The (not so) stinky Middle Ages: why medieval people were cleaner than we think

Did people in the Middle Ages take baths? Did they wash their clothes and hands – or have a general awareness of hygiene practices? If there’s one thing we think we know about our medieval ancestors, it’s that they were mud-spattered, lice-infested and smelt like rotting veg. Yet the reality appears to have been far less pungent. Here, Katherine Harvey digs the dirt on the medieval passion for cleanliness

Did medieval people take baths? This 15th-century illustration would suggest so – and shows a man climbing out of a tub. Medieval doctors prescribed bathing as a cure for conditions ranging from bladder stones to melancholy. (Photo by Bridgeman)

In the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), two minor characters spot King Arthur. They know who he is because, as one of them points out: “He must be a king… he hasn’t got shit all over him.” The scene encapsulates an enduring belief about the Middle Ages: medieval people, and especially medieval peasants, were dirty and smelly.

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This impression is bolstered by examples of real medieval people who rarely washed, such as Queen Isabella of Castile. She supposedly boasted that she had bathed only twice in her life: on the day she was born, and on the day she married Ferdinand of Aragon. And it is undoubtedly true that, like everyone who lived before domestic plumbing and electricity became the norm, medieval people would have struggled to abide by modern standards of hygiene, even if they had wanted to. Nevertheless, we should not assume that pre-modern people were indifferent to personal hygiene, because we know that many people – including Isabella’s own daughter – made significant efforts to keep clean. Juana of Castile bathed and washed her hair so often that her husband feared she would make herself ill.

Double dippers: A husband and wife take a bath, as depicted in a 14th-century manuscript. The accompanying text stresses the importance of bathing at least once a week, and a significant number of people appear to have heeded that advice. (Photo by AKG-Images)
Double dippers: A husband and wife take a bath, as depicted in a 14th-century manuscript. The accompanying text stresses the importance of bathing at least once a week, and a significant number of people appear to have heeded that advice. (Photo by AKG-Images)

Archduke Philip’s concerns for his wife were rooted in contemporary medical theory, which suggested that too much washing could weaken the body. But, on the other hand, it was widely acknowledged that regular washing was necessary for good health, because it cleaned visible dirt from the body. Washing also removed the invisible excretions, including sweat, which were believed to be the potentially harmful side-products of digestion. If the latter were not removed, they could cause health problems including skin conditions and parasitic infestations.

Consequently, both medical writings and advice literature were full of exhortations to good hygiene. Readers were instructed to wash their hands, face, mouth and head every morning, and to wash their hands throughout the day, particularly before meals.

Did medieval people take baths?

Contrary to popular belief, medieval doctors were enthusiastic about the benefits of bathing. They urged caution during epidemics, because heating the body opened the pores to disease, and because sickness spread easily in bath-houses. But they also thought that bathing could prevent and cure illness, and prescribed it for conditions ranging from bladder stones to melancholy. Nightly bathing or foot-washing was a popular late medieval cure for the common cold.

So, the benefits of good hygiene were well established, but did medieval people follow the medical advice? All the evidence suggests that rich people washed regularly, and spent a lot of money on making bathing a luxury experience – for example, by supplementing wood-ash soap with expensive scented oils. Although he had many faults, King John almost certainly didn’t smell. He travelled with a bath-tub, employed a bath-man, and once took 10 baths in six months. His descendants had even better facilities: in 1351, Edward III bought new taps for his Westminster bath chamber, which had both cold and hot running water.

The medieval hygiene guide

5 tips for combating grime in the Middle Ages

1) Clean with wine

“There are some women who have sweat that stinks beyond measure,” noted the 12th-century writer Trota of Salerno. She advised cleaning them with a cloth dipped in wine in which “there have been boiled leaves of bilberry, or the billberries themselves.”

2) Invest in a basin

Although medieval people didn’t bathe in the morning, they used an ewer and basin to wash their hands and face when they woke up. The same equipment was used for handwashing throughout the day.

3) Turn to urine

Our ancestors washed clothes and domestic linens in a tub, or in a river or a stream. And to ensure that their garments emerged thoroughly ‘clean’, they sometimes added stale urine or wood ash to the water.

4) Shave your hair…

One way to combat dirt was to shave or pluck unwanted hair. Then people were advised to prepare a mixture of ground needle seeds and vinegar, do some vigorous exercise to warm the body, and smear the mixture on the skin. 

