The Middle Ages Were Much Cleaner Than We ThinkRoundup
tags: hygiene, medieval history
Dr. Janega teaches history at the London School of Economics. This essay is adapted from her new book, The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society, which will be published on Jan. 17 by W.W. Norton.
A longstanding myth holds that people in medieval Christian Europe didn’t bathe. In fact, the Middle Ages subscribed heartily to the adage “cleanliness is next to godliness.” Thinkers of the period considered physical beauty to represent spiritual purity, and they looked at hygiene in the same way: If one’s body was impure, it would by definition be unattractive and out of harmony. If it had any imperfections, one would best address them through cleansing. For women, in particular, cleanliness was one of the very highest virtues.
The daily wash usually involved collecting water in a ewer, heating it, then pouring it into a large basin to be used for scrubbing. Baths in a wooden tub would happen less often, given it was a world without plumbing. Water is heavy, and collecting it, heating it, and then getting it from the kettle into the bathtub was difficult. Baths also required space, which was at a premium in most households.
Luckily, there were a few ways to bathe outside the home. In warmer months, you could simply find a pond or a lake, and you were good to go. But in January this could be a problem, and that was where bathhouses came in. Bathhouses took the laborious and difficult work of drawing and heating water and monetized it. Most towns boasted at least one professional bathhouse, while cities played host to a number of competing establishments.
In Paris, a guild for bathhouse keepers set rules that bathkeepers had to abide by. Much like modern spas, they offered customers a cheaper “steam bath [for] two pennies; and if he bathes, [he] should pay four pennies.” To stand out in a crowded field, Parisian bathhouses employed criers to drum up business from women eager to put their best foot forward.
Rich women had a major advantage in bathing, since they could send servants to fetch and heat water. More luxurious households sometimes had rooms dedicated to bathing, and women with money to spare on travel visited famous bathing spots like Pozzuoli, outside Naples—a destination so famous that poems were written celebrating its virtues.
This emphasis on cleanliness was echoed in the bathing practices of Muslim communities in Sicily and on the Iberian Peninsula and the Jewish communities that were spread across medieval Europe. Bathing was an explicitly mandated part of Jewish custom and was required before the Sabbath. Women could bathe either in a public bathhouse, which would include steam and hot water, or in a cold-water mikveh, which was used for ritual purification. Meanwhile, Muslim women’s interest in the hammam is evidenced by the astounding number of surviving baths as well as by some pointed polemical tracts wherein Muslim men wondered what exactly women were getting up to while they were bathing, away from the prying eyes of men.