Have you ever asked yourself how people washed and perfume themselves in Medieval time? And what about the smart and noble Plantagenets? Was there a difference between rich and poor people? You will be surprised to discover that Mediaeval people were cleaner than we can imagine and they smelled good.
As you can imagine, hygienic habits differs from peasants to royals even though every class used to bathe and clean clothes. Of course, peasants and poor people in general, were at the lower level of hygiene due to several reasons, first of all status and income. They were not so rich to afford the cost of fuel to boil water or at least, to warm it as it was used to cook and staying warm. However, they washed themselves in some way using cold water or damp cloths. In summer, streams and river, made the difference. In order to avoid waste of hot water, they used to have a bath every couple of weeks following a sort of criteria. As the bath tub was filled, the head of the family had a bath at first followed by all the male relatives in order of age. After that, women could have a bath starting with the oldest. Babies came at last. It is not difficult to imagine that at that point, water was so murky that was even difficult to find the baby in the bath tub. It seems that the expression “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”, that today is an idiomatic expression, seems to come from this debatable habits.
In monasteries, things went a little bit worse as monks were allowed to bathe only 3 or 4 times a year but there are some records that show in reality they washed themselves regularly at least partially that means face, hands and feet. Being something related to the body, Church didn’t encourage bathing a lot.
As regards nobles, royals and in general healthy people, things were totally different. As they could afford the cost of hot water and accessories for bathing, they had some portable wooden bathtubs with a curtain where they stay standing. Water was often scented with flowers and herbs. They also have bathtubs very similar to those we have today cased in, with tiles around and in horizontal position.
As regards shaving, men shaved regularly but it was not that easy because mirrors were not clear and wide so they prefer to be shaved by a barber instead. In a household account about Edward IV, every Saturday night, he had a shave and head, legs and feet washed. It seems that Edward was also interested in smelling good. To this purpose, not only he washed himself but also he had his linen boiled in water into which orris root and violets were tied to linen. In addition to these plants, he should have used lavender, roses and rosemary as well. We have reason to believe that Richard and the other men and women of the court, might have followed this trend.
What about teeth? It seems that in Medieval times, the oral hygiene was not so bad as we could think. First of all, teeth at that time were almost perfect as not so many people could access sugar and not so often. In addition to this, they want to appear smart and smell nice so they clean their teeth using linen-cloths to rub them with salt, pepper, rosemary, mint, powdered charcoal, and many other herbs.
Due to the high waste of candles made out of animals fat, castles smelled damp and not exactly good. To avoid this, herbs and flower were strewn across the floor especially lavender, marjoram, thyme and rosemary. This last was used also as a perfume for men.
At this point, many of you are wondering if women removed hair from their body and the answer is yes. They shaved their armpits, legs and the so called “Head Down There”. This practice was common among Western women especially prostitutes who were considered more appealing without hair as this could have given them a sort of “innocent” air. They normally used quicklime for this purpose.
Finally, what was the main smell in Medieval times? There were many flowers and herbs to perfume the air and the body as rosemary, sage, marjoram, lavender, violets but the typical, Medieval smell was rose. To wash their hands and the hands of their close friend before eating, bowls of rose water and petals were put on the table for people to use. Roses are always so fascinating flowers preferred especially by nobles and monarchs and not only for hygienic reasons but also to conquer the heart of a woman. We have not changed a lot after all…
An article that is further to this …
Yes, the illustration above is funny (from our fastidious modern viewpoint) but it is also accurate for toilet facilities from early medieval times, right up into the 20th century. I am now in my seventies, and can remember in my country childhood finding outhouses/privies with up to four ‘facilities’, and yes, the holes were in a row in a single wooden plank. So, to me, the thought that in earlier times there were even more in a row is quite obvious. It seems that Richard ‘Dick’ Whittington provided one that could seat 64 bottoms at a time! Wow, that’s a lot of…well, cheeks. The difference is, however, that those small affairs that I came across always had paper – usually newspaper ripped/cut up and sewn into a convenient bunch. And, later, rolls of that awful Bronco stuff that was shiny and didn’t absorb anything! The newspaper was infinitely better. http://broughttolife.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/objects/display?id=1790
Anyway, the illustration doesn’t show any provision at all for the wiping of bottoms. How did they manage? Just do their business and then walk away? Hmm, the consequences of that don’t bear thinking about. Our fastidious modern selves would have the vapours. Erm, in a manner of speaking.