5) …or wash it

Doctors recommended washing hair – at least once every three weeks – with water and herbal preparations. Hair was combed daily, sometimes with special powders made from sweet-smelling ingredients such as rose petals.

Such luxury was limited to the grandest royal residences, but many households owned a large wooden tub, lined with cloth and sometimes covered by a canopy, which could be filled with hot water heated over the fire. Ownership of basins and ewers (large jugs) used for washing the hands and face extended to all but the poorest. Robert Oldham (d1350), a well-to-do Oxfordshire peasant, owned two basins and four ewers. Washing equipment made up a substantial portion of the possessions in his sparsely furnished home.

Not all washing was done at home, and town-dwellers could enjoy a trip to the public baths. Alexander of Neckham, who lived in Paris in the 1170s, complained that he was often woken in the morning by street cries of, “The baths are hot!” A few decades later, there were at least 32 public baths in the city.

Unclean queen? A c1482 image of Ferdinand II of Aragon and his wife, Isabella of Castile (right), who reportedly said that she only bathed twice in her life: one the day she was born and her wedding day. (Photo by Bridgeman)
Unclean queen? A c1482 image of Ferdinand II of Aragon and his wife, Isabella of Castile (right), who reportedly said that she only bathed twice in her life: one the day she was born and her wedding day. (Photo by Bridgeman)

During the summer, many people washed in rivers, lakes and ponds. Sadly, we know about such outdoor bathing practices mainly from coroners’ records, which include numerous cases of death by drowning. One evening in April 1269, 12-year-old John White “took off his clothes and entered a certain stream to bathe… he was drowned by misadventure”. The river Thames claimed the lives of several 14th-century bathers, among them Robert de Leyre, who “went to the wharf and entered the river to bathe. No one being present, he was by accident drowned.” Elsewhere, a 10-year-old boy drowned in a marketplace trough as he washed his hands and bowl after eating.

The Welsh were particularly enthusiastic teeth-cleaners, rubbing them till they shone 'like ivory'

Medical advice suggested that, as well as washing their bodies, people should wash their hair – chiefly because it was a form of excrement, produced from the waste products of digestion (which rose as fumes to the uppermost part of the body). Consequently, hair should be washed at least once every three weeks; this opened the pores in the head, releasing bad vapours from the body. Hair was cleaned with water, sometimes mixed with ash and herbs to make it shiny and sweet-smelling. Daily combing was also important, and was sometimes combined with the sprinkling of special powders (made from fragrant ingredients such as rose petals).

Medieval people were also well aware of the importance of good dental hygiene. They were advised to rinse their teeth with water on waking, to wash off any mucus that had built up overnight. Gilbert the Englishman, a 13th-century doctor, suggested rubbing teeth with powders made from herbs such as mint or marjoram, although he cautioned against using hot spices which would make teeth rot. He also advised patients “to dry the teeth after eating with a dry linen cloth… so that no food sticks to them, and there will be no putrid matter among the teeth to make them rotten.” According to Gerald of Wales, the Welsh were particularly enthusiastic teeth-cleaners: “They are constantly cleaning them with green hazel-shoots and then rubbing them with woollen cloths until they shine like ivory.”

Did people wash their clothes in the Middle Ages?

Of course, washing the body was only truly effective as a form of personal hygiene if it was combined with regular washing of clothing and bed-linen. At the very bottom of the social hierarchy, extreme poverty may have limited peasants’ ability to wash their clothes. In some 14th-century Burgundian villages, for example, it seems that many people literally owned only the clothes they stood up in. In this, sadly, the Burgundians were far from alone.

Gerald of Wales described how his poorer countrymen “keep on the same clothes [in bed] which they have worn all day, a thin cloak and a tunic, which is all they have to keep the cold out”.

However, there is ample evidence to suggest that most people owned at least a change of clothes, and that they washed them relatively frequently. Typically, this was women’s work: in the words of a popular late medieval verse: “A woman is a worthy thing/They do the wash and do the wring.”

