Hygiene in medieval Europe: myths, historical facts, real stories, hygienic and domestic difficulties

History 2023

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Hygiene in medieval Europe: myths, historical facts, real stories, hygienic and domestic difficulties
Hygiene in medieval Europe: myths, historical facts, real stories, hygienic and domestic difficulties

Information about the wholesale unwashed Europe in the Middle Ages, stinking streets, dirty bodies, fleas and other "charms" of this kind came mostly from the 19th century. And many scientists of that era agreed and paid tribute to her, although the material itself was hardly studied. As a rule, all conclusions were based on the period of the New Age, when the cleanliness of the body was really not held in high esteem. Speculative constructions without a documentary base and archaeological data led many people astray about life and hygiene in the Middle Ages. But, in spite of everything, the thousand-year history of Europe, with its ups and downs, was able to preserve a huge aesthetic and cultural heritage for posterity.

Myths and reality

Hygiene in the Middle Ages, like life, was unfairly criticized, but the collected material of this period is enough to refute all accusations and separate truth from fiction.

Invented by the humanists of the Renaissance, further supplemented and distributed by the pen masters of the New Age(XVII-XIX centuries) myths about the cultural degradation of medieval Europe were intended to form a certain favorable background for future achievements. To a greater extent, these myths were based on inventions and distortions, as well as on the conclusions of the devastating crisis of the 14th century. Famine and crop failure, social tensions, disease outbreaks, aggressive and decadent moods in society…

Epidemics that decimated the population of the regions by half or more finally destabilized hygiene in medieval Europe and turned it into a flourishing of religious fanaticism, unsanitary conditions and indoor city baths. An era's assessment of the worst period quickly spread and became the most obvious historical injustice.

Man washing himself

Washed or not washed?

Each epoch in the history of mankind, to one degree or another, differed in its concepts and criteria for the purity of the physical body. Hygiene in Europe in the Middle Ages, contrary to the prevailing stereotype, was not as terrifying as they like to present it. Of course, there could be no question of modern standards, but people regularly (once a week), one way or another, washed themselves. And the daily shower was replaced by the procedure of wiping with a damp cloth.

If you pay attention to works of art, book miniatures and symbols of the cities of that time, then the bath-washing traditions of Ancient Rome were successfully inherited by Europeans, which was especially characteristic of the early Middle Ages. During the excavations of estates and monasteries, archaeologists discovered special containers for washing and public baths. For homebathing the body, the role of a bath was played by a huge wooden tub, which, if necessary, was transferred to the right place, usually in the bedroom. The French historian Fernand Braudel also notes that private and public baths with baths, steam rooms and pools were commonplace for citizens. At the same time, these institutions were designed for all classes.

soap in the middle ages

Soap Europe

The use of soap became widespread precisely in the Middle Ages, whose hygiene is so often condemned. In the 9th century, from the hands of Italian alchemists, who practiced the manufacture of cleaning compounds, the first analogue of a detergent came out. Then mass production began.

The development of soap making in European countries was based on the presence of a natural resource base. The Marseille soap industry had at its disposal soda and olive oil, which was obtained through a simple pressing of the fruits of the olive trees. The oil obtained after the third pressing was used to make soap. Soap product from Marseille became a significant commodity of trade by the 10th century, but later it lost the palm to Venetian soap. In addition to France, soap-making in Europe successfully developed in the states of Italy, Spain, in the regions of Greece and Cyprus, where olive trees were cultivated. In Germany, soap factories were founded only by the 14th century.

In the XIII century in France and England, the production of soap began to occupy a very serious niche in the economy. And by the XV century in Italy, the production of solid bar soap by industrialway.

feminine hygiene

Women's hygiene in the Middle Ages

Followers of "dirty Europe" often remember Isabella of Castile, the princess who gave her word not to wash or change clothes until victory was won. This is true, she faithfully kept her vow for three years. But it should be noted that this act received a great response in the then society. A lot of fuss was raised, and even a new color was introduced in honor of the princess, which already indicates that this phenomenon was not the norm.

