Why Bathing Was Uncommon in Medieval Europe
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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- 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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