It is often thought that medieval men and women did not care too much about personal hygiene or keeping clean. One nineteenth-century historian writing about daily life in the Middle Ages commented that there were no baths for a thousand years. However, a closer look shows that baths and bathing were actually quite common in the Middle Ages, but in a different way than one might expect.
There are stories of how people didn’t bathe in the Middle Ages – for example, St Fintan of Clonenagh was said to take a bath only once a year, just before Easter, for twenty-four years. Meanwhile, the early medieval English writers believed that the Vikings were overly concerned with cleanliness since they took a bath once a week. On the other hand, we can also see many literary references and works of art depicting people taking baths, and noting that it was part of daily activity.
Personal hygiene did exist in the Middle Ages – people were well aware that cleaning their face and hands was a good idea – health manuals from the period note that it was important to get rid of dirt and grime. They also explained that it was important to keep the entire body clean. For example, the fourteenth-century Italian physician Maino De Maineri stated in his work Regimen sanitatis that “The bath cleans the external body parts of dirt left behind from exercise on the outside of the body.”
He also adds a second reason for bathing: “if any of the waste products of third digestion are left under the skin that were not resolved by exercise and massage, these will be resolved by the bath.” There was a strong connection between bathing and eating, which could affect one’s overall health (these ideas have not quite left us – many people might remember their mother telling them not to go swimming for an hour after a meal). Baths could relieve digestion and stop diarrhea – but taken improperly could lead to weakness of the heart, nausea or fainting.
Medieval writers saw bathing as a serious and careful activity. One medical treatise, the Secreta Secretorum, has an entire section on baths. It notes that the spring and winter are good times for bathing, but it should be avoided as much as possible in the summer. It also warns that excessively long baths lead to fatness and feebleness. Meanwhile, Maino De Maineri offers over 57 bathing prescriptions to use in specific conditions, like old age, pregnancy and travelling and his rules for bathing run 1500 words long.
Some famous bathing sites had their own rules. In 1336, Pietro de Tussignano formulated twelve rules for those coming to the Italian town at Burmi, which lies near Switzerland, to get the healing effects of its bath. They include that the person should beforehand not have too much sexual intercourse (nor have abstained from it), and that he should also enter the bath with an empty stomach (if they had to have food it could only be two spoons of raisins with a little wine). You could only pour the water over your head if you were clean-shaven, otherwise your hairs might impede the effects of the water. The person should take the baths for fifteen days, spending up to an hour a day getting washed, but if all goes well, the bather will benefit for over six months with improved health.
If people could afford a to have a private bath – and not many could – they would use a wooden tub that could also have a tent-like cloth on top of it. Attendants would bring jugs and pots of hot water to fill the tub. In John Russell’s Book of Nurture, written in the second half of the fifteenth century, he advises servants that if their lord wants a bath they should:
hang sheets, round the roof, every one full of flowers and sweet green herbs, and have five or six sponges to sit or lean upon, and see that you have one big sponge to sit upon, and a sheet over so that he may bathe there for a while, and have a sponge also for under his feet, if there be any to spare, and always be careful that the door is shut. Have a basin full of hot fresh herbs and wash his body with a soft sponge, rinse him with fair warm rose-water, and throw it over him.
He adds that if the lord has pains or aches, it is good to boil various herbs like camomile, breweswort, mallow and brown fennel and add them to the bath.
Records from medieval England show that its kings often enjoyed these baths. When King John travelled around his kingdom, he took a bathtub with him and had a personal attendant named William who handled it. Meanwhile, in 1351 Edward III paid for taps of hot and cold water supply to his bathtub at Westminster Palace.
Royalty throughout Europe often entertained guests with baths, often trying to impress each other with how luxurious they could make it. This tradition even goes back to the Carolingians – Einhard says that Charlemagne loved taking baths, and that “he would invite not only his sons to bathe with him, but his nobles and friends as well, and occasionally even a crowd of attendants and bodyguards, so that sometimes a hundred men or more would be in the water together.”
