Bathing with Barbarians: An Exploration of Medieval Cleanliness

medieval times bathing
Rembrandt, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

When you think of the Middle Ages, it’s easy to imagine a time filled with knights, damsels in distress, and the ever-present aroma of eau de “I haven’t bathed in a fortnight.” But hold your horses (and your noses), because the hygiene habits of yore weren’t as eye-wateringly awful as you might think!

First off, bathing. No, they didn’t have fancy shower heads with multiple massage settings, but medieval folk did like to get their scrub on. The lower classes couldn’t always get the full sudsy experience, so they had to make do with a basin bath – basically a medieval wet wipe down. Kind of like a cat bath, but less licking involved.

If they lived near a river, a nice, chilly dunk was the go-to, effectively turning the local waterway into a combination of a swimming pool, bathtub, and washing machine. The rich and noble, however, got to luxuriate in wooden tubs filled with heated water, scented with herbs and flowers. The medieval version of a spa day, if you will.

Public bathhouses, or ‘stews’ as they were called, were like the medieval equivalent of social media. People would come together, get naked, and catch up on the latest gossip. The Church wasn’t a big fan of these gatherings (probably because they weren’t invited), but that didn’t stop people from enjoying a good soak and chinwag.

Sketch of a woman’s bath in Germany, 1496. Albrecht Dürer, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Titian, Actaeon Surprises Diana in Her Bath, 1559. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Moving on to oral hygiene, you might assume that everyone had teeth like a Halloween Jack-o’-lantern, but you’d be wrong! They didn’t have the minty-fresh, dentist-approved toothpaste we have today, but they managed to whip up a homebrew of herbs and spices, giving them a breath that was less ‘dragon,’ more ‘potpourri.’ They also had an early prototype of the toothbrush – a stick! Which is… well, stick with me here, it’s all they had.

Johann Liss, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Clothing cleanliness was another fun aspect. The poor folk, mostly wearing wool, didn’t wash their clothes that often, because washing wool is about as easy as teaching a cat to play fetch. The upper classes, sporting silks and linens, were all about the frequent changes of undergarments. I guess it’s not just modern celebrities that like to make outfit changes!

The Church, ever the trendsetter, was pretty insistent about cleanliness too. Monasteries and convents were like the medieval equivalent of a 5-star hotel – shiny floors, spotless surfaces, and not a hint of dust. Some even had their own private bathing facilities! Talk about holy water, amirite?

But let’s not forget, they didn’t know a thing about germs or how diseases spread. Still, they made an impressive effort to stay clean with the limited knowledge and tools they had. You’ve got to hand it to them – literally, because they didn’t have any antibacterial gel.

So, there you have it. The Middle Ages weren’t a free-for-all dirt fest. Folks tried their best to stay clean, keep fresh, and they did it all with a pinch of ingenuity, a dash of resourcefulness, and a hearty spoonful of hilarity. In the end, it’s a refreshing reminder that when it comes to hygiene, some things really don’t change. After all, who doesn’t enjoy a good bath gossip!

Written by Editorial Team

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