Women do the laundry in a river in a 1582 illustration.
Airing your dirty linen: Women do the laundry in a river in a 1582 illustration. In 1461, the people of Coventry were banned from washing their clothes at the town conduits because it was causing a public nuisance. (Photo by Bridgeman)

Clothes could be washed in a tub, often with stale urine or wood ash added to the water, and trampled underfoot or beaten with a wooden bat until clean. But many women did their washing in rivers and streams, and larger rivers often had special jetties to facilitate this, such as ‘le levenderebrigge’ on the Thames. In fact, so great was the popular enthusiasm for washing that it sometimes caused complaints. In 1461, Coventry banned the washing of clothes at the town conduits, because it caused a public nuisance; 20 years later, the prior of Coventry complained that “the people of this citie hurten the ffyshe in Swanneswel-Pole be the wasshyng ther”, but was reminded that the people had been allowed to wash there since time immemorial.

Like bathing, laundry could be dangerous: in 15th-century Paris, the nurses of the Hôtel Dieu “waded in the mud of the Seine quite frozen up to their knees” to wash their patients’ sheets. Around the same time, an English teenager died when, washing his socks in a pit one Friday after work, he fell in and drowned.

Read more about the history of medicine

How did people in the past treat illness, injury and disease? What medicines did they use? 

Such enthusiasm for laundry, despite the practical difficulties and potential dangers, was surely linked to the well-known health risks associated with dirty clothes. Until the 17th century, people thought that parasites were produced by spontaneous generation – that is, they did not hatch from eggs, but formed from existing matter, including dirt on the skin and clothes. As the theologian and philosopher Albertus Magnus put it, the louse is “a vermin which is generated from the putrescence at the edge of a person’s pores or which is amassed from it as it is warmed by the person’s heat in the folds of his clothing”. Parasitic infestations probably were fairly common, especially among the very poor, but people did their best to avoid and treat them by using herbal remedies and practising good hygiene. Thomas Platter, a poor German student, described his efforts to rid himself of lice by picking them off his shirt, before washing it in the river Oder.

Only one section of medieval society actively embraced poor personal hygiene, including lice, as a way of life: the extremely pious. Queen Isabella’s avoidance of bathing should be understood within the context of this strong Christian tradition: it did not reflect social norms, but rather the efforts of an extremely devout woman not to overindulge her body. For medieval Christians, washing oneself could be seen as evidence of excessive worldliness. The Italian mystic Catherine of Siena often wept as she recalled how, as a teenager, she had been persuaded to wash her face and comb her hair more often, in order to attract suitors. Despite her confessor’s reassurances, she remained convinced that she had committed a mortal sin by obeying her mother’s wishes, rather than prioritising her faith.

A handful of saints went further still, and embraced filth as a form of asceticism – that is, a behaviour that caused suffering to the individual, and thus both demonstrated and deepened his or her commitment to God. Their approach to personal hygiene was not just negligent, but deliberately harmful. For example, St Margaret of Hungary refused to wash her hair so that she would be tormented by lice.

The monks discovered that Thomas Becket’s underclothes were 'swarming with minute lice and fleas'

It has to be pointed out that dirt was not required of the devout. Indeed, monks and bishops were early adopters of running water (and associated washing and toilet facilities) in their residences. Nevertheless, even the most rich and powerful churchmen were prepared to get filthy for their faith, concealing their penitential garments (and the creatures that lived in them) under their splendid vestments. After Thomas Becket was murdered in his cathedral, the monks who prepared his body for burial discovered that his underclothes were “swarming… with minute fleas and lice”, which they interpreted as a form of martyrdom. During the canonisation inquiry for Thomas Cantilupe, bishop of Hereford (d1282), his servants reported that he never bathed, and his bedding and clothing contained whole handfuls of lice. When Cantilupe’s old clothes were given away to paupers, they had to be deloused: even those poor enough to need charity would turn down such dirty garments.

The bishop’s willingness to embrace such an unhygienic lifestyle was deeply impressive to medieval Christians because it was atypical, and because his contemporaries, including the very poor, found it as repulsive as we do. Most medieval people probably were dirty, and perhaps even smelly, by our standards – however hard you try, it must be nearly impossible to make a cold, muddy river work as well as a power shower and a washing machine. But only a tiny number of medieval people were truly filthy. Even fewer actually wanted to be dirty.

Katherine Harvey is a historian of medieval Europe based at Birkbeck, University of London. She will be discussing medieval hygiene on our podcast

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This article was first published in the January 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine