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Cleanliness, Personal Hygiene & Bathing

The general standard of medieval cleanliness was considerably higher than Hollywood movies would have us believe. The poorer person was just as concerned with personal hygiene and cleanliness as the wealthy, perhaps more so.

A person who worked with animals or out in the fields all day would be more in need to wash their hands and face before a meal than a person who had not worked at manual labour. A lack of money and possessions did not preclude the lowest classes from basic good hygiene.

Hands and faces were usually washed with water before meals and after. In noble households, ewers of water were often scented with rose petals or other fragrant herbs which were set aside for this express purpose.

Pictured above at the right is a stained glass window section from the Labours of the Month, June dated at the 15th century from Brandison Hall in Norfolk. It shows a woman bathing in a large, canopied wooden tub. Bathing was a part of the daily ritual.

The peasant or lower class would bathe in streams or wash from a small basin and jug, whilst the wealthier would attend public baths if they did not have one at their residence.

Pictured at left, is a detail from a 14th century illuminated manuscript, Tacuinum Sanitatis showing the benefits of Hot Water; two women washing the lower legs in a shallow basin of water; the kirtle drawn back up to the thighs. Hot water was highly recommended to combat coldness in the limbs.

Due to the way medieval people utilised their household space, a separate room was not usually set aside for the purpose of bathing alone. The wooden tub would be brought to the room where it was required along with the heated water and fragrant oils or soaps.

Parkinson recommended the addition of thyme, Thymus species, for baths and strewing for its refreshing and sweet-smelling qualities. Pictured at right is a detail from an illumination of woman being bathed by her servant, source unknown. A curtain provides privacy. Her clothes are hung on a pole nearby.

In the 14th century Boccaccio's the Decameron we read about bathing-

Without permitting anyone else to lay a hand on him, the lady herself washed Salabaetto all over with soap scented with musk and cloves. She then had herself washed and rubbed down by the slaves. This done, the slaves brought two fine and very white sheets, so scented with roses that they seemed like roses; the slaves wrapped Salabaetto in one and the lady in the other and then carried them both on their shoulders to the bed.

They then took from the basket silver vases of great beauty, some of which were filled with rose water, some with orange water, some with jasmine water, and some with lemon water, which they sprinkled upon them. After which they refreshed themselves with boxes of sweetmeats and the finest wines.

Baths or stewes were almost a popular pastime for the townsperson or noble. Scented bathes might also include music, a meal or refreshment served on a tray which reached from one side of the tub to the other. Stewes were notorious for the other kinds of entertainment which could be purchased from women of dubious morals. Prostitutes.

Bathers would be attended by men and women who would supply the patron's needs. Although patrons bathed nude, headwear was still worn to preserve modesty.

The church, whilst favouring cleanliness of mind, body and spirit were very quick to denounce public stewes as dens of iniquity and moral looseness, which it seems, they often were.

Herbal remedies were used to combat the age-old problem of smelling poorly. As well as scented bath water, deodorants were known and widely used. A deodorant comprising of an infusion of bay leaves and hyssop was known. It was believed that the seeds of wild rocket taken in a drink carried away the scent of the armpits and a preparation of sage, Salvia officinalis, was used to stop perspiration.

Dioscorides suggests sage as a disinfectant and astringent writing that:

it will make a man's body clean; therefore who that useth to eat of this herb or drink it, it is marvel that any inconvenience should grieve them that use it.

Ear Scoops
Ear scoops have appeared in the archaeological record from early Viking periods to much later post-Tudor times. They have a rounded tiny bowl on one end and a flat, wider end at the other.

As far as we can tell, these items were used to clean the ears of wax, and clean the fingernails of dirt and grime. They were usually constructed from brass, copper alloy, with a flat piece of metal and twisted to make a handle in the middle. They are usually the size of a woman's little finger. Image shown here is a scoop made from brass from The Gilbert Collection and is dated to the 14th century.

Documentation of guilds of soap-producers can be found in Europe as early as 800 AD although soap as we know it did not come into widespread use in Europe until during the ninth century. It is generally accepted that soap was known in England by the 10th century. A record from Richard of Devizes, a monk from the 12th century makes remark about the number of soap-makers in Bristol and the smelly nature of their profession. Records also show a 'sopehouse' at Bishopgate in London in the 15th century.

Early soaps were usually made with tallow, ash and beef or mutton fats making them rather unattractive to look at. Techniques for the production of soap improved during the next two hundred years but cakes of soap remained relatively soft. By the 12th century, hard soap came into use which was said to be an Arab development later imported into Europe. The best soaps were known as castile soap having originated in Castile, Spain, and made using olive oil instead of fats.

The idea that medieval women stank is just plain insulting. Women were just as keen then, as now, to smell sweet and have pride in their personal appearange.

During the first crusade, the crusaders came into contact with the 'heathens' and also with their sweetly-scented and heavily-perfumed women. The crusaders took back samples of these perfumes for their own women.

Roses and lavender, Lavendula vera and Lavendula spica, were especially cultivated for distillation of their oils in the medieval period as much as they are today. Myrtle was known and also used in recipes for perfuming. Musk was known and used as a fixative as was the extremely expensive ambergris which was imported.

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