The Great Unwashed?

How many times do you hear or see it stated that medieval people hardly ever washed? Is it correct to assume that the men and women of the medieval period restricted bathing to an annual (or even more infrequent) activity, and so smelled almost all of the time?

In trying to answer these questions I will explore bathing habits of the upper classes, poorer and common people, beginning with the inhabitants of castles.

In their book ‘Life in a Medieval Castle’ Joseph & Frances Gies claimed that ‘baths were taken in a wooden tub, protected by a tent or canopy and padded with cloth…. when the Lord traveled the tub accompanied him, along with a bathman who prepared the baths”. This passage goes on to say “In some important thirteenth century castles and palaces there were permanent bathrooms, and in Henry III’s palace at Westminster there was even hot and cold running water in the bath house…”[i].

Not all though, seem to  had such conveniences available to them and “even the accounts and illustrations of bathing in palaces and noble residences seldom depict bathing as a solitary activity”[ii]. Part of the reason for this seems to have been the time and effort involved in the preparation of hot baths, and the desire to conserve the water used. As a result of this, public or communal bathing seem to have been more popular, whether in natural water sources, or (perhaps later) in the public bath houses which some major European cities had. The only problem is that some bath houses may  become associated with promiscuity and prostitution, some even being attached to, or effectively being brothels. One example of these could have been the Southwark stews in London.

Bathing also seems to have some taken on some ceremonial associations apart from simple cleanliness. In another passage from the same book a Chronicler by the name of Jean de Tours recounted how “a bath was prepared according to the custom for novice knights” in this case a young Geoffrey of Anjou, and how “after bathing Geoffrey donned a linen undergarment, a tunic of cloth of gold…” and other finery, who  was being “initiated into knighthood” along with his attendants.” So it would seem that bathing was in some way associated with Knighting ceremonies, and in England, the Order of the Bath was also established, which may have placed even more prominence on the tub.

The simple necessity of keeping clean is one thing, but did medieval people have any appreciation of hygienic and health benefits of bathing? It would seem so.

[medieval-bath-1] Another source states that “hygienic bathing was not the rare activity during the medieval period that most critics assume….some medical manuals recommended daily baths, hot or cold”. In this context in appears that “indoor and outdoor baths were common” hot springs and natural spas were even held to have health benefits and some indoor facilities allegedly “had indwelling glaze tile tall stoves or dry heaters with hot stones”[iii].

Such may have been all well and good for the wealthy or upper classes, but what of commoners or the poor? Were they truly ‘the great unwashed’? According to the above source “All social classes… could bathe somewhere on the ocean shore, riverbanks, lake fronts, stream beds, hot springs water holes, natural ponds and artificial pools”[iv].

If this was the case and the less regular  less regular bathing of Medieval people can “be attributed to more limited facilities available for washing and the … inconvenience of using them then to  any cultural bias against cleanliness”, they’re taking the opportunity to wash wherever or whenever they could may make perfect sense, and who can blame them?[v].

So it would appear that washing and bathing were not such an uncommon occurrence for later medieval people regardless of whether they were rich or poor, and that they, like us, were concerned about personal hygiene. What gave rise to the misconceptions about smelly medieval bathing only once a year, or not wanting to wash because they were afraid of catching cold hay have to be a subject for a future post, but taking such claims with a large helping of salt (or low sodium alternative) may be a good idea.

[i] Joseph Gies & Frances Gies, Life in a Medieval Castle p71.

[ii] Ibid., p166.

[iii] Madeline Pelner Cosman, Linda Gale Jones, Handbook To Life in the Medieval World (New York, 2008), p123-5.

[iv] Ibid,. p125.

[v] Paul B. Newman, Daily Life in The Middle Ages (North Carolina, 2001).


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