Wealthy monasteries often could pipe in water and have baths as well. Some monastic rules suggest that monks did not take regular baths. The monks of Westminster Abbey, for example, were required to have a bath four times a year: at Christmas, Easter, the end of June, and the end of September. It is hard to know if these rules were being followed, or if they were intended to mean that the monks could only bathe then. We do know, however, that Westminster Abbey employed a bath-attendent who was paid daily two loaves of bread, as well as a stipend of £1 per year, which seems to indicate his services were regularly used.
For most people, having a private bath was not an option – it was simply too costly and too time-consuming to have their own baths. That does not mean they went without bathing, for public baths were very common throughout Europe. By the thirteenth century one could find over 32 bathhouses in Paris; Alexander Neckham, who lived in that city a century earlier, says that he would be awakened in the mornings by people crying in the streets that ‘that baths are hot!”
In Southwark, the town on the opposite side of the Thames River from London, a person could choose from 18 hot baths. Even smaller towns would have bathhouses, often connected with the local bakery – the baths could make use of the heat coming from their ovens to help heat their water.
If one were under the impression that public bathhouses were a European phenomenon, then it should also be pointed out that they were even more popular in the Middle East and North Africa. According to one eleventh-century writer, the city of Baghdad alone had 60,000 bathhouses – likely an exaggeration but it does reveal just how common they must have been.
In her book Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity Virginia Smith explains:
By the fifteenth century, bath feasting in many town bathhouses seems to have been as common as going out to a restaurant was to become four centuries later. German bath etchings from the fifteenth century often feature the town bathhouse, with a long row of bathing couples eating a meal naked in bathtubs, often several to a tub, with other couples seen smiling in beds in the mid-distance.
Public bathhouses were very popular throughout medieval Europe but they also raised controversy as some objected to the fact that men and women could see and be with each other naked, and that this could lead to illicit sex. A thirteenth-century church writer made this prohibition: “Hast thou washed thyself in the bath with thy wife and other women and seen them nude, and they thee? If thou hast, thou shouldst fast for three days on bread and water.”
However, it seems that church officials had little influence on bathhouses in the Middle Ages. Medieval people, in fact, seem to have accepted that the bathhouse was not only a place to get clean and healthy, but it could also be a place where sex and prostitution could occur. The bathhouses in Southwark were called the Stews, and were largely regarded to be just fronts for brothels. These practices were usually overlooked by local authorities, who believed that it was best to allow some level of sexual outlets for its young men, otherwise risk more serious problems.
The prominence of the public bathhouse went into rapid decline in the sixteenth century. Several suggestions have been made as to why – were more puritanical religious people able to impose their moral values on the community, or were the diseases that struck Europe since the Black Death convincing people from to avoid them? The disease of syphilis, which broke out in Europe in the late fifteenth century, would have also motivated people to stop their sexual promiscuity, thus reducing the other reasons for having a bathhouse.
The Dutch philosopher Erasmus, writing in 1526, notes the fall of the public bathhouse. “Twenty-five years ago, nothing was more fashionable in Brabant than the public baths,” he remarked. “Today there are none, the new plague has taught us to avoid them.”
Caskey, Jill, “Steam and “Sanitas” in the Domestic Realm: Baths and Bathing in Southern Italy in the Middle Ages,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 58, No. 2 (1999)
Harvey, Barbara, Living and Dying in England, 1100-1540: The Monastic Experience (Clarendon Press, 1993)
Holmes, Urban Tigner, Daily Life in the Twelfth-Century (University of Wisconsin Press, 1952)
Lucas, A.T., “Washing and Bathing in Ancient Ireland,” The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 95, No. 1/2 (1965)
Newman, Paul B., Daily Life in the Middle Ages (McFarland and Co., 2001)
Smith, Virginia, Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity (Oxford University Press, 2007)
van Dam, Fabiola I., “Permeable Boundaries: Bodies, Bathing and FLuxes, 1135-1333,” Medicine and Space: Body, Surroundings and Borders in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, ed. Patricia Baker (Brill, 2012)
van Winter, Johanna Maria, “Medieval Opinions about Food and Drinking in Connection with Bathing,” Spices and Comfits: Collected Papers on Medieval Food (Prospect Books, 2007)