by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the December 2002, A.S. XXXVII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
One of the most persistent myths of the Middles Ages is that they didn’t take baths. This is a gross misrepresentation of period living conditions. While the people then certainly were not as clean as people are today, this is more the result of lack of ability then lack of desire. What follows is a short tour of the means and attitudes of keeping clean.
It first should be noted that modern standards of cleanness only became possible after the widespread use of natural gas and electricity that occurred in the first half of the twentieth century. Prior to that, the primary fuels used to heat and cook were a major and constant source of dirt and grime that only an army of servants was able to stay ahead of. Thus this topic is but one example of how judging past times by present standards is a distortion of history.
The Romans are famous for their public bath works. With the fall of the empire, these works went to ruin, but the idea did not die. The revival began in the 12th century and peaked in the 15th and fell in the 16th, in part because of the religious upheaval. They were purely an urban feature, which prompted a German Count to note in the first half of the 16th century reports that “we are giving up our mountain fortresses and dwell in them no longer; instead we wish to live in the plains, so that we don’t have to go far to the baths.” 1
Private baths could also be found throughout the period. A German chronicle entry in 1045 reports an accident in a bath chamber at a time when it was “being filled with water brought in from over the mountain.” 2 So indoor plumbing is period. In the middle of the 13th century a German romance writer has an incident involving a bathroom. And twice in Boccaccio’s Decameron, written after 1350, a bathroom is mentioned. In a book written around 1450 by the butler of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester describing how to perform household duties includes a section on drawing a bath and a list of herbs to be used when the bath was taken for medicinal purposes.
Period medical books often prescribed medicinal baths for a number of conditions. There were numerous springs, both hot and cold, that were reputed to have miraculous curing properties, so traveling to them to bath in the waters was a not uncommon pilgrimage.
As can be expected, most baths were taken in wooden tubs filled with buckets of water heated from the nearby kitchen. The ones in the public bathhouses resembled large hot tubs. In the Renaissance, some of these would be replaced by stonework. It would seem that the stone was not highly polished as the instructions of their use included them being lined with cloth.
So how did the myth arise? Like all myths there is an element of truth to it. Bathing was a luxury which the peasants, which formed the bulk of the population, could rarely, if ever, indulged. And as a luxury in an age where the salvation of the soul took precedence, it was looked upon with suspicion. This could be seen in the Rule of St. Benedict, which permitted baths for the ill, but enjoined the healthy to do so rarely.
The second strike against bathing were the actives that took place in the public bathhouses, also known as stewes, besides bathing. They were often next to or part of brothels, as they were usually both run by the city. Thus they gained the notoriety of being dens on iniquity. It was reported that Pope Adrian VI wanted to remove the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel because they resembled a bath filled with naked people.
The third strike has to do with conditions in Spain. There is an element of ritual bathing as part of Muslim worship. As the Reconquista finished and the Inquisition began its task of searching out non-Christians, washing was seen as a sign of being Muslim and was reported. Secondly, syphilis was brought back from the New World. As the Hasburgs, which controlled Spain, also had large holdings in the Holy Roman Empire. Thus the attitude and the disease spread through the continent. The prostitution in the bath houses facilitated the spread of syphilis, and thus closing them was seen as a public health measure. The final nail was the medical theory that washing opened the pores allowing things to enter that would upset the balance of the four humors that governed health.
It was during the Enlightenment that the myth solidified, not that people then were any cleaner. To heighten the accomplishments of the time, the Middles Ages were denigrated as dark, ignorant and dirty. To prove their point, they used various saints' lives whose asceticism was demonstrated by their dirtiness. When the Enlightenment gave way to Romanticism, the emphasis changed to the chivalric ideals. The practical details of bathing were ignored and so the myth persists to this day.
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Furnivall, Frederick J., ed. Early English Meals and Manners. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1868.
Harrison, William. The Description of England: The Classic Contemporary Account of Tudor Social Life. New York: Dover, 1994.
Rawcliffe, Carole, ed. Medicine and Society in Later Medieval England. Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1995.
Saint Benedictus. The Rule of St. Benedict. Trans. Anthony C. Meisel and M.L. del Mastro. New York: Doubleday, 1975.
Thornton, Peter, ed. The Italian Renaissance Interior: 1400-1600. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1991.
Watts, Sheldon, ed. Epidemics and History: Disease, Power and Imperialism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.
Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.