Dirty, Filthy People

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!

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Drunk History?


One thing we at Hysterical History hear quite a bit from folks is that people in the Middle Ages drank alcohol all the time because the water was unsanitary This rather gives the impression of all manner of folk, from toddlers to grannies to priests to masons, being sloshed day in and day out.

So, what’s the real deal with these tipsy toddlers and stoned masons? Some astute folks may point out that these alcoholic beverages just weren’t as strong…watered down, if you will. Wait. This is partly true, but drinks in the Middle Ages are varied and are likely to surprise you.

Let’s get the big bugbear out of the way first, though. Medieval folks did, indeed, drink water. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that people learned that illness was carried by wee beasties, such as bacteria, that might be found in water. So, water would not have been automatically suspect as a disease carrier. However, people can tell when water is not good because it is dirty or stagnant. More to the point, medieval people had access to well water (which is generally, by its nature, pretty clean). This doesn’t mean they were fans of water, though, so while it was drunk plain, there were many other options.

Think of it this way. What does it take to get YOU to drink water? Most of us today struggle to drink enough water. We’d rather have some iced tea, soda, lemonade, vodka. When I search my apps for “water tracker” there are easily a few dozen options. So, don’t pretend like modern people don’t also fail on the drinking water front.

It is a misconception to think that the only drink options were mead, cider, wine, and beer. While these play large roles in Ren faires and fiction, there was a larger selection available in history. But, let’s sip on these a second while we’re here. 

Mead was a regional offering that was not often found outside Wales, at least at first. What with the Welsh caring more about sheep than fields of grain, grain based alcohol was just not a thing, but honey wine was certainly a thing a shepherd could manage.

Apples, well, crab apples, have existed for thousands of years in Europe and Northern Africa. Those early apples were not juicy snacks, though, and it would take some time for anyone to be inspired to turn it into a beverage. The first real cider-like drink seems to have come from pre-Roman Britain and soon after first contact some serious apple cultivation got under way and by the 9th century the word “cider” appears in the English language. However, cider was never a hugely popular drink in the isles (or anywhere, for that matter – DESPITE today’s West Country adoration for it) until after Europeans settled in the north east of America where apples grew far better than barley.

Fruity fermented firewater has long been a part of human history and grapes were the fruit of choice around the Mediterranean. Wine was found throughout those areas of Europe adjacent to the Mediterranean or adjacent to those areas (where was THE WINE hexagon in Settlers of Catan?!). Wine was less common in Britain, but was imported by the wealthy. Eventually, as trade routes improved and prices dropped it became a far more common drink for knights and nobles.

Beer has been with us a loooooong time. Mesopotamians and early Egyptians made it. What we know as beer today is not precisely what was drunk by earlier cultures, though. And, until pretty recently there was a distinction between beer and ale, ale being an unhopped fermented malt beverage and beer being hopped. There is a whole history here, but suffice to say hops proved a better preservative than the gruit mix which came before and now is used across the board. Ale (and later beer) would have been what most people drank most of the time. But, what people drank daily was what is known as small beer, a beer with barely any alcohol content. Refreshing, but not intoxicating. The ABV% would have been 3% or lower. These would often be mixed with water. Stronger ales were served for special events or for the purpose of achieving various states of un-sobriety.

Now, onto these other bevvies. 

Tisane, or herbal “teas” were big. Boiling various herbs and spices in water was both a medical and culinary practice. Rosemary tea. Sage tea. Lavender tea, Coriander tea. You name it, if it grew in a kitchen garden or could be bought from the spice merchant someone at some point likely put it in some boiling water. One of the most popular was barley tea.

Things you ADD to water, sort of medieval Mio, were also popular. Rose and lavender water or syrups were fairly common throughout Europe. Some folks, if they lived in the Middle East or nearby, used sekanjabin, a sweetened, flavored, vinegar based syrup that could be added to a variety of foods and beverages, water included. Syrups derived from fruits, like grenadine were used. Simply adding honey (plain or flavored) to water was also popular. Basically, they, like us, just wanted water to taste more interesting. They even added ale or wine to water to get some kind of flavor.

Alongside water, and flavored water, milk was pretty popular. Milk came from cows, sheep, and goats. It was drunk straight or by adding honey or other flavored syrups, like medieval NesQuik. Milk was also used to create possets and other drinks thought to have some medicinal qualities.

So, no daily grog fests. No plastered priests nor glazed grannies nor wasted wives wandering the streets of medieval Europe on a daily basis. And when you get down to it, even if the drink isn’t water, water was likely used in the making of it. Boiling and fermentation helped kill bacteria, whether they knew it or not. So, the next time you host a medieval feast, try serving some tisanes, or flavored water, or a posset*!

*more on posset later!

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Unsolicited Dick Pics (NSFW)

When we tell you that we are going to present you with a host of unsolicited Dick pics, you probably assume we mean something like this:

Good guess! But, no.

Penises in Peculiar Places

(with a Side of Spectacularly Strange Ballsacks)

From the Artemision Bronze to Michelangelo’s David to the fresco of Priapus in Pompeii, medieval and Renaissance art history is packed with penises. But those are pretty boring boners. We’ve gathered a very NSFW collection of weird willies from medieval manuscripts that will leave you thinking “WTF?”

1.  Consider this dynamic duo of marginal man meat. We appreciate that these dongs seem to be pointing directly at the start of a new paragraph. Though we decided to divide this article with ordinary ordinal numbers, we may consider using Biggus Dickus bullet points in the future. They certainly do get your attention.

2. And then there’s this classic drawing of a woman offering a fish to a cat in exchange for the johnson in its jaws. The longer we look at this picture, the more questions we have. Where did the feline get the phallus? Why does the woman want it back so badly? What role is the jester and his proffered pouch play in this? But what we really want to know … was the trade successful? Judging by the cat’s face, we think the pussy got the upperhand.

3. We’re baffled and bemused by these cockfruit trees. We heard that good dick doesn’t grow on trees, but this illustration seems to suggest otherwise. First of all, where can we find one of these? And secondly … nope, that was actually our only pressing question about this hardwood forest. Fun fact: these particular plucked penises were the illustrative creation of a 14th century husband and wife run atelier in Paris.

4. Check out this lovely 14th century lady riding Falkor, the luck-dick. Dick-dragon? Either way, it’s smirking, flying, and ready for a neverending bawdy bedtime story. Plus, this erotic equipment has ears, so we can only hope that it’ll listen to what she wants. Hey, a girl can dream.

5. And then we have this fellow’s roger-revealing regalia. It looks like he tried to read up on how to do tree pose instead of watching the yoga instructor and ended up tangled in his own testicles. Instructions unclear; penis stuck in manuscript margin. Do not try this at home.

6. There’s also this apparent penis peace offering. Long before roses and chocolates were a requisite gift from hapless husbands, this illustration seems to indicate that women requested recompense with a different sort of package. But let’s be honest, some of us still prefer dicks to daisies when it comes to an apology.

7. This pre-cursor to Lonely Island’s “Dick in a box.” On a Saturday night in 1209, Justus Timberlake offers his johnson in a jar to a fair maiden. If that doesn’t go over too well, he’ll try the cock in a crock, the chub in a tub, or the always-popular fumes in a flagon. Surely she’ll be impressed by that.

BONUS! Beware this bodacious bagpipe ballsack. A testament to testicular artistry, this musical man-bit would probably make a menacing melody if squeezed too hard.

At the end of the day it is clear that our Medieval forebearers were not as shy about gentials as we may be today, but also that dick jokes clearly have a long, if questionable history.

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Wheels, Carousels, and Overwhelmed Scholars

You might have seen this image floating around on social media:

This beautiful gadget that looks like a portable water wheel is a book wheel. The one in this image being passed around is from the Georgian era (early 18th century), but they go back even farther.

The image below is from “The Diverse and Artifactitious Machines of Captain Agostino Ramelli” (say THAT three times fast) from 1588.

Ramelli invented this whimsical wheel of wisdom to help solve the age old problem all of us researchers have encountered – needing to collate several sources at once. Or, a more modern analogy – having a ton of tabs open. Ironically, precisely what I did to research this post! We love irony around here. Interestingly, has been noted that the machine made a somewhat pleasant clicking sound as one rotated tomes. I suppose not unlike the quiet clicking of a mouse button today.

But, Ramelli’s wheel was not the first invention to try to tackle the problem of trying to download craptons of data into your head at once. The less obvious carousel was popular before the clearly superior scribal circulator.

This image from the 15th century perfectly captures how jealous carousel-less scholars were of those who had a carousel. Even then DOG wants in on this carousel action. The amazement toward this device has clearly warn off for the lady of the house. The idea was that you could have multiple volumes in this fancy lazy susan.

Here is a close up from the 14th century of an adorable tabletop version:

Too bad Christine de Pisan did not have one. Christine, we’re in love with your bibliophilia, girl! And we feel your pain…

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