The question of hygiene in past eras is a fascinating one. It is a subject which seems to invite a feast of different assumptions – and I have heard everything from “They were filthy – never washed because the church said it was sinful – and stank the place out,” through to: “No, they were regular bathers, washed their clothes frequently and smelled no worse than we do today.” The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but during the period that interests me which is the late 15th century, I veer more towards a belief in cleanliness rather than the opposite. However – nothing is ever quite that simple.
We have it on record, for instance, that in one large noble household all linen, including the intimate apparel of the nobility themselves, was thoroughly washed every three days. We are given to assume from this that bedding was changed often, also shifts and sweaty shirts, whilst the gentlemen changed their braies (underpants) that frequently. But of course this information, although fascinating, is as deceptive as most of the rest.
Since wealthy gentlemen would certainly have owned more than one pair of braies, it is perfectly possible that they put on a clean pair every morning rather than waiting for wash-day, and the three day wash cycle would therefore be irrelevant in that respect. On the other hand, some men might have refused to keep such hygienic habits. Washing whatever was passed to the laundry girls every three days does not prove everyone discarded their dirty underwear that often. Nor can we be sure that other establishments carried out laundry duties with the same regularity. Some may have been even more diligent. Others may have been far more lax.
I also imagine that having been jousting for most of the day, or after having spent several days in the saddle, (not an unusual practise) the clothes would be sweaty and grimy, however often they were usually washed at home. So cleanliness was considered advisable up to a point – but what probably did not happen was the sort of shocked disgust at dirt and smells which we now experience. They would all have been far more accustomed to grime. So his grubby knickers might not be the worst of your problems when your gallant knight came riding home.
Bed and table linen was regularly washed and then spread out on the hedges to dry in the sun. However, the nobility’s outer clothes were rarely washed. The great sweeping velvets and heavy brocades with their golden laces, fur trimmings and satin ribbons were kept clean by extensive brushing and wiping, and with the use of steam and Fuller’s Earth. More personal hygiene was considered equally important. Teeth were cleaned with specially cut birch twigs, and soap came in various different qualities from the cheap brown liquid available for the poor, up to the expense of solid white Spanish soap.
On the other hand, human waste was an accepted part of the everyday experience and was used as part of normal manure spread as fertilizer on country crops. Urine was considered a useful ‘crop’ in itself and was used in the process of tanning hides and in dying fabrics amongst others. Animal blood and brains were generally allowed to disappear into the shallow central gutters around the butchers’ quarters in any township, the animals that roamed most streets (dogs, goats, pigs and others) would add their own contributions, and most mornings the average housewife would empty the family chamber pots into the gutters as well. Much of this muck would remain until washed away by the rain, although large towns employed ‘raykers’ to clear the gutters on a regular basis, while diligent shopkeepers cleaned the gutters directly outside their own premises – sweeping the filth down to the next shop along!
In medieval times, privies were not an entirely wholesome affair, although they certainly existed, both in private homes and for public use (though public privies were men only). They were usually small cubicles tucked away in dark and quiet areas of the house, but invariably without any enclosing door.
Some public privies were built on London Bridge, not exactly private at all. These would take the form of a long polished wooden bench with several neat holes in a row. You would therefore be sitting in extremely close and undivided proximity to the next man. It was generally considered bad manners to talk directly to someone who was seated upon the privy. These ‘jaykes’ or ‘seats of ease’ as they were often known, usually opened directly down into the river, the cess pit or the moat below. Plumbing was unknown. One precarious set of London privies built to jut out with direct access to the Thames beneath, unfortunately collapsed after much use. They and their occupants hurtled into the river, and that is a picture I just cannot bear to visualise.
I have an idea that the general public went about their daily business with a constantly full bladder, suffering from the continuous discomfort of having very few opportunities to empty it. Certainly men urinating in public is mentioned as a fairly normal occurrence, (the gutters again) though surely only in some areas. Women, I imagine, found the situation even more inconvenient. Later this problem was overcome with several ingenious and hilarious methods, but during the late medieval it was a matter of suffering in silence until able to hurry home.
