The Five-Minute Medievalist takes a look at some of the grooming tools from the Middle Ages that she has come across in her travels.
There’s a common misconception that medieval people weren’t all that interested in hygiene, which doesn’t make sense really, for a couple of reasons. Number one, feeling clean feels good. This is the big reason why medieval people who were religious and bent on mortifying the flesh wore vermin-covered hair shirts next to their skin – it’s because it felt awful, and that was the point. (Is anyone else feeling a little bit itchy right about now?) The other reason is that being clean and well-groomed helps you attract a mate because it makes it look like your genes are really good. I wrote an article for Medievalists.net that shows just five medieval toothpaste recipes, which shows that people were interested in smelling great to attract mates.
Today, we’re going to look at just a couple of the grooming tools that I’ve come across in my travels over the last few months. I took these pictures with my iPhone, so you might actually see the reflection of my feet a couple times.
This first picture that we’re looking was taken at The Cloisters museum in New York, which is affiliated with The Met museum, although The Cloisters is specifically dedicated just to the Middle Ages. This is a liturgical comb, and it’s called a liturgical comb because it was used for priests to comb their hair before they performed the liturgy or the mass. This one kind of resembles a modern comb in that there are wider teeth, and there are narrower teeth. The wider teeth were for grooming. The narrower teeth were for – you guessed it: nit-picking. To take out lice and the eggs of lice that might have been hiding somewhere in the priest’s hair or beard.
Here are a couple of Viking combs, that are made out of antler or bone. You can find these ones at the Viking Exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Ontario. These combs are in a little bit rougher shape, and they’re a little bit different from the liturgical comb in that these are made out of three pieces that would have been riveted together.
At the Viking Exhibit, you can see a couple of other cool grooming tools, like these. These are bronze tweezers. Now, when I was a kid, I used tweezers mostly to pull out splinters, and it’s possible that the Vikings did the same thing, but we all know that tweezers can also be used for pulling out unsightly hairs. For the Vikings, hair and beards were a point of pride, so it makes sense that we would find tweezers like these in a hoard (like the one on the left) or a grave (like the pair on the right). Everyone knows you have to look your best in Valhalla.
These little babies might be my favourite grooming tools at the ROM, though. They are ear spoons, and they were used for exactly what you’d think they’d be used for: scooping out ear wax. Now, you could use your finger for that, but that would be a little bit uncouth and not as efficient. So, you could carve your own out of antler or bone (like this one) or you could get yourself a fancy silver one, like the one below. Naturally, the silver one would have been a prized possession, which is why it has a loop on it – so you could attach it to something and not lose it. The owner of this one felt it important enough that it was buried with them.
Finally, heading back to The Cloisters again, we have a water jug. These water jugs were called aquamanilia – which is basically Latin for water and hands. Believe it or not, medieval people did wash their hands before dinner, and they considered it completely uncouth if you didn’t. This is my favourite water jug. It’s got a dragon, and a man who has somehow found himself halfway-in, halfway-out of the dragon’s mouth.
Of course, there are plenty of other grooming tools that would have been used in the Middle Ages, like wash bowls and toothpicks, but these are just a few of my favourites. And it’s interesting to see how closely they resemble the same type of things that we use today.
Thanks for watching, everybody, and I’ll see you next time.
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