Personal Hygiene & Bathing
BATHING - DEODORANT - EAR SCOOPS - SOAP - PERFUME
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 which 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 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 two women washing the lower legs in a shallow basin of
water; the kirtle drawn back up to the thighs.
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.
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. 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
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
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
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 my 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.
Perfumes and sachets were very much in demand in the middle ages.
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
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.