There were communal cess pits and these would be emptied from time to time by the busy gong-farmers, but I imagine the stench was fairly strong. Many busy waterways became almost clogged with general waste; The Fleet, for instance. The pollution, however unpleasant, was, of course, of a natural kind and not in any manner chemical – so the fish did not object. The Thames continued to be heavily fished for many years in spite of what else floated there.
So no wonder the water was, in general, unsafe to drink, although it was accepted for use in washing and cooking. It was safer when boiled, whilst ale, beer and wine were for drinking. In country areas, however, there would be fresh streams where the water would be drinkable, and usually deep wells would also be uncontaminated.
Bathing was certainly a generally accepted necessity and quite luxurious baths were known to exist in all great houses. Wooden and barrel shaped for the most part, they could be linen lined and cushioned
with head rests. Hot water was carried in bucketfuls by the servants, with water boiled in cauldrons over the kitchen fires. The water could be perfumed with herbs, towels were warmed, and apart from condensation dropping from the ceiling beams, this would be a hygienic and very cosy affair.
Of course, the poorer folk had far fewer advantages. Few if any would have a private privy within the house or even outside it (a chamber pot would be the best they could do) and would be unlikely to own their own bath. There were public wash-houses however, which sometimes had a reputation for other activities apart from simply getting clean – but bathing and the washing of clothes and household linen still took place.
Naturally, it was hundreds of years before a scientific knowledge of hygiene and its connection with health was understood. Germs were undiscovered, and the cause of infectious diseases unknown. Even polluted water was avoided not because it could cause dysentery, typhoid or at least diarrhoea, but simply because it looked and tasted vile. Therefore the disposal of waste directly into the waterways continued and increased as the population grew. Vegetables and salads would be washed to remove the earth still attached before cooking but for no other reason, contact with animals was not thought in any manner unhealthy, and I doubt that hand washing after using those doubtful privies was considered imperative either.
These conditions naturally encouraged parasites and the poor could rarely escape the problems of lice, fleas and intestinal worms. Indeed, the habits of farmers, the use of manure, and the accepted behaviour of cooks and scullions even in the most illustrious establishments, ensured that although the nobility might avoid fleas and lice, (although Henry VII’s father, Earl of Richmond, died from the plague, and that meant a flea bite).they would certainly suffer frequent if not continuous infestations of intestinal roundworms. This actually continued up until and including the 2nd World War – so hardly a matter of wonder or concern. The roundworm was virtually universally tolerated until less than a hundred years ago, and unless these parasites accumulated in unusually huge numbers, they gave few if any symptoms. The recent over-dramatic reaction on this score is absurd, since the roundworm remains virtually undiagnosed, unnoticed and unimportant, yet flourishes almost worldwide to this day.
Conduits existed, and water carriers supplied the households of larger towns and cities but this often came directly from those same contaminated rivers, so on the whole it is surprising that the population managed to avoid disease as well as it did. There is another point to consider, of course. Our natural bodily immunity is often enhanced after becoming much habituated, and we are now told that our compulsive cleanliness only adds to our vulnerability, weakens our immune systems and brings about endless allergies. But I cannot imagine this means we would in any manner benefit from returning to the chamber pot and the use of medieval gutters.
So during the late medieval there were few standards we’d wish to copy today, indeed the smell of the cities was certainly rank, dysentery was common – and usually fatal. However, a desire for cleanliness was an accepted part of life at that time and considerable effort went into bathing and keeping clean.
It was many years later when the grosser behaviour, the overcrowding, the increased filth, cholera and typhoid became almost unbearable. After the Puritan horror of nakedness (dirt was holier, it seems) we then hear of the great balls and parties of the nobility during the 16th to 19th centuries, with their incredible luxury and sumptuous clothes. But our romantic fiction rarely tells us that the crush of a ballroom would have been overheated and noxious with the stench of old stale sweat and the cloying sickly smell of the perfume attempting to disguise it, the rampant lice in the unwashed wigs, and the fleas visibly leaping on some of the bodies. 17th century gentlemen were known to urinate in the fireplace, though hopefully not in female company, and the licentious habits of the Restoration era included some other unsavoury habits. So it got worse before it got better.
But at least I can imagine my late 15th century characters without having to hold my nose! The desire for cleanliness was both determined and accomplished within most 15th century households and considerable trouble was exercised in order to accomplish a standard of cleanliness which in those days was none too easy.