What Was Hygiene Like In The Middle Ages?

What was hygiene like in the Middle Ages?

When you read the title of the article, you may think, “Washing? In the middle Ages…?” And, although there are many other topics for which this era is one of the most reviled and on which the greatest number of falsehoods have fallen, hygiene is one of the most popular and frequent topics.

At the risk of disappointing lovers of the dirty and dark Middle Ages, the answer is yes, in medieval times they washed, and quite a lot. Not only that, but they took care of their skin, their hair, their nails and their teeth, they washed their clothes so that they were neat and they perfumed the rooms of the houses and the sheets on the beds. Surprised…? Keep reading, because in this article we are going to break one of the most hackneyed clichés of the Middle Ages: medieval hygiene.

Hygiene in the Middle Ages: neat on the inside, neat on the outside

It would be frankly absurd to think that in a thousand years of history the human being had neglected the cleanliness of the body and its environment, thus forgetting all the hygienic baggage of classical culture. The Middle Ages were a great continuator of Roman knowledge and customs, so hygiene could not be less.

It is widely believed that, in the European Middle Ages, the only people who washed were the Muslims who lived in Al-Andalus. Fake. It is true that Muslims had a very ancient tradition of bathing, but European Christians were no less. Because, although the great baths of Roman times no longer existed, Yes, there were the well-known bath houses public places where citizens could go to wash, chat and eat.

A clear example of this are those known as the Arab Baths of Girona, which were not actually Arab and were built in the Romanesque style. We will talk about this in more detail in another section. The Christian ideal was cleanliness, both of the soul and the body. And, although the Church did not look favorably on makeup, shaving and excessive body care (because then it became vanity), it did promote basic neatness as a fundamental pillar of a pure and upright soul. Let’s review below the basic points that will help us better understand hygiene in the Middle Ages.

The bath houses

We have already mentioned it: in the Middle Ages the Roman tradition of public baths persisted, and quite strongly. In the city of Nuremberg (which, of course, in medieval times did not have the size or the inhabitants that it has now) no less than 14 bathhouses have been documented in the medieval centuries. And in Paris, in the 13th century, there were 32 public baths for the use and enjoyment of Parisians; If we take into account that, at that time, the city was only the Ille-de-Cité and a few neighborhoods on both banks of the Seine, the number never ceases to surprise us.

How did these bathhouses work? People came to them not only to clean themselves, but also to receive invigorating massages and perfume themselves with ointments. We will talk about the topic of medieval perfumes in another section, because without a doubt their variety will seem astonishing. Good; people bathed and relaxed, but also, of course, chatted animatedly, ate and listened to music. Therefore, the medieval public bath was not only a place of toilet; Similar to the Roman baths, it was a place to socialize and entertain.

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Quite often, medieval public baths were attacked from the pulpit, not for the fact that they were places of toilet, but for the “promiscuity” they entailed. We must keep in mind that, very often, men and women bathed together (another myth to destroy, that of medieval prudery), so sexual or, at the very least, sensual encounters were quite common. In fact, many bathhouses ended up being fronts for brothels, which accelerated their prohibition… in the Middle Ages? No, in the 16th century, already in the Modern Age.

Soaps and bleaches

Yes, soap existed in the Middle Ages, and yes, lye existed, although it is not the lye that we know, but rather a much more natural and sustainable one, which was made with water, vegetable oils or soap and burnt wood ash. It is known as ash lye, which we can still find in many areas today; Contrary to what it may seem, it is equally cleansing and also has disinfectant properties.

As stated by Consuelo Sanz de Bremond (1963), researcher and disseminator of medieval clothing and hygiene customs, in her blog Stories for curious minds, in the 7th century we already have evidence of the production and sale of soap in areas of present-day Italy, Spain and France. In fact, the first documentation on soap comes from ancient Syria, and from there it passed without any difficulty to medieval Europe.

The ingredients with which medieval bar soap was made varied over time. First, and as Sanz de Bremond also comments in the same blog, it was obtained through a plant known as “fullers’ grass”, which grew on the banks of rivers. Later, well into the Middle Ages, the famous Marseille soaps and Castile soap appeared, both made with olive oil and which were spectacularly popular.

Thus, the production and trade of lyes and soaps was abundant and absolutely normal in the Middle Ages. With them, not only the body was washed, but also the hair and clothes. We will talk about the care of the latter below.

Clean white clothes

The topics of medieval dirt appear even in great films, such as the film version that Annaud made of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. In the film we can see the characters quite lacking in hygiene, especially the townspeople, who They literally look like they came out of a cave. No, not again.

The Middle Ages were an extraordinarily neat time that took meticulous care with clothing and the presence of the individual. They made sure that the beds were clean and scented, and the sheets white and sparkling. Logically, within the economic capacity of the interested party, since a room belonging to a nobleman or a rich bourgeois was not the same as that of a peasant.