Fragrance oils, body wipes, hair combs, ear spatulas and small tweezers were daily hygiene aids for women in medieval Europe. The latter attribute is especially vividly mentioned in the books of that period as an indispensable member of the ladies' toilet. In painting, beautiful female bodies were depicted without excess vegetation, which gives an understanding that epilation was also carried out in intimate areas. Also, a treatise by the Italian physician Trotula of Sarlen, dating from the 11th century, contains a recipe for unwanted body hairs using arsenic ore, ant eggs and vinegar.

When referring to women's hygiene in Europe in the Middle Ages, it is impossible not to touch upon such a delicate topic of "special women's days". In fact, little is known about this, but some findings allow us to draw certain conclusions. Trotula mentions a woman's internal cleansing with cotton, usually before sexual intercourse with her husband. But it is doubtful that such material could be used in the form of a tampon.Some researchers suggest that sphagnum moss, which was widely used in medicine as an antiseptic and to stop bleeding from combat wounds, could well have been used for pads.

life and insects

Life and insects

In medieval Europe, although life and hygiene were not so critical, they still left much to be desired. Most of the houses had a thick thatched roof, which was the most favorable place for living and breeding of all living creatures, especially mice and insects. During bad weather and cold seasons, they climbed onto the inner surface and, with their presence, rather complicated the life of the residents. Things were no better with the flooring. In we althy houses, the floor was covered with slate sheets, which became slippery in winter, and to make it easier to move, it was sprinkled with crushed straw. During the winter period, worn and dirty straw was repeatedly covered with fresh, creating ideal conditions for the development of pathogenic bacteria.

Insects have become a real problem of this era. In carpets, bed canopies, mattresses and blankets, and even on clothes, whole hordes of bedbugs and fleas lived, which, in addition to all the inconveniences, also carried a serious threat to he alth.

It is worth noting that in the early Middle Ages, most buildings did not have separate rooms. One room could have several functions at once: kitchen, dining room, bedroom and laundry room. At the same time, there was almost no furniture. A little later, we althy citizens began to separate the bedchamber from the kitchen and dining room.


Toilet theme

It is generally accepted that the concept of "latrine" was completely absent in medieval times, and "things" were done where necessary. But that's not the case at all. Toilets were found in almost all stone castles and monasteries and were a small extension on the wall, which hung over the moat, where sewage flowed. This architectural element was called a wardrobe.

City toilets were arranged according to the principle of a village toilet. Cesspools were regularly cleaned by vacuum cleaners, who at night took out the waste products of people from the city. Of course, the craft was not entirely prestigious, but very necessary and in demand in the big cities of Europe. People of this specific profession had their own guilds and representations, like other artisans. In some areas, the sewers were referred to only as "night masters".

Since the 13th century, changes have come to the toilet room: windows are glazed to prevent drafts, double doors are installed in order to prevent odors from entering the living quarters. Around the same period, the first structures for flushing began to be carried out.

Toilet theme reveals how far from reality the myths about hygiene in medieval Europe. And there is not a single source and archaeological evidence that proves the absence of latrines.

Plumbing and sewerage systems

It is a mistake to assume that the attitude towards garbage and sewage in the Middle Ages was more loyal than it is now. The very fact of the existence of cesspools incities and castles suggests otherwise. Another conversation is that city services were not always able to maintain order and cleanliness, due to economic and technical reasons of that time.

With the increase in the urban population, since about the 11th century, the problem of providing drinking water and removing sewage outside the city walls is of paramount importance. Often, human waste products were dumped into the nearest rivers and reservoirs. This led to the fact that the water from them was impossible to drink. Various purification methods were repeatedly practiced, but drinking water continued to be an expensive pleasure. The issue was partly resolved when in Italy, and later in a number of other countries, they began to use pumps operating on wind turbines.

