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Medieval Tips to Improve your Hygiene and Manners

The Middle Ages are often portrayed as a time when people were filthy and crude. Did they even care about their appearance and behaviour? 

A newly translated text from the turn of the 13th century – The Book of the Civilised Man – shows that medieval people were interested in behaving the proper way (at least what they thought the proper way was). It was written by Daniel of Beccles, who we know little about but may haven been in the retinue of England’s King Henry II. He begins his work by explaining its purpose:

If you, dear reader, want to be polished with morals and manners,
if you want the esteem of worthy men, or want to lead a
civilised life among noble lords, to be a shrewd overseer
of your property, keep these everlasting verses in mind,
which I have decided to write in unadorned plain speech for untrained boy-clerks.

It looks as if the work would have been aimed at boys and young men – perhaps those in noble households. What follows is over 2800 lines of advise given in verse, which deal with a wide number of topics. Daniel explains how to behave in church (don’t fall asleep), during dinners (don’t steal the cutlery), and what to do with gifts (don’t re-gift them). He goes over many typical scenes of social interaction, always noting the importance of being respectful to those of higher standing. The text covers a lot of topics, ranging from dietary advice to how to take care of the defence of a town.

Some of the parts we found most interesting dealt with personal hygiene and manners. Here are a five excerpts about taking care of yourself:

Your appearance

Your hair should be neatly styled and evenly cut.
A full beard should be trimmed if it becomes shaggy.
If you have difficulty seeing, seek medical help.
Your hands ought to be clean, and your sleeves should be laced.
Do not let your nails be ugly or your teeth dirty.
There should be no great number of long hairs in your nostrils.

Washing your hands

When you are hungry and ready to eat,
first empty your bowels.
Afterwards, an attendant should give you a washcloth and water.
If it is winter, you should be given warm water. 
The washcloth should be white and the water should be from a clean stream.

Nose-blowing and belching

Do not be a boorish nose-blower or throat-clearer
while dining. If you need to cough, suppress that urge.
If you feel the need to belch, remember to look at the ceiling.
If you empty your nose into your hand, 
do not look at the filth on your palm.

Urinating

Do not get up after the meal to urinate in the bushes,
nor to void your bowels, unless nature compels you.
Guests, messengers, and servants should not urinate on the premises. 
The master of the house can urinate in his own home.
Guests may urinate indoors, if they so wish, at night after they have retired.

The ‘secret wind’

In public, your bottom should emit no secret winds past your thighs.
It disgraces you if others notice any of your smelly filth.
If it happens that your intestines are caught in a windstorm,
look for a place where you may relieve them in private.

You can read The Book of the Civilised Man: An English Translation of the Urbanus magnus of Daniel of Beccles, translated by Fiona Whelan, Olivia Spenser and Francesca Petrizzo, and published by Routledge. Click here to visit the publisher’s website or buy this book on Amazon.com

Top Image: Engelberg Stiftsbibliothek Cod. 339  fol. 71



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