One thing everyone will tell you is that medieval people did not bathe.
As a Ren faire actor, I hear this one A LOT.
Just watching TV shows and movies purportedly set in the Middle Ages you can see a bunch of dirty, filthy people in drab brown clothes. Thank goodness the Renaissance came along and saved us from dirt…and brown.
Hysterical History covered the myth of brown clothes over on our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/RenMagHystericalHistory/), so for this blog post I am going to dive right into the bathing (see what I did there?).
It really doesn’t take long to bust this one, gang.
Manuscript images are aswim (hehe I crack me up) with folks bathing and folks bathing folks. There is a town in England called BATH.
S’right there in the name. Bath, England.
Astute readers will point out to me that Bath is a Roman town. This is true, originally. But, the famous healing baths of Bath were sought after by medieval Englishfolk and if they could they would make a pilgrimage to the city.
Some of you might be thinking, sure, but all this bathing was really something for the upper classes. But, nope, it was a thing everyone managed to do.
Perhaps we first need to address what we mean by bathing. Today we consider this activity to be something that happens in a specially designed room with copious amounts of water that we either sit in or stand under, while sudsing up from stem to stern. And while showers did not exist, bathing tubs, made of wood, existed in the Middle Ages, but they were not something every household would have. However, basins and streams were certainly easier to come by. Royals may even have a bathing room build specially, but for most people it was something done wherever the tub or basin could fit.
It is thought that the bags above these basins might have held powdered or liquid soap.
Washing hands and face upon waking, before meals, and before bed was common across the populace of Europe. Scented plants were typically added to the water. See, people like things that smell good. People like to smell good. People prefer when other people smell good. People in the middle ages used items such as pomanders or ambergris to mask intense odors. And there were intense odors in the Middle Ages. They did not have clean water acts or water treatment plants or the ability to load their trash onto large trucks and have it taken many miles away to be out of sight and out of mind. But, they did recognise the stink and took actions to avoid it…it’s just that the civic and scientific tools to do it well were not really available.
The pomander is that little teaball looking doodad. Folks often wore them on belts and rosaries so they would not be without.
Soap existed in Europe by the time the 10th century rolled around. In fact in the 900s France established guilds for soapmakers, so we can safely say people had soap and it was popular enough to be making enough livre to warrant needing a guild. These were animal fat based and castille (olive oil base) soaps, with lye and scented ingredients like lavender, rose, saffron, clove, and myrtle. Black soap, hard soap, clear soap, milled soap, tallow soap, cold processed, hot processed, etc, etc. The nicest soaps were cost prohibitive to almost everyone, but basic soap was pretty ubiquitous.
There were hygiene guides which encouraged people to maintain a habit of cleaning and looking after their bodies. These often included recipes for things like scented hair powders, scented face tonics, tooth scrub, scented oils, and the like. One very famous treatise on hygiene was (presumably) written by Trota of Salerno and is called The Trotula.
What we see is a pattern of cleanliness that involves a minimum of washing hands and face a few times each day. When possible the whole body was cleaned with a cloth, or if a tub (or stream) was available, by submerging in water. Soap was used by almost everyone, as were hair cleansers. For many, nails were trimmed and cleaned, ears were cleaned, and the body powdered and oil with scented products.
Medieval ear spoons. Absolutely no longer doctor recommended. But, they did they job. Remember, kids, do not put anything smaller than your elbow IN your ear. K, thanks.
There are outlier accounts, such as the 6th century Irish Saint Fintan of Clonenagh who opted to take a bath once a year (clearly not the patron saint of soapmakers – that is Saint Florian). And gripes from Anglo-Saxon men that their womenfolk were being seduced by the incredibly clean and well-scented Norsemen. Anglo-Saxon men felt the Norsemen were fussy and overly concerned with their appearances and perhaps used too much water and too much soap and had really fanceh hair…really anything they could bitch about because the ladies were keen on the strapping, foreign invaders.
So, let’s put it to rest now. Medieval folk may have had different ways for cleaning and different ideas about hygiene, but they, too, wanted skin, hair, teeth, ears, and nails clean as much as we do. Can’t really argue with a hundred images of bathtubs and a hundred recipes for hygiene products.
Ah, a bath feast. Wait. What?! We’re going to have to explore this later!