At the end of the 12th century, one of the first gravity water pipes was built in Paris, and by 1370, underground sewage began to operate in the Montmartre area. Archaeological finds of gravity-flowing lead, wooden and ceramic water pipes and sewers have been found in the cities of Germany, England, Italy, Scandinavia and other countries.

laundry in the middle ages

Sanitary Services

On guard of he alth and hygiene in medieval Europe, there were always certain crafts, a kind of sanitary services, which made their own contribution to the purity of society.

Surviving sources report that in 1291, more than 500 barbers were recorded in Paris alone, not counting street masters practicing in markets and other places. ShopThe barber's shop had a characteristic sign: usually a copper or tin basin, scissors and a comb were hung over the entrance. The list of working tools consisted of a razor basin, hair removal tweezers, a comb, scissors, sponges and bandages, as well as bottles of "fragrant water". The master always had to have hot water available, so a small stove was installed inside the room.

Unlike other artisans, the laundresses did not have their own shop and mostly remained single. We althy townspeople sometimes hired a professional washer, to whom they gave their dirty linen and received clean linen on prearranged days. Hotels, inns and prisons for persons of noble birth acquired their laundresses. We althy houses also had a staff of servants on a permanent salary, who were engaged exclusively in washing. The rest of the people, unable to pay for a professional washerwoman, had to wash their own clothes on the nearest river.

Public baths existed in most cities and were so natural that they were built in almost every medieval quarter. In the testimonies of contemporaries, the work of bathhouses and attendants is noted quite often. There are also legal documents that detail their activities and the rules for visiting such establishments. The documents (“Saxon Mirror” and others) separately mention theft and murder in public soapboxes, which only further testifies to their wide distribution.

medicine in the Middle Ages

Medicine in Intermediatecentury

In medieval Europe, an essential role in medicine belonged to the Church. In the 6th century, the first hospitals began to function at the monasteries to help the infirm and crippled, where the monks themselves acted as doctors. But the medical training of God's servants was so small that they lacked the elementary knowledge of human physiology. Therefore, it is quite expected that in their treatment the emphasis was placed, first of all, on food restriction, on medicinal herbs and prayers. They were practically powerless in the field of surgery and infectious diseases.

In the 10th-11th centuries, practical medicine became a fully developed industry in cities, which was mainly practiced by bath attendants and barbers. The list of their duties, in addition to the main ones, included: bloodletting, bone reduction, amputation of limbs and a number of other procedures. By the end of the 15th century, guilds of practicing surgeons began to be established from barbers.

The "Black Death" of the first half of the 14th century, brought from the East through Italy, according to some sources, claimed about a third of the inhabitants of Europe. And medicine, with its dubious theories and set of religious prejudices, obviously lost in this fight and was absolutely powerless. The doctors could not recognize the disease at an early stage, which led to a significant increase in the number of infected and devastated the city.

Thus, medicine and hygiene in the Middle Ages could not boast of great changes, continuing to be based on the works of Galen and Hippocrates, previously well edited by the church.

bath in the middle ages

Historical facts

  • In the early 1300s, the budget of Paris was regularly replenished with a tax from 29 baths, which worked every day except Sunday.
  • A great contribution to the development of hygiene in the Middle Ages was made by the outstanding scientist, doctor of the X-XI centuries Abu-Ali Sina, better known as Avicenna. His main works were devoted to the life of people, clothing and nutrition. Avicenna was the first to suggest that the mass spread of ailments occurs through contaminated drinking water and soil.
  • Karl the Bold had a rare luxury - a silver bath, which accompanied him on the battlefields and travels. After the defeat at Granson (1476), she was discovered in the ducal camp.
  • Emptying chamber pots from the window right on the heads of passers-by was nothing more than a kind of reaction of the residents of the house to the incessant noise under the windows, disturbing their peace. In other cases, such actions led to trouble from the city authorities and the imposition of a fine.
  • The attitude to hygiene in medieval Europe can be traced by the number of public city toilets. In the city of rains, London, there were 13 latrines, and a couple of them were placed right on the London Bridge, which connected the two halves of the city.

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