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Was Everyone Filthy During the Middle Ages? Debunking a Popular Misconception

We were all taught that the Middle Ages were uncivilized, filthy, and brutal. Well... there was a lot of brutality. However, there were periods of cultural flourishing; and personal hygiene was better than we were led to believe - at least for those who could afford it.

The belief that bathing was dangerous arose fairly late in the Middle Ages, around 1348, when scholars at the University of Paris searched for explanations for the spread of the Black Death. One theory was that hot baths opened the pores and allowed plague to enter the body. That belief was influential for at least 200 years.

At the time of my story, 1209, people did not abhor cleanliness. Bathhouses (the buildings or at least the concept left over from the Roman occupation) continued to function in some areas. Because prostitutes and thieves plied their trades there, the clergy decried them as dens of iniquity. Probably the water was not very clean.

Manuals for manners said that people should wash their hands and faces in the morning, and wash hands before and after meals. Bathtubs existed, but these were only available to the wealthy because heating and carrying water were labor intensive. Herbs and flower petals were added to water for their pleasant fragrance.

People also cleaned their teeth, as described here: ".... they <rubbed> their gums with a rough linen cloth. We have various recipes for pastes and powders that could be put on the cloth to help clean the teeth, to whiten them and to aid fresh breath. Sage ground with salt crystals was one popular mixture. Powdered charcoal from rosemary stems was another. A crushed paste of pepper, mint and rock salt was also used, and there were many more. Most consisted of an abrasive and a scented herb, though others included a range of spices such as cinnamon, mace and cloves. Mouth washes tended to be wine or vinegar-based, with herbs and spices steeped in these acidic liquids. Again, mint features heavily in these recipes, along with marjoram and cinnamon. Chewing fennel seeds, parsley or cloves were the most common recommendations for bad breath."

Because there was little sugar in the diet, tooth decay was less common then than it is now. (Of course, not much could be done about broken or missing teeth).

These two images of medieval bathtubs are from a website published by Kari Peardon. The first is described as Eleanor of Castile's bathtub (I assume this is a modern reproduction).

The second image, also from her website, is from the Manesse Codex produced in 1304.

People in the high renaissance periods of the Middle Ages were not as clean as people in ancient Rome, nor would they be considered clean by modern standards, but they did try to keep themselves clean; the wealthy had greater means to do this than the poor. They were probably cleaner than people during the Tudor period when the "bathing is dangerous" belief held sway.

For more about the history of cleanliness, see: Ashenburg, K. (2007). The Dirt on Clean.

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