I recently submitted a chapter to my critique group, where the hero returned from a long quest to the hall of a lord. Before feasting with the lord’s men, the hero asked for a bath. The hero had been crawling through mud, slaying goblins, and getting filthy.
Going on a quest is dirty work.
I didn’t think anything of it, but the reaction from my writer’s group made me stop and take a second look. The claim was that people in the middle ages thought baths were unhealthy, and that they only took a bath only once a year. It was then that I remembered in the novel Shogun (which took place in the 1600s), that the main character didn’t take a bath because he thought he would get sick from it.
A medieval bath-house, where you could bet a square meal and a hot bath.
Fact or myth: people in the middle ages stank everywhere they went?
One of the oldest primary references to the use of soap comes from Pliny the Elder (who lived between 23 AD and 79 AD)—many hundreds of years BEFORE the middle ages. He wrote about the Gauls (who were a Celtic people that lived in France), and about the Germanic tribes (who came down from Scandanavia). The Gauls and Germans are the ancestors of nearly all northern European peoples.
Here is what he said:
Soap is the invention of the Gauls and this is used to redden the hair. It is made from fat and ashes -- the best is beech wood ash and goat fat, the two combined, thick and clear. Many among the Germans use it, the men more than the women.
—Pliny the Elder, Historia Naturalis
So we know that they used soap to bleach their hair, but did they use it to wash themselves as well? Many sources tell us that the Vikings bathed at least once a week; indeed, they had a special bath-day set aside. The most direct reference comes from an abbot named John of Wallingford, who chronicled the events in England from 449 to 1036 (which spans virtually the entire Anglo Saxon period). Of the Vikings he says:
The Danes, thanks to their habit of combing their hair every day, of bathing every Saturday and regularly changing their clothes, were able to undermine the virtue of married women and even seduce the daughters of nobles to be their mistresses.
—John of Wallingford, Chronica Joannis Wallingford
John of Wallingford can’t be counted as a primary source, but he’s definitely a period source. In modern Scanavian languages, the word for Saturday (i.e., laugardagur / laurdag / lørdag / lördag) means “washing day.” The Vikings get a bad rap in modern times for being filthy, bloodthirsty heathens, but excavations of gravesites regularly uncover combs, tweezers, razors for shaving, and ear spoons (for cleaning out their ears). We also know from an Arab Historian named Ibn Fadlan that the Vikings washed their faces and heads every day.
So the Vikings were quite fastidious, what about the rest of Europe?
Well, the sauna was invented by the Finns. It dates back to the beginning of their history (well before the middle ages):
The first examples of saunas were simple pits dug in the earth, with heated stones to generate the dry, hot atmosphere. Hot stones remain the hallmark of the sauna, radiating warmth into a small surrounding room, which today is typically built of wood. Dousing the stones with water creates a vapor called loyly by the Finns. Body brushes, called vihta or vahta, and birch branches, are used to stimulate the skin and a healthy sweat.
—Von Furstenberg, Diane. The Bath, p. 93 (New York, Random House, 1993)
We also know that public bath-houses were very common throughout all of Europe. Every large town had one. Some were segregated by gender and some were not. They were hugely popular. In fact, in addition to getting a bath, you could also get a meal. Here is a list of regulations in Paris, governing the Guild of Bathhouse Keepers (dated 1270):
1. Whoever wishes to be a bathhouse-keeper in the city of Paris may freely do so, provided he works according to the usage and customs of the trade, made by agreement of the commune, as follow.
2. Be it known that no man or woman may cry or have cried their baths until it is day, because of the dangers which can threaten those who rise at the cry to go to the baths.
3. No man or woman of the aforesaid trade may maintain in their houses or baths either prostitutes of the day or night, or lepers, or vagabonds, or other infamous people of the night.
4. No man or woman may heat up their baths on Sunday, or on a feast day which the commune of the city keeps.
5. And every person should pay, for a steam-bath, two deniers; and if he bathes, he should pay four deniers.
6. And because at some times wood and coal are more expensive than at others, if anyone suffers, a suitable price shall be set by the provost of Paris, through the discussion of the good people of the aforesaid trade, according to the situation of the times.
7. The male and female bathhouse-keepers have sworn and promised before us to uphold these things firmly and consistently, and not to go against them.
8. Anyone who infringes any of the above regulations of the aforesaid trade must make amends with ten Parisian sous, of which six go to the king, and the other four go to the masters who oversee the trade, for their pains.
9. The aforesaid trade shall have three good men of the trade, elected by us unanimously or by a majority, who shall swear before the provost of Paris or his representative that they will oversee the trade well and truly, and that they will make known to the provost of Paris or his representative all the infringements that they know of or discover, and the provost shall remove and change them as often as he wishes.
—Etienne de Boileu, Livre des métiers, translated. Women's Lives in Medieval Europe, A Source Book.
What about the Anglo Saxons?
There are few direct accounts that provide a contemporary point of view during the Anglo-Saxon period. However, an analysis of Old English, itself, reveals that the Saxons had a wealth of words to describe personal cleanliness. (for reference, the letter æ is a short-a as in “hat”. The letter þ is the th sound in “thick”, and the letter ð is the th sound in “this”):
bæþ = bath
stánbæþ = “stone bath”, a vapor bath made by water poured onto heated stones. (i.e., a sauna).
Stofa = a bath-room, for a warm bath.
stofbæþ = vapor-bath, or hot-air bath (another word for a sauna).
þwéal = washing bath laver soap that is used in washing ointment
bæþsealf = “bath salve”, a salve to be used when taking a bath.
sápe = soap (this is the direct ancestor of the modern English word)
léaðor/leáþor = “lather”, an ingredient added to soap to make it bubbly.
héafodbæþ = “head-bath”, washing just your head.
swilung = swilling, or to wash the mouth by gargling
áfeormian = to cleanse clean thoroughly purge purify wash away
I should also mention the city of Bath, in Somerset, which was originally built by the Romans on a hot spring. They called it Aquae Sulis, but when the Saxons invaded, they re-named it Bath (no one ever said the Saxons had a brilliant imagination). The place was widely known as a resort where people went any time of the year. Nennius, a ninth-century historian, describes it thus:
It is surrounded by a wall, made of brick and stone, and men may go there to bathe at any time, and every man can have the kind of bath he likes. If he wants, it will be a cold bath; and if he wants a hot bath, it will be hot.
And finally, excavations of Anglo-Saxon grave-sites reveal combs, ear-spoons, tweezers, etc., all of which are very similar to those found in Viking grave-sites I think we can infer that the Saxons has similar habits of cleanliness. Why? Because before Christianity came along, the Saxons, Danes, Norse, and Swedes were all different tribes of the very same people. They had the same religion, they spoke similar languages, they dressed the same, they made their living the same, they lived in the same kinds of buildings, etc.
So what do we get from all this?
I find it hard to believe that if the ancestors of medieval Europeans knew what soap was good for, that the descendants would have lost that custom. This doesn't make sense to me. As I've studied history, time and time again I've been impressed how the basic features of human nature never change. People laugh, love, work, and play. Small children put everything in their mouth. Lovers quarrel. Teenagers go through a rebellious phase. Husbands and wives sometimes get along, and sometimes they go after after each other like cats and dogs.
And people don't like hanging around other people who stink.
There is ample evidence that medieval people were at least familiar with cleanliness. The notion that they let themselves stink 364 days out of the year is absurd. As for how often they actually did bathe, I think it varied from one region to the next, and from one time period to the next. I could probably dig deeper, but that would require another blog.
Want to know more? Go to your search engine of choice, and type in “medieval bathing”. Enjoy!