Personal Hygiene & Bathing
BATHING - DEODORANT - EAR SCOOPS - SOAP - PERFUME
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
© Rosalie Gilbert
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