Then, of course, those fragrant facilities had to be emptied – as described by Tony Robinson in his Worst Jobs in History series. Sometimes it wasn’t necessary, for example in the public loos overhanging the Thames, which carried their ‘business’ downstream…and then upstream again, and then downstream again, and so on, as the tides chose. So what was convenient and reasonably hygienic at the place of origin, soon became a much greater problem courtesy of the Thames. It continued until a sewage system was built in the 19th century. At huge expense. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_sewerage_system Then, eventually, the Thames ceased to stink, and the need for delightful little scented posies/nosegays was no longer necessary in Parliament. Well, not to fend off the stench from the Thames…the garbage issuing from some speechifying was another matter.
The following is from http://queryblog.tudorhistory.org/2013/10/question-from-george-toilet-facilities.html:
“While the lower courtiers had to use the malodorous communal facilities of the Great House of Easement [at Hampton Court] when they answered a call of nature, Henry VIII had the use of a specially designed box tucked away in a private room off the state bedchamber. This ‘close-stool’ was lavishly covered in black velvet and its lid opened to reveal a padded and beribboned interior covered in the same material. It had a hole in the centre with a pewter bowl placed underneath….it was a privilege to be the Groom of the Stool with the duty of attending the King when he relieved himself, and the position often went to a high-ranking courtier.”
“In 1539, one groom recorded how Henry VIII had taken laxative pills and an enema, sleeping until 2am ‘when His Grace rose to go upon his stool which, with the working of the pills and the enema, His Highness had taken before, had a very fair siege’.”
Ew. Too much information….
PS: Since writing the above, I have come across further information about the, um, toilet habits of our ancestors. Specifically, the Romans. It seems the old sponge-soaked-in-vinegar-and-stuck-on-a-stick tale might not be the whole story! https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-21204228?fbclid=IwAR26yFjrjUgnKqGvwmQMtkk5fYc4pXIKHB5pvvY8x1YM969iKV0sOJMhuC8
So, let us say you find that time machine and go back to Richard III’s era, and you are going to dine with him. How do people act? What should you expect? In old 1950’s movies we see neat and tidy castles and perfectly coiffed people cavorting merrily between trestle tables and dancing in stately manner; while in more recent movies, where directors believe they are going for ‘gritty realism,’ you see grubby, roaring crowds wolfing down food, snatching it from plates and causing a general ruckus.
In reality, although neither of these scenarios is completely correct, the so-called more ‘realistic’ modern one is probably the less authentic of the two. Certainly, there was a stringent set of table manners in existence that were very precise, even if certain aspects of hygiene seem a little strange to us today. Some rules, however, will be immediately recognisable to modern people and they form the basis for modern manners.
On a regular day, before the nobles dined, the household servants would eat approximately an hour before their masters. Richard’s mother, Cecily Neville, normally ate around 11 am and then again at 5 pm (by Richard’s time most people down to the rank of squires had a breakfast as well, often after morning Mass.) The squires themselves had been taught by the master of the henchmen how to drink and eat in a mannerly fashion, and there were books available to give advice on the correct procedures.
For a feast, the attendees would eat off trestle tables covered by a cloth. The feasters would sit on benches, while the lord (we’ll call him Richard from now onwards, because you have that time machine, remember?) and any special guests might sit in chairs of estate padded with cushions for comfort. The wealthiest might even have a silk cushion provided.
Trenchers would be set out before Richard and the rest of the attendees. These were often made of thick bread, though wooden trenchers were growing increasingly common by the 1500’s. The bread trenchers were cut carefully with a knife, and in the house of a very great lord, tested for poison. Then the first trencher would be presented to Richard without ever being touched by the server’s hand or the tip of the knife.
After the trencher was presented, the salt cellar would arrive. It would stand on the table either before Richard or just to the side of him. Cellars were high status symbols, and frequently of elaborate design, including dogs, lions, castle towers, and ships. Some even had wheels and could be rolled into the hall.
Cutlery, a knife and a spoon, wrapped in clean napkins would be placed before Richard on the table. Sometimes only the lord would have a knife laid out for him, while the guests were expected to bring their own. Forks were rare in Richard’s day except when used for eating sweetmeats or to help carve the meat.
No one started the meal before hand washing commenced. A towel known as the surnape was laid on the table, while a bowl of water was brought forward and tasted for poison. This ritual done, the water (which could be warm, hot or scented) would be then either poured over Richard’s hands from above, or the he could immerse his hands in the bowl as he chose.
The towel on the table was taken away and Grace said. The carver then presented the first dish to the revellers. Not only the carver’s hands, but his knives were to be clean and held correctly.
