Monday, October 25, 2010

To Bathe or not to Bathe?

Dinner and a Bath (15th Century)
Last night I heard a comment commonly bandied about concerning the people of the Middle Ages; it accused them of being infrequent bathers. The speaker indicated that he had learned at a medieval museum that the people of that time bathed only once a year, if that. This is a claim I've heard many times before, and I have always wondered how much credence to give it.

When pondering this subject, the first thing that came to my mind was a counterexample: Charlemagne, a man who was very fond of his baths. His biographer Einhard wrote:

He enjoyed the exhalations from natural warm springs, and often practiced swimming, in which he was such an adept that none could surpass him; and hence it was that he built his palace at Aix-la-Chapelle, and lived there constantly during his latter years till his death. He used not only to invite his sons to his bath, but his nobles and friends, and now and then a troop of his retinue or body guard, so that a hundred or more persons sometimes bathed with him. 

But although Charlemagne enjoyed his baths, I suppose he can hardly be used as conclusive proof that most medieval people did as well. Charlemagne was a privileged emperor living during the late eighth and early ninth centuries. This is the very earliest portion of the Middle Ages and Charlemagne's life does not give demographic evidence of the European civilization at large. To prove or disprove the charge of infrequent bathing, we need evidence from later in the Middle Ages that deals with a greater segment of the population.

To gain that evidence, I turned first to Jackson J. Spielvogel's respected textbook Western Civilization. Dealing with the Carolingian period, Spielvogel asserts that aristocrats bathed at least once a week and monks indulged in a weekly Saturday night bath to prepare for the Lord's Day. Moving a few centuries forward, Spielvogel writes that: "Private and public baths...existed in medieval towns, and it is fair to say that standards of hygiene were rather high in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Paris, for example, had thirty-two public baths for men and women."

There were periods of medieval history when these high standards of hygiene declined. The plague hit Europe in the mid-fourteenth century, and Spielvogel records that, "One immediate by-product of the Black Death was a greater regulation of urban activities.... Viewed as unhealthy places, bathhouses were closed down, leading to a noticeable decline in cleanliness."

Although Spielvogel is a reliable secondary source, he does not cite any primary source evidence for his claims about medieval bathing; I was delighted to find a scholarly article titled "Tubbed and Scrubbed: An Overview of Bathing in the Middle Ages" with a little more bibliographical backing to it. In "Tubbed and Scrubbed" Master Giles de Laval does an excellent job looking at written and pictorial primary sources to establish that bathing was a prominent feature of medieval life. "The perception that medieval people never bathed and lived their lives in a state of filth is completely absurd," says de Laval, "and no more true of medieval society than it is of modern society."

De Laval talks about how many bath houses (such as Charlemagne's) were relics from the Roman Empire that continued to be used after the Roman period. In addition to this, travelers to Constantinople and the Crusaders to the Holy Land reintroduced the bath house to areas of Europe that had forgotten it. Concurring with Spielvogel's claims, De Laval says:

By the mid 13th century, bath houses were so numerous in Paril that the estuviers, or proprietors of such establishments, were permitted to form their own guild. Paid criers went about the city at daybreak, announcing that the water was hot and inviting customers in. The price of admission was set by law at two denieres for a steam bath, four for bathing afterwards.
Bathing, according to De Laval's sources, was a matter of politeness.

The 14th century Italian Book of Manners...noted that bathing and changing one's linen regularly was civil and mannerly towards others. According to the precepts of chivalry of Ramon Lull, one of the duties of the squire was to heat water for his lord's bath.
Besides being a courtesy to others, bathing was also considered to have medicinal properties. Gilbert Anglicus in his Compendium Medicinae (1240) encourages patients to take steam baths to soften the skin and open the pores and also to wash themselves in warm water.

Looking at this source material, it seems inevitable to conclude that the people of the Middle Ages were not such infrequent bathers as is commonly reported. Why then is this "myth" (as de Laval calls it) being "perpetuated by schoolroom history, Hollywood movies, and outdated scholarship"?

During parts of medieval history, the Church (which penned the majority of the historical documents and societal commentaries) had issue to take with frequent bathing; this can give the impression that the entire medieval society viewed hygiene with abhorrence. In the early medieval period, some ascetic branches of monasticism (holdovers from the patristic period) wrote that it was better to abstain from bathing in order to mortify the flesh; De Laval claims, however, that this attitude had been entirely "eroded" by the later Middle Ages, and that less austere religious orders such as the Cluniacs and the Dominicans enthusiastically approved of frequent bathing.

Unfortunately, immoral activities associated with bath houses caused other objections from the Church to surface during the later Middle Ages. Some bath house owners tried to make extra money by turning their establishments into brothels, causing the Church to decry bathing as an indecent activity. This occasional opposition from the Church may have given rise to the current view that all medievals viewed bathing with abhorrence and rarely practiced it.
So, were the medievals infrequent bathers? No. They may not have showered daily, but evidence indicates that bathing was popular and encouraged. Were the medievals smelly and filthy? Only to the same degree that nineteenth century Almanzo Wilder and his family in upstate New York were smelly and filthy. In Farmer Boy, Almanzo's future wife Laura Ingalls records that Almanzo and his family took weekly Saturday night baths, just like the Carolingian clergy did back in the eighth century. How positively medieval!


  1. Very nicely written. It's always interesting to go back to the sources and find out if our pre-conceived notions are correct.

  2. This makes me so much more comfortable about the medieval times in general!


  3. Very interesting! I love the dinner and a bath picture...


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