With the recent coronavirus epidemic forcing me to write this post from Georgia rather than Maryland, I’ve had a bit of time to think about hygiene throughout history, especially since we are hearing about it so often. So hey, I thought, let’s find a way to make this about the middle ages, like I always do.
Often, when modern people think of the middle ages, they view it in much the same manner as it is displayed in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Dirty, with wart-covered peasants toil on their knees in massive piles of mud, carts full of the dead and diseased moving through dirt-covered towns, and everyone except the king covered, as the movie’s peasants declare, in shit. This perception of the Middle Ages gained traction during the 19th century, as a hygiene movement swept the western world at the same time as our modern understanding of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance formed. A 19th-century historian writing about medieval daily life commented that there were no baths for a thousand years, but a closer look reveals this may have more to do with the time’s own concerns and prejudices than the middle ages themselves .
Medieval people did not have running water, and so by modern standards they would probably still be quite dirty. Despite this, however, medieval people generally did not walk around constantly covered in dirt, as they are often portrayed. Popular advice books recommended washing hands, face, and teeth in the morning, and further handwashing throughout the day. Medieval soap was made from ash and lime mixed with oil and beer or mutton fat, heated at a high temperature before being mixed with flour and shaped . Most people, however, probably could not afford soap. People brushed and perfumed their outer garments and washed their undergarments frequently. Wealthy people could make use of medieval recipes for washing hair, whitening teeth, and improving skin much in the same way as modern people, though the clergy complained that these things increased vanity . In the late medieval period, many large cities had bathhouses . Paris had 32 by the 13th century . However, these places were often fronting for local brothels, such as the Stews in Southwark, and were usually overlooked by authorities . Their gray-market legality calls into question their actual cleanliness.
Different communities also had different concepts of hygiene. Anglo-Saxons believed that Vikings were overly concerned with cleanliness—perhaps connected to vanity—due to the fact that they bathed once a week, suggesting they bathed less often themselves . Non-Jewish people viewed washing the genitals as a particularly Jewish custom and, especially as anti-Semitism grew more common in the High Middle Ages, this practice was increasingly viewed with suspicion . However, medieval people seem to have generally practiced some form of personal hygiene. Though they did not understand germ theory, they inherited the Greek belief that bad smells, called miasma, caused disease . Plague doctors wore their iconic masks, stuffed with herbs and perfumes, to keep bad smells away from their faces. As such, many towns attempted to keep their streets clear of rubbish and sewage, though they often used rivers to do so, to the detriment of those downstream . This practice, and the waste from industries such as butchery, dyeing, and tanning made their way into the water supply.
The picture I have painted here is not one that, by modern standards, anyone would consider clean. However, the middle ages are often painted as a particularly dirty time bookended on both sides by cleaner ones. The Renaissance did not bring about a great revolution in cleanliness. Queen Elizabeth I’s famous, possibly apocryphal, declaration that she bathed only once a month is proof of that . In fact, public bathhouses often saw less traffic after the Black Death, as people feared being in large crowds in confined spaces in the wake of the plague . The ancient Romans, often praised for their public bathhouses and bathrooms, don’t come out so well on closer inspection either. Whipworm, roundworm, and the parasite that causes dysentery were just as common in the Roman period as they were during earlier periods . Ectoparasites were just as common during the Roman period as they were during the middle ages . In both Roman and medieval baths, the water was only changed intermittently, could acquire a scum on the surface, and essentially be a haven for parasites and diseases . Roman public toilets were probably quite dirty as well, with poor lighting and human waste on the seats and floors . Everyone in the latrine shared a few sponges on sticks to wipe . Might be better just to hold it.
So if medieval people weren’t all that much more grimy than anyone else from their time, why do we think of them that way? Modern concepts of hygiene didn’t truly develop until the 19th century, and the same sorts of practices happening in these other societies continued right up until then, worsened by industrialization. However, by that point, antiquity had long been romanticized and the Renaissance was beginning to get the same treatment. Works like Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire depicted the transition from antiquity into the middle ages as a horrible decline, as Europe fell pray to dogmatic religion and the oppression of feudalism. The “rediscovery” of classical works by humanist scholars in the Renaissance, the flourishing of new forms of art, change in philosophical discourse, and the increasing domination of Western Europe over the rest of the world led to it gaining a similarly high place in the historical pecking order. Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy depicted the middle ages in a similar way to Gibbon, though from the other end of the timeline.
At the same time as these historiographical changes, new schools of hygiene, medicine, and cleanliness swept the Western world. Cleanliness became interchangeable with moral purity, often with racist connotations. Rome’s baths, aqueducts, and public bathrooms, things that hygienists were recommending in the 19th century, made it a perfect fit. The Renaissance, because it rediscovered these ideas, became clean as well. And since both times were good, they had to be clean, because everything good was clean, and everything clean was good. The middle ages, simply the unfortunate time in between, was, of course, dirty. Dirtiness was associated with barbarity and savagery (see again the racist connotations from earlier) and, to the scholars of the 19th century, the middle ages fit the bill perfectly on both counts. Its uncleanliness was determined without question. In modern media, medieval people are only allowed to look clean when viewers are meant to find them attractive, and they are almost always women (a whole other problem that I don’t have the time or research experience to discuss here). Our media gives people from antiquity and Renaissance the benefit of looking clean even when they aren’t necessarily meant to be sexy despite the fact that, in reality, they probably weren’t much cleaner than their medieval counterparts.
And perhaps, with so many of us ignoring warnings to stay at home, a current presidential candidate coughing into his hand in the middle of a pandemic during a live debate, and the government needing to remind us how to wash our hands, we shouldn’t be so judgmental anyway.