Yes, People of History DID Bathe! Frequently!

Oct 26, 2011

Why???  Why must people persist in believing and spreading the FALSEHOOD that People of History didn’t bathe???  Why must my beloved Medieval citizenry be constantly slandered by the “common knowledge” that they threw the baby out with the bath water???  And how did this blatantly false and smelly “fact” come to be anyhow?

Let’s take a look at that, shall we?

First, and this may be very, very difficult, but you have to accept the following…. FACT: People of History, including and especially the People of the Middle Ages DID bathe!  More frequently than you think.

But first, let us temper our History with a little Science.

The human body produces sweat and oils as a means to protect itself.  I learned about this extensively in cosmetology school, but I will spare you the technical details.  Sweat is the body’s way of expunging impurities from the inside out.  Oil is our sealant to keep the good stuff in.  It insulates the body and keeps it from becoming too dehydrated.  I remember one of my Science teachers, Dr. Bell, getting mighty worked up about the modern tendency to wash our hair too often.  “It doesn’t make sense,” he said, “for people to use chemicals to strip the oils from their hair only to put other oil back on it.”  He’s right.

The fact is that most of us in the modern world wash too often.  This has two effects.  One, we dehydrate our skin which dehydrates the rest of us.  Two, we send the oil-producing glands in our skin into a panicked over-drive and they become hyperactive trying to make up for the natural oils we’ve removed.  Which is why we feel we need to bathe more often.  But if you cut down on the frequency of bathing your body will return to its natural state of functioning and you will need to bathe less.  But for most of us that would take a concerted effort over a long term.  Meaning you couldn’t not bathe for 5 days and suddenly have your oil glands functioning as they should.  We’ve messed ourselves up good in the modern world, folks!

Okay, Science out of the way, statement that modern people bathe too much made.  On to the History.

In the Ancient World bathing was an obsession.  Excavations of cities in Babylonia from around 2800BC have revealed jars filled with soap and bathing instruments and tools.  Papyruses from Egypt as well as the contents of tombs show that bathing was a frequent practice for rich and poor alike.  The Ancient Greeks bathed all the time.  But in the case of all of these ancient societies, they didn’t necessarily bathe with water.  In the case of Greece, for example, the bathing ritual involved what I’m going to call a sweat-lodge, rubbing yourself with ash and oils and scrubbing with pumice, scraping your body with an instrument called a strigil, then dousing yourself with water and rubbing down with oil.  A little more elaborate than a modern shower, eh?

And then there were the Romans.  The Romans were completely obsessed with bathing.  Public bath-houses were some of the hottest spots in town.  Their ruins exist all throughout Rome today, and the entire former Roman Empire, as do thousands of fountains and wells where the lower classes would bathe.  Remember those aqueducts that Rome is so famous for?  They brought in water for bathing.  In fact, the average Roman citizen used the same amount of water in one day that your average American family uses in four days right now.  The Romans were seriously clean.

Ah.  And now we come to the Middle Ages.  Because as soon as the Roman Empire ceased to exist in a puff of smoke one day the world was plunged into darkness and misery and everyone woke up the next morning forgetting everything they ever knew about everything, right?  Wrong.  Civilization dispersed and became ruralized and mixed with local, tribal knowledge and conditions, true, but it didn’t disappear.  Neither did bathing.

The truth is, public bathhouses, personal hygiene, and soap all existed in the Middle Ages.  I suspect that part of the modern perception of Medieval filthiness comes from our misconception that without running water you can’t get properly clean.  Not so.  To start with, bowls of water and towels were an integral part of any medieval feast.  “Wash your hands before dinner” was as much a part of Medieval society, high and low, as it was a part of my own childhood.  In fact, one chronicler from Europe was scandalized when he was invited to a Norwegian feast and hand-washing was not observed as part of the festivities.

Bathhouses for both rich and poor continued to exist in Medieval cities.  For example, there were 26 public bathhouses in Paris in the late 13th century.  That’s a lot considering the size of the city back then.  They were quite popular too, although maybe not necessarily for the reasons the Church, for one, wanted them to be.  Around this same time in the 13th century the bathhouses were shut down for a bit in an attempt to stop the spread of syphilis.  In 1150 at Christchurch Monastery in Canterbury an elaborate system of pipes was put in place to provide running water for bathing and washing.  In rural areas baths were taken in the rivers and in barrels of water carted up from the rivers.  They may have been cold baths, but they were still baths.

Although that might be where modern people are getting hung up.  In the Medieval mind the word “bath” meant something entirely different from what it means to us now.  A “bath” was along the lines of a Roman bathhouse.  “Bathing” was something done in public.  Many of the chroniclers of the Middle Ages condemn “bathing”.  Why?  Well, this is the Church we’re talking about.  They didn’t approve of naked people hanging out together.  Even in monasteries where the rules were written down the brothers were urged not to remove their clothing when they bathed.  In fact, a lot of the rules that the Church put into place about only bathing twice a year were issued because the moralists of the time thought people were bathing too much and indulging in it for too long.  Every indication was that those rules were ignored.  Public bathing was treated with the same enthusiasm and conducted in much the same way as going to a public pool is nowadays.  Even Pope Gregory the Great mandated that all members of religious orders should bathe at least once a week.

Yes, you say, but what about those nasty peasants?  The thing is, since most of them were illiterate it’s hard to know exactly what they did by looking at written records.  And Medieval chroniclers were notoriously biased.  So for my buddies the peasants we have to look at material history.  Bowls and pitchers and cloths and sponges abounded.  So did the soap-making industry.  In fact, the soap-making guild of Naples was extremely powerful … in the 9th century.  That’s the supposed Dark Ages, folks.  They made soap.  One can then assume that they used soap too.  Soap-making was actually one of the big female-dominated industries of the Middle Ages.  How’s that for your mother telling you to wash behind your ears.