It was very common to wear a shirt, woven with linen fibers, which, due to its natural porosity, acted as thermoregulator and antibacterial under the clothes, let’s say, “appointment clothes”. On the other hand, these fabrics carried out what was known as “dry bathing”; That is, they absorbed sweat and bad odors from the body, and thus saved the most sumptuous outer clothing from stench and dirt. If we look at it coldly, we have actually gone “backwards”, since nowadays few people wear undershirts under their main garments.

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Therefore, what was washed frequently was the undershirt. Thus, the well-worn story that Isabel la Católica did not change her shirt is… surprise, a myth. For someone in the Middle Ages it was inconceivable not to wash or change underwear. Does this mean that outer clothing was not washed? Yes, it was washed and brushed, but much less frequently, given its delicacy (remember that many were made of velvet and silk, materials that are frankly difficult to wash even now).

A world of perfumes and cosmetics

We have already commented above that the world of perfumery in the Middle Ages is surprisingly diverse. It is true that medieval tastes vary considerably with respect to our time; They preferred strong and intense perfumes, often obtained from aromatic woods such as sandalwood and cedar or from very odorous resins (benzoin, incense, camphor…).

The word perfume comes from per fumo, that is, “by or through smoke”, since, initially, the odorous substances were obtained from the combustion of the ingredients. Teresa Criado Vega, from the University of Córdoba, has a splendid essay about the so-called arts of peace, that is, the cosmetics and perfumery treatises of Castile at the end of the Middle Ages.

In it, Criado Vega distinguishes several methods to achieve a good smell, among which the so-called scented waters stand out obtained through distillation with an alembic (a very widespread instrument in the Middle Ages) or through the maceration technique.

In any case, they were liquid substances that mixed water with a countless number of elements: musk, jasmine, roses, orange blossom, rosemary, citrus, sandalwood, cedar, fennel, incense, bitter almonds… The result was scented waters that were used both for personal use and to give a good smell to the home. In the latter case, pots and pans were popular to scent homes, as well as powders and scent pillows to scent drawers and other furniture.

And if taking care of the house, clothes and furniture was common, so was taking care of the body. There are countless medieval beauty treatises, such as the Women’s Manual, from the 15th century, or, as Leo González states in the blog Myriobiblonthe famous skin care treatises of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179).

How did medieval men and women take care of their appearance? To begin with, the ideal of female beauty of the time included extreme whiteness of skin, blonde hair like strands of gold, and perfect white teeth. To achieve this, women, especially noble women, dedicated a lot, a lot of time to their personal hygiene and adornment, to the horror of the Church, which considered this type of excess as obvious vanity, therefore the enemy of the righteousness of the soul.

In any case, medieval women and men used natural toothpastes to care for their teeth and whiten them, and they also groomed their nails to prevent them from breaking. Hair, on the other hand, was an object of true devotion. We have received countless recipes for hair care, and even for hair dye, because let us remember that, although the feminine ideal was blonde, not all women were. Once again we return to Criado Vega’s essay, where the historian collects some formulas in this regard: for example, the so-called blonde bleach, a hair cleansing product that also contained natural dyes to lighten it.

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Hygiene in cities

Who has not heard that “water goes”? We think about it and the typical medieval citizen throwing excrement and urine from her urinal out of the window automatically comes to mind.

As things stand, we must distrust a priori anything that adds more dark morbidity to the medieval period, and carefully examine the sources. Let’s return to Leo González and his blog, where the researcher collects the existing regulations in medieval cities regarding dirt and uncivil acts. Large cities such as London or Paris applied severe fines in their municipal regulations to those who dirty the streets.

We also have extensive documentation of complaints that some neighbors made about the bad odors produced by the guild on duty, such as potters or tanners, who on many occasions were relegated to the outskirts of cities precisely so as not to disturb citizens. with the stench of the job. Which proves, once again, that the medieval people were not used to bad smells and that they clearly distinguished when they were faced with one.

On the other hand, latrines were more abundant than we think, both in castles and monasteries and, of course, in homes. It would be really disconcerting if a civilization that put so much care into bodily and domestic cleanliness would let people relieve themselves anywhere, wouldn’t it?

Conclusions

That the Middle Ages was not the barbaric and dirty period that we have always been taught is obvious, in light of the numerous documents on the matter, which cannot in any case be omitted or ignored. There are treatises on beauty, for the manufacture of soap and lye, for the care of clothing and the home, as well as reliable testimonies of the profuse use of bathrooms, both public and private, in wealthy homes. It is absurd to say, based on all this evidence, that the Middle Ages did not care about health and hygiene.

Where, then, does the myth of a dirty and smelly Middle Ages come from? In large part, from the Enlightenment, determined to pass off the Middle Ages as a time of obscurantism and barbarism to justify the light of the Age of Enlightenment. And, although it is true that the Enlightenment brought very positive things, it is no less true that the medieval centuries were not far behind in terms of hygiene and body care. Rather, from my point of view, they far exceed it.