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.
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).
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.)
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