- 5th to 8th centuries
- 9th and 10th centuries
- 11th and 12th centuries
- 13th century
- 14th and 15th centuries
The Middle Ages are often referenced as the Dark Ages, a period when the demography, culture, the economy and hygiene deteriorated. It is also considered a Dark Age because few records of inscriptions, writing and other matter has survived to cast light on the period for historians to have the opportunity to interpret and understand the era more completely. It is conventionally considered as the 6th to the 13th centuries, but for our purposes we have extended this by three centuries.
The Dark Ages followed the fall of the Roman Empire and catapulted Europe into a long decline. Roman aqueducts suffered from a lack of maintenance and were on occasion deliberately attacked, so these stopped delivering water to the cities and towns. Their fountains and baths became abandoned. With water having to be fetched from rivers or drawn from wells this meant that latrines, running water to homes and systems of underfloor heating were lost and seemingly forgotten.
Further, the idea of washing became considered as unhealthy for more than a millennium. Many large houses and castles had areas for washing hands both before and after a meal – but, in other areas of life, hygiene was practically non-existent. Bathing in medieval times was considered as somewhere between frivolous and ungodly. The notion that you get water onto your naked body was thought to open you up to disease, some even thought it would allow the devil inside you.
It was exposure to the rest of the world that began to change us. Pursuing the crusades the noble knights brought soap back with them from the East. Prior to that, Europeans who did bathe had either used water alone, or perhaps water mixed with oil from flowers. Following the exposure to soaps we developed soft soaps from mutton fat, wood ash, and natural soda. These might be infused with flower and herb oils to provide a nice smell, but this was too expensive for most. Alternatively there were hard soaps made from olive oil, soda, lime; also occasionally with added herbs and flowers. A soap-making industry evolved in England, though many still made their own soaps at home.
In 800CE the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne in his De Villis established that his stewards should record and tally the production of soaps, suggesting this had become an industry of note, and lucrative enough for it to attract taxation. At this time Medieval Spain was also known as a large fabricator of soaps.
As we Europeans sought alternative trading routes, from those cross-land, we encountered other cultures – Islam and Hindu, Chinese and Japanese – religions that saw cleanliness as a virtue. European sailors were cramped in their tiny boats for many months and their arrival along the coasts of these cultures, meant they would have been smelt long before they were seen. Europeans were thus considered as uncivilised and unclean.
Washing did become more common following the outbreaks of the Black Plague (mid-14th c). At the time it was not understood how it was being spread, so little could be surmised to halt its spread and effects. However, experimentation realised that frequent hand-washing in warm water, warm wine or vinegar did seem to help. It was also learned that keeping our immediate surroundings clean proved beneficial.
In medieval France cleanliness was not considered to mean bathing, it was more about decency and good manners, though royals and nobles bathed more frequently than their lesser vassals. Some built special rooms for bathing or used tubs set up for the purpose. Bath waters were often mixed with oils or perfumes. It helped that servants were there to heat the water and fill and empty those tubs, a laborious procedure. Once filled many would take turns use the water.
That’s not to ignore that medieval people used combs for grooming and tweezers for hair removal. Toothpicks and mouthwashes also became regular practices for some. The better-off would use rags to wipe their backsides, others used plant leaves. One suitable common biennial bluish-green weed was the woolly or common mullein, aka the ‘flannel plant’. Its leaves can be as long as 30cms (12 inches) and have a soft felt-like feel. It has more recently been used for cough medicines and in applications for skin problems.
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