Bathing in the Middle Ages

I’m not going to name any names, but I read a comment on someone else’s blog that medieval people were dirty and they actually thought that was a good thing.

Now, as I was a history major in college–with a specialty in medieval history–and am currently a medieval re-enactor, I feel it’s my duty to the world (and my medieval ancestors) to clear up this misconception.

Mind you, Hollywood perpetuates this myth (Monty Python wasn’t making fun of medieval people with the classic line, “How do you know he’s king?” “He hasn’t got shit all over him”–many of the Pythons are well-educated in medieval history (see Terry Jones’ documentary series, Medieval Lives); they’re actually making fun of the myth). I’ve even seen books which perpetuate this and other myths (e.g. medieval people didn’t love their children). So don’t feel bad if you’re not up on medieval bathing practices; some historians (who should know better) aren’t either.

Knight bathing after a fight, from the Manesse Codex

Medieval European society was divided into four classes: non-nobles, nobles, clergy, and non-Christians. And, as the middle ages progressed–especially after the Black Plague–you can justify splitting “non-nobles” into the working class (i.e. subsistence farmers) and the middle-class (i.e wealthy farmers, merchants, and craftsmen).

If you notice the pond in the background of this image from the de Berry Book of Hours, you will see naked people swimming and rubbing themselves clean.

The different strata of society practiced hygiene differently at different times during the middle ages. At the bottom end of the cleanliness scale–as one would expect–were the manual laborers.  Because they had neither large tubs, nor sufficient fuel to heat water, bathing, for them, was generally limited to the summer months when they could wash off in a river or pond. (They enjoyed a cool, refreshing rinse after a hot day outside, the same as us.)

However, it was basic good manners, at all levels of society, to at least wash your hands before eating (since forks were a late-medieval adaptation). This was especially true in the early middle ages, when two people often shared a plate of trencher bread and a cup.

Man and bathhouse attendants. (How do I know they’re bathhouse attendants? Because of what they’re wearing.) And that’s not a fig leaf covering his privates; it’s a bath sponge.

The poorer people in cities made use of public bathhouses–some leftover from the Roman period. Most condemnations issued from the pulpit against bathing were directed at public bathhouses rather than bathing in general. That’s because bathhouses had a tendency to get raunchy. Sexes were not always segregated, and prostitutes commonly went there to pick up clients (if not ply their trade outright).

Speaking of the church, they varied wildly on whether or not bathing was a good thing or not. Some monastic orders supported regular bathing and had baths in the monasteries, while other orders condemned the practice as too self-indulgent. (And an order could reverse its opinion on the issue, so, depending on the year, the monks might be more or less clean than the year before.)

Eleanor of Castile’s personal tub. The linen liner prevented splinters.

In the later middle ages and into the Renaissance, the middle class was especially prone to bathing, because having a tub (and the means to heat the water to fill it) was a status symbol. There was rarely a dedicated bathing room in houses; instead, the tub was brought into the bedroom, placed before the fire, and filled there.

A Jewish mikvah in London from the 1200’s. Unusually, it was in a private home.

Bathing among non-Christians was even more prevalent. Muslim doctors seemed to be aware, very early on, that being clean was better for the health. And Jewish law requires that men and (especially) women bathe regularly. Synagogues or community buildings would have held the ritual baths, and since it’s a requirement that you be physically clean before getting into the mikvah, a separate bathing area would have been provided, or people would have bathed at home first (the Japanese also follow this custom of washing in a shower before soaking in a bath).

Bathing may have actually become less common among the wealthy as the middle ages became the Renaissance, as people began to think that bathing might unbalance the humors and lead to illness. But certainly people like Isabella of Castile–who boasted that she had only ever bathed twice: on the day she was born and the day she married–were still in the minority.

The reason why Isabella’s boast has come down through history is because, at the time, it was just that–a boast–something which was out of the ordinary. Even if some people were cutting back on their bathing, it was very unusual that anyone would bathe that infrequently. Isabella boasted of this because she saw it as an act of piety. Bathing was an indulgence of the flesh; abstaining was a pious act–just like flogging yourself or wearing a hair shirt. Medieval people liked bathing; that’s why some of them stopped doing it in a fit of religiousness.

I’ll have the blue plate special with my bath today, thanks.

You have never had a party this awesome before.

In fact, medieval people could teach us a thing or two about bathing in style. Eating while in the bathtub appears to have been fairly common; certainly there are plenty of pictures depicting it . And the wealthy had some hot tub parties that could put college fraternity blowouts to shame.

