… the new plague has taught us to avoid them.

But, again, then, as now, people tended to not like to stink if they could help it. Thus, without the bath houses around or as popular, many began mostly relying on the age old method of washing using a basin and the like as a primary means to keep clean, as well as, when weather permitted, taking dips in lakes and rivers.

To further get around the stink problem, people who could afford it took to frequently changing their linen undergarments, as well as rubbing themselves down with freshly clean linen or scented rags. Various perfumes were also used, as well as the practice of wearing small bags containing fragrant herbs. Herbs, such as salvia officinalis, bay leaves, and hyssop, were also commonly rubbed under the armpits and elsewhere for use as a deodorant.

That said, while most still bathed occasionally, just less frequently than before, it does appear that some, even among the nobility, really did forgo full body bathing at this point.

For example, 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 even after their European brethren had largely abandoned bath houses. King Louis XIV’s stench seems to have come 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 in a bath twice in his lifetime.

Another in this “gruesome two-some” class among the aristocracy was Queen Isabel I of Spain who claimed that she had taken a full body 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 servants perhaps bathed them as children. And given certain moral attitudes of the day, particularly in the case of Isabel, it may be that they were just saying they didn’t ever bathe, rather than this actually being the case.

Whatever the case, amazingly, these post-medieval time attitudes against regular full body bathing in certain pockets of Europe lingered among some groups until around the mid-19th century.

But to sum up, there doesn’t actually ever seem to be a time in recorded history that people are known to have ceased bathing in some form altogether, with the record for the least hygienic not going to our ultra distant ancestors like medieval peoples or those before, but to our more recent ones, with the abandoning of better hygiene by some groups around the 16th century and beyond thanks to widespread disease and the development of more prudish attitudes.

But even then, with exceptions, most people seemed to have not enjoyed being dirty and took steps to keep as clean and freshly smelling as possible given their circumstances. While they certainly weren’t anywhere close to as hygienic as our modern selves who enjoy hot, running water, cheap soaps, etc., on the whole, they were not covered in dirt and grime as is so often depicted by Hollywood.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Bonus Facts:

  • Ever wonder how soap manages to get rid of bacteria? Well, wonder no more. Contrary to popular belief, most soap doesn’t actually kill microbes, unless it specifically has some sort of antibacterial agent added. And it’s noteworthy here that studies show antibacterial soap really isn’t that much more effective at getting rid of bacteria from, say, your hands, than normal soap. As for that non-antibacterial variety, when you wash your hands with it, the soap chemically works to break down the oil in your hands that is often riddled with microbes. Thus, the more soap and the longer the hands are rubbed together, once rinsed away with water, the less oil and microbes left on your hands.
  • Some of the earliest known table forks made their debut in Ancient Egypt. The Qijia culture (2400-1900 BC) that resided in part of present day China also are known to have used forks. A couple thousand years later, the fork’s popularity in the Western world spread via the Silk Road into Venice, with one of the earliest recorded instances of forks in Venice coming from an 11th century story of the wedding of a Byzantine princess, Theodora Anna Doukaina, to Domenico Selvo.She supposedly brought gold forks as part of her dowry. However, the God fearing Venetians saw these pronged monstrosities as a slight against The Lord himself who gave us perfectly good fingers to eat with. And if you’re now thinking we’re exaggerating, consider this quote from St. Peter Damian: “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks – his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metallic forks for them when eating.”Of course, in the Book of I Samuel (2:13)- thought to have been composed around 640-540 BC- it states that Jewish priests’ assistants used forks: “And the priests’ custom with the people was, that, when any man offered sacrifice, the priest’s servant came, while the flesh was in seething, with a fleshhook of three teeth in his hand…”Such trivial mentions as usage in the Holy scriptures by none other than the priests’ servants themselves didn’t stop many religious elite from vilifying the fork and poor Theodora. (They also didn’t like that she used napkins, among other things.)

    When the princess died two years later of a mysterious degenerative disease, it was considered by some to be punishment for her pride and perceived excesses.

    Despite being mentioned as OK to use in the Hebrew Bible, forks in the Western world continued to carry this negative stigma due to their association with Eastern decadence and being perceived as an affront to God.

    The fork’s popularity began to grow, however, during the 16th century due to the infamous historical trend setter Catherine de Medici. She helped popularize the fork with the French tables after her marriage to Henry II. At this time, anything Italian was in vogue thanks to the Renaissance.

    The fork also became more popular as hygiene ideals began to change, particularly as people started bathing and washing less frequently around this time, as previously noted. Naturally, the fork began to seem increasingly attractive to those who preferred their food to be free of anything on their hands.

    However, many men still rejected them as they were considered too feminine. This attitude began to alter when they began to be crafted with ruffled cuffs…. This might seem strange to us, but let’s not forget that high heels were originally invented for men, who also commonly wore tights…

    On that note, when forks began gaining in popularity, this resulted in less of a need for a pointed knife during meal times. As such, in 1669, Louis XIV- the same guy who loved doing up his hair, wearing tights, and high heels as was the manly fashion at the time- made these overly sharp knives illegal at the table and replaced them with blunter / wider ones.

    That said, it wouldn’t be until the Industrialization period that the lower and middle classes began commonly using forks, thanks to the reduction in price. When this happened, forks quickly surpassed knives as the most popular cutlery item.

    Finally, any mention of the history of cutlery would not be complete without giving a nod to the fact that ancient spoons in China also sometimes featured a pointy end to be used as a one prong fork / knife… perhaps the first known instance of the spork or spnife, depending on how you want to look at it.

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