Okay, I think that gets the point across.  Cleanliness was not the same as bathing and bathing had an entirely different connotation before the modern era.  And as historian Lynn Thorndike has postulated, Medieval People were, in all likelihood, cleaner than people of the 19th century.  Because with the introduction of the Industrial Revolution came the introduction of wide-spread industrial pollution.  Another thing that people don’t realize, and that I should write a blog post about, is that for all our modern worry about the Greenhouse Effect and Global Warming and pollution, the late 18th and 19th centuries were far, far dirtier and nastier than anything we’ve got now.

In fact, I think I will save that for another blog post.  I’ll do a little more research and get back to you with all the dirt, so to speak, on the state of public health, hygiene, and the environment during the height of the Industrial Revolution.

But for now, if there’s one thing you take away from today’s post let it be this:  People of History were not pigs.  They knew how to keep clean, but their methods of doing so were not the same as ours in the modern world.  Put your Historiography hat on and consider the bias inherent in the statement “Medieval People rarely bathed”.  Remember that if it comes from a contemporary Medieval source it is very likely talking about naked full immersion in a prepared tub and was written by a stodgy monk doing the bidding of an ostensibly prudish Church.

But if you’re still not convinced, let the visual evidence of the time itself convince you.  And trust me, it was not hard to find a LOT of pictures like these!

Bathhouse or orgy? Looks like it could go either way. And yes, those people eating are sitting in a giant bath tub!

Snacks in the bath appeared to be a common thing

And if you STILL don’t believe me and want a much longer, much more detailed exposition on Medieval cleanliness habits complete with primary source material and quotes by renowned Historians, visit this awesome website … which I found AFTER I did all the rest of my research and wrote this post. (Murphy’s Law)

Comments (20)

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  1. broadsideblog

    LOVE this post. Such fun! I have a 21-inch-deep tub which I adore…and, being fascinated by medieval life, enjoyed this post — and the terrific images you found to prove it all. I love seeing early images of “normal” life, not just monks, kings and queens.

    I had this very conversation yesterday when I was telling a friend about my interior design studies — all we ever looked at were the homes and belongings of the impossibly wealthy or royalty, not the average civilian. It gave us a very skewed notion of past life.

    Reply
    1. merryfarmer

      Thanks! I love all those pictures too. That’s only a small fraction of the ones I stumbled across. There’s actually a huge visual record of the Middle Ages contained within the books of the time, but so many of those books are sitting somewhere without people looking at them. It’s a shame. And I agree that if we only ever look at the homes of the wealthy we won’t get an accurate picture of what the majority of society was really like.

      Reply
    1. merryfarmer

      I think most people don’t realize that what gets reported as “history” is not always the truth. Spin is not a new invention. I’ve always loved getting to the bottom of all things historical. =D

      Reply
  2. alicamckennajohnson

    Okay I believe you, and as someone who washer their hair everyday I found it very interesting and hadn’t thought about the oils our body creates on purpose.
    So my question now- what about toilet paper? The two things that have stopped me from using my time machine- lack of bathing and toilet paper- I do promise to stay away from the 14th century.

    Reply
      1. Alica

        Eeewwww I don’t think a rag is enough or at least I don;t think I’m touching it once I’ve used it. Guess my time machine will continue to collect dust.

        Reply
  3. Amanda Papenfus

    I follow your blog but for some reason didn’t get updated on your recent posts. I came back today to see if you had touched on this topic (as I was one of those people who had been told “they didn’t bathe” as if they didn’t clean themselves frequently”). It’s interesting to know how the definition of “bath” has changed and how they got themselves clean. This stuff should totally be in school history books so we’re not ill informed but thanks for setting the record straight 🙂

    Reply
    1. merryfarmer

      In some ways I think it’s almost easier for people to assume that Medieval folks were ignorant and dirty. It’s easier to conceive of people living so long ago as being drastically different and less enlightened than we are now. But people are people no matter when they lived. 😉

      Reply
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  8. Smokey

    Other than a few exceptions that defies logic ! Before electricity EVERYTHING people had to do just to survive was hard physical labor. No microwave or heat, firewood had to be cut in large amounts on a regular basis. Water weighs 6 -7 lbs a gallon. No faucet to turn on. Just keeping enough water and food to eat daily was a monumental task and starvation was not uncommon. People had shorter life spans for a reason. I could never see a normal person being that physically exhausted at the end of every day under those brutal conditions placing any kind of priority on bathing. Every ounce of energy they had was used to survive unless they were a slave . Starving workers halt production. Back then, to call a person “stinky” would be the classic pot calling the kettle black.

    Reply
  9. Tristan

    I am writing a 5-page research paper on this very topic, and in all my research I found that: while yes people of the Renaissance did bathe, it was infrequent. People washed their hands, feet, and face daily, but there was a wide range on full washing. Some sources said once or twice a week others said months. Marie Antoinette was said to take a bath once a month. King Louis XIV was rumored to have only taken two or three baths in his lifetime. It more common to change sheets and clothing than to take a bath. People were “afraid” to take baths for various reasons. The most common was fear of disease. Back then they didn’t have plumbing systems, so your options were a bucket and a hole in the ground. Buckets were emptied in the streets and rivers, symphoniously contaminating the air and water supply. People would boil water for their bath in hopes of ridding it of diseases. Doctors back then found that warm water opens pores making you highly susceptible to diseases. Another reason to avoid bathing, especially in bathhouses was religious beliefs.

    Reply