Mind you, people didn’t bathe every day, the way most Americans do. They didn’t even bathe every other day. Let’s face it, hauling bucket after bucket of water up a few flights of stairs and heating if over a fire was not something you (or your servants) could do every day. But for people who could afford to have a tub, or had the fee to get in the bathhouse, bathing was probably done no less than once a month, and maybe as often as once a week. (Some biologists think that we’d all be better off bathing only once a week or two. There’s actually the possibility that we wouldn’t smell so much and sweat less if we weren’t constantly stripping the oil off our skin.)

Women washing the linens in 1531.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to point out that medieval people washed their clothes. The Goodman of Paris admonished his young wife to see that their undergarments and sheets were washed frequently. The middle class and nobility would have had several sets of undergarments and probably wore a set no more than 1-3 days (it probably wasn’t washed quite that frequently; instead, they probably “aired it out” between wearings and actually washed it after several wearings).

Because outer-garments were made of silk or wool, and frequently lined with fur, it was impossible to do anything more than spot-clean those garments. But that’s why men and women both wore linen undergarments from head to rump: the linen, worn against the skin, kept sweat and oil off the expensive fabrics which weren’t washable.

For more on bathing and laundry in the middle ages, click on the pictures for links, and also read: A Short History of Bathing Before 1601

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13 comments on “Bathing in the Middle Ages

  1. Wallace says:

    Very interesting post. I knew the Japanese were very bath conscience and the ceremonial bathing of the Jews, but I always wondered why the Europeans stopped daily bathing when it was such an intrinsic part of Roman culture. Must have been the barbarians from the far Eastern steppes who had little water and didn’t really have a history of bathing regularly. Plus the barbarians from the Northern countries would bath far less often since it was generally too cold most of the year. And the barbarians from the more desert countries of the Mediterranean North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean would have little water to spare for bathing except ceremonial.

    One nice point you mention is the cloth liner for the woden tube. I noticed that in a recent episode of The Borgias and wondered if that was authentic or just the show trying to be very decadent. Seems it is an authentic representation of a solution to a problem most people would never think of since nearly all our tubs are metal or ceramic or plastic and they don’t get splinters. I wonder why this is never used on those cedar hot tubes today? Does cedar not get splinters or is the wood finished to such a fine degree that it is so smooth there are no splinters? Or maybe the cedar, after being submerged in water for hours, just gets the wooden surface so softened that the wood just turns to mush and doesn’t make splinters.

    • Keri Peardon says:

      The cold weather was almost certainly a factor in reducing the amount of time people in northern climes spent bathing. And don’t forget that there was a mini-ice age that hit in the 1200’s, which made all of Europe significantly colder (it’s only now starting to warm up to pre-13th century temps). One of my history teachers said that Rome’s boundaries were defined by the olive and the grape; they didn’t settle in places where they couldn’t grow at least one. And they did indeed grow grapes in southern England while they were there, but after 1200, there was no more grape-growing in England. Settlements in Greenland were abandoned in the 14th century (if memory serves) because it became so cold there that no one could make a living. So the weather was probably a factor in reducing the amount of bathing.

      But most likely the main reason why medieval people didn’t bathe as frequently as Romans was not because of barbarian influences, but just because of cost. Roman was a single, wealthy empire. After the fall, though, Europe fractured into many small countries and tribal regions and the use of coinage was more than halved. Trade was also greatly reduced. Building public baths and heating them costs a lot of money and requires a stable, peaceful population and government that’s in firm control. That just didn’t exist in post-Roman Europe. It wasn’t until real countries started to emerge that the public baths were revived. And it wasn’t until people became more wealthy that they were able to afford private baths.

      Linen liners were so common in wooden tubs, it seems they must have had a purpose. My first guess was the prevention of splinters. While I’m sure Master William would inform us that medieval people were quite capable of putting a smooth finish on any piece of wood they wanted, you must remember that the bath tub wasn’t a dedicated piece of furniture. Pictures of bathtubs of middle class people were clearly re-purposed barrels. And when a bathtub wasn’t being bathed in, the laundry would have been done in it, it may have been used to store water for the household, etc. So perhaps it’s better to think of medieval people bathing in the washtub–and that would explain why it wasn’t finished smooth.

      I also wondered if perhaps the linen liners help prevent leaking. I’m not too sure how watertight wooden tubs and barrels were. It’s my understanding that wooden ships slowly leaked water–even in the 18th century–so it may be that the tubs and barrels allowed water to seep out. (Remember that they, unlike wine barrels, were not kept constantly moist, so the dry-wet-dry cycle may have made them leak more than a barrel that was kept full of liquid.) A leaking washtub was no big deal, because the laundry was done outside, but when you’re bathing in your bedroom (especially as a long soak seems to have been common), leaking would have been more of a problem. The liner (which may have been a hemp canvas for all I know) may have help prevented leaking.

