Medieval Hygiene Might Have Been Better Than You Think
The Medieval period is usually perceived as a time in Europe during which the greater part of the continent was in decline. In many aspects of Medieval society, the quality of life was inferior as compared to either the Roman period that preceded it, or the Renaissance that succeeded it. One such aspect is that of hygiene practices.
The Medieval Water Closet
The concept of hygiene habits during the Middle Ages may be said to be quite different from that which we understand today. This is reflected in the hygiene practices that the people of this age were performing in their everyday lives. For a start, indoor plumbing had not been invented yet, and people would normally use a privy (known also as an outhouse or a garderobe) when nature called. This crude toilet was often just a shack with a slab of wood over a hole in the ground. In castles, monasteries, and convents, these were narrow rooms for people to relieve themselves. In all fairness, these indoor privies were placed as far away as possible from the interior chambers, and usually had double doors to keep the unpleasant odours in.
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Privy in Ypres Tower, circa 1250. (Pam Fray/ CC BY-SA 2.0 )
In addition to this, there were also chamber pots, which we kept under the bed, so that people could use them at night. One of the bizarre occupations that arose from this hygiene habit was that of the ‘Groom of the King’s Close Stool’. This job, held usually by the sons of nobility, involved assisting the king when he had to do his business, and cleaning up afterwards.
It goes without saying that the waste products had to go somewhere. In an age when sewers were non-existent, people simply made cesspits, which were essentially huge, deep holes dug in the ground, into which human waste was dumped. Ironically, perhaps, this practice was not hygienic, as the waste products exposed to the air created a suitable environment for the proliferation of bacteria that could spread diseases. As for the privies in castles, excrement would either fall into the moat, or released down the side of the castle’s walls. An interesting story about this medieval ‘sewage’ system comes from the 1203-1204 siege of Château Gaillard in Normandy, France. During the siege, the French forces succeeded in capturing the second wall by penetrating it via a unguarded toilet chute that led to a chapel.
The Other End
Moving from one end of the body to another, things were not looking much brighter in terms of dental hygiene either. During the Middle Ages far less processed sugar (if any) was in people’s diets and this was a key factor which led them to have surprisingly healthy teeth and so fresher breath than later in the millennium when sugar addiction was spread throughout Europe. People would simply clean their mouths by rinsing with water. As for teeth, these would be cleaned by wiping them with a piece of cloth. Later on, in order to keep their teeth white, people began to use mixtures of herbs and abrasives, including burnt rosemary, to scrub their teeth. A mouthwash made from a mixture of vinegar and wine was also used for oral hygiene. In addition to these measures, people of the Middle Ages would freshen their breath by chewing on strong-smelling herbs, such as mint, cinnamon, or sage.
A dentist with silver forceps and a necklace of large teeth, extracting the tooth of a seated man, 1360-1375. ( Public Domain )
If such oral care were insufficient, and a Medieval person had a toothache, he or she would pay a visit to the dentist, who believed that the pain was caused by worms living inside the teeth. Incidentally, during the Middle Ages, the dentist was also the barber, and the treatment for a toothache was inevitably extraction without anaesthetics.
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Medieval dentist removing tooth, probably 1616-7. ( Public Domain )
A Rather Relaxed Attitude to Bodily Cleanliness
Whilst people of the Middle Ages were somewhat concerned about cleaning their teeth, it is disputed as to how bothered they were about the overall cleanliness of their bodies. Some think the norm was not to bathe very frequently, based on accounts such as that of St Fintan of Clonenagh who was said to have taken a bath only once a year, just before Easter, for twenty-four years. But this could have been due to spells when Middle Age churchmen warned against excessive bathing, much like they warned about other excesses. Whilst people of this time did bathe, it seems that they did it less frequently than one would do today.
Additionally, only the wealthy would have access to private bathtubs. The rest of the population had to settle for public baths, which had to accommodate hundreds of people. Bathing in such public baths may not do much for one’s cleanliness, as the water was rarely changed, despite being used by a great number of people. One result of people not being properly cleaned was the horrible stench, hence the use of nosegays. These were small bunches of flowers or herbs held in the hand, tied around the wrist, or pinned onto clothing, which was meant to counter the foul smells in the environment.
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Sharing of a bathing and dining experience, France, 15 th century. ( Public Domain )
However, there is another story to tell about Medieval bathing habits. Soap was first used in the Middle Ages evidenced by the presence of soap maker guilds in the major cities. And for the rich who could afford private bath tubs, bathing might be made into a luxurious experience, with scented water and partners or friends sharing the experience, much like one might in a jacuzzi.
To conclude, many Medieval hygiene practices would likely be considered today as somewhat lacking, if not utterly unhygienic. But there was certainly a consideration of personal cleanliness, especially for the wealthy. One can’t help but wonder, though, if future generations will review our own cherished hygiene practices, and feel disgusted by them.
Top image: Medieval style bathing depicted in calligraphy of a book circa 1400. ( Public Domain )
By Wu Mingren
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