      • Wallace says:

        Wooden ships do leak fairly constantly, regardless of the cauking and water proofing, but that’s due to the constant flexing of the ship as it goes over the waves. A barrel would not be subject to the constant flexing of a ship, plus, when water is added, the wood swells up, tightening up the seams even more and making the barrel or tub completely water tight.

        Any type of cloth would be of no help in keeping water in, even the finest weave of silk, unless it had been water proofed. And since the common way of water proofing cloth was to coat it with tar, that would seem to make its use in a tub counter productive. Except for the luxury of siting in the tub on cloth instead of hard rough wood, I like your idea of splinter control. It wouldn’t stop splinters, but it might make them all get stuck in the bottom of the cloth instead of your bottom.

        Since the barrel makers of the Middle Ages were as good at barrel making as modern whiskey or wine makers, I’d be pretty confident that their barrels, and wash tubs and bath tubs as well, didn’t leak. But as to water getting out in the house, there’s alway splashing and dripping on the floor when getting out, and spilling the water that’s being carried to it in buckets, so some water on the floor is likely even in a perfectly sealed tub. And of course there’s the need to empty the tub after the bath, so all those buckets dipped into the water and dripping as they are being carried out would leave a water trail too. I’d just think the Medieval housekeeper would just use the spilled water as an excuse to mop the stone or wooden floors of the nobles and the rich, while the peasants who had dirt floors might just let it drain out in a groove cut into the dirt.

        It might be interesting to see how the Medieval people regarded “used” water. With water for washing people and washing clothes and washing dishes and drinking water all needed in a Medieval house and no plumbing, was there a hierarchy of water use so that it wasn’t thrown out till it was used for as many things as possible? Since every bucket had to be carried from the well to the house by hand, it would be very unlikely that they would use that bucket of water for just one thing and then throw it out. I’d think that the peasants would just use the local stream or river for everything, but the nobles would want it done in the house and not on a rock by the river.

    • Keri Peardon says:

      Actually, untreated canvas can hold water decently. We have a canvas bucket (common in the 18th century), and when it’s soaking wet (so that the weave is swollen shut) it takes 12-24 hours for a gallon of water to seep/evaporate out of it. So a canvas liner could help leak-proof a tub–although that may not have been why they used them.

      With the bigger tubs, it’s clear that more than one person bathed at a time. Even with a small tub, though, people in the household probably bathed one after the other using the same water. It wouldn’t be much work to bail out a bucket of water and pour in a bucket of boiling water to heat it up again for the next person.

      If it was me, I’d probably use the remaining water to wash the floors or throw it out in the street to flush the gutter (depending on where you lived, you might be responsible for keeping your section of the street and sidewalk clean), but I don’t know for certain what medieval people did with their wash water.

      Given that water was a plentiful commodity in the British Isles, hauling it back downstairs after a bath in order to save it was probably more work than obtaining more (many houses collected rainwater runoff in barrels right outside their doors, so they didn’t have far to go for it), and in that case, it may have just been thrown out the window. In the case of the less affluent, bath water might have been put into a water trough for the animals to drink (soap existed, but it’s not clear how much it was used by people when they bathed).

      Laundry water was probably not reused because soap, straight lye, and other chemical agents were often used to whiten the linens and starch might be washed out of hats and ruffs. However, all of the laundry would probably have been done in one or two tubs full of water (depending on the size of the household and the amount of laundry). All the dishes were probably washed in one tub too, so you got a lot of use from one tub of water, even if it was applied to only one task.

  2. Fascinating post! I guess I’d always assumed that nobles bathed because they had the servants to haul buckets of hot water around, and peasants dunked themselves in rivers whenever the mood took them. Now I know better 🙂

  3. SKFigler says:

    Very interesting post on Medieval bathing practices. I’ve never wondered about this, but now wonder why I hadn’t wondered.

  4. ricky peardon says:

    I am proud that, although you are very educated, you continue to seek (and spread) knowledge. You have become a fine writer.

  5. Naomi says:

    Very intereresting. Makes me want to study history.

  6. Trex_Tristan says:

    Hi, Keri!!! I am writing an essay on the “fear” of bathing during the renaissance. I was wondering what sources you used.

    • Keri Peardon says:

      One of the historians in the documentary “Tudor Monastery Farm” mentions that by the Tudor period, people were afraid to take baths because the thought was that it would open up their pores (which is true) and allow disease to get in (not true). Instead, they wiped down with a dry towel and carefully combed their hair to get rid of dirt.

      Unfortunately, I can’t remember which episode the comment is in. But all the episodes are available on YouTube (I think there’s just 8) and they’re really excellent!

      I will try to remember if there’s any other place where I’ve heard that. I know I have, but when I read, the important info goes into a great mental repository. What book that info was in is not usually adjudged important enough to also go in the mental repository.

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