While Richard and his guests ate, scraps of discarded food would be swept from tables and trenchers by the butler and thrown into a bin called the ‘voyder,’ which was frequently taken out and emptied. Far from being a dirty mess of spilt food, the table was expected to remain as tidy as possible throughout the entire meal.
When the feast was done, Richard would again wash his hands or at least his fingers, before drying them on a specially provided towel.
Behaviour was regulated. Richard would sit down first, before all others; once he was comfortable, his guests would follow suit. No one ate until he was ready to begin. No one dared tuck in until the course was fully served. You were not to cut your fingernails with your knife, nor did wipe them all over the tablecloth. Toying with the cloth itself was ‘bad form.’ Filling the soup with your bread was crass and seen as wasteful. You did not blow on the soup, in case you contaminated it with bad breath, and noisy eating was rude. As today, speaking with your mouth full was the height of bad manners, and spitting was not considered proper, although if you had to, the floor was the only place, not on the table or into any bowl. Once you had finished your soup, the spoon was not to be left lying in the dish but neatly wiped and placed beside the trencher. Eating with fingers was perfectly acceptable as long as you did not tear off huge chunks and make a mess.
Behaviour at dinner had some rules too. You must not belch near another’s face nor spit across the table. Picking teeth with the knife was considered inelegant; there were implements that served as toothpicks which should be used instead. Blowing your nose in the napkin was also thought highly ill-mannered. If you were unfortunate to attend your Richard’s banquet with a cold and had not brought a handkerchief, you were expected to wipe your hands on your clothes after sneezing, rather than sully the napkin or tablecloth. Food stealing off other guests was a no-no, and you never licked a dish clean no matter how good it tasted. You sat up straight and acted with courtesy and politeness, which included not criticising the food or whispering. Nose-picking was out, as was scratching fleabites, rubbing at your scalp or just staring at the other people in the room. (So no staring at his Grace, no matter how tempting, remember?!)
So if you should indeed find that time machine, bon appetit…and please don’t spit over the table.
Sources- Fast and Feast—Bridget Henisch
Food and Feast in Medieval England by Peter Hammond
The Babee’s Book, trans Edith Rickett
Historians, historians. It seems we have a new generation writing about the Wars of the Roses and Richard, but still plying the same old, same old. Only with a new and disturbing twist.
The current crop of books seem aimed at the ‘yoof’ market, targeted especially towards those whose knowledge of the Wars of the Roses period only extends to having heard that it influenced ‘Game of Thrones.’ Words like ‘bloody’ and ‘most violent’ abound in descriptions of these authors’ tomes and TV programs, as if attempting to capture audiences with the potential ‘gore factor’ rather than the history. We certainly cannot be having any historical figure’s life or character reassessed in any way, because it appears that certain ‘popular history’ authors believe the late medieval era is just too boring without murderous, hunchbacked Wicked Uncle Richard taking the final bow.
But it gets worse than just rehashing tired old myths. Of late, there is a disturbing new trend—additions are being made to the Richard ‘legend’ which have no basis in truth or are distortions of recent findings. Presented on the screen or written page by a dynamic and popular presenter or author, these new falsehoods may well make their way into a new generation’s myths about Richard, which would be a great shame just as some of the old myths have begun to be questioned and discarded, such as the fictional limp and withered arm.
For example, recently popular historian Dan Jones claimed that Edward IV pardoned the Lancastrians hiding in the abbey after the Battle of Tewkesbury…and that Richard and Hastings, defying their king in what would surely have been considered shocking insubordination, dragged these men from sanctuary and executed them. In fact, there is nothing in the original records that says who exactly was responsible for removing the Lancastrians from the abbey (which was not actually a designated place of sanctuary.) Edward had pardoned them but had obviously gone back on his word…as he did at an earlier date with Welles and Dymoke whom he lured from sanctuary and then executed in Stamford in March 1470. Edward was not averse to executing his enemies, and the idea he would not sanction executions at Tewkesbury for foes such as Somerset is most strange…especially considering he had over 40 Lancastrian nobles executed in the aftermath of Towton.
On top of this new and unfounded claim, Jones even had to add a little fantasy about Richard’s spinal condition, writing that at the random age of age of 22, he became a ‘hunchback’! Surely it is time this pejorative word is put to rest, for both Richard (who was not a ‘hunchback’ but suffered scoliosis) and for any others who have any form of spinal abnormality? Jones’ statement also clearly goes against all the recent medical reports in scholarly journals like the Lancet, which states that Richard’s type of scoliosis was of adolescent onset, appearing as he reached puberty. (Adult onset scoliosis has a different pathology from Richard’s form, as does the congenital type found in young children.) The osteologists have also stated that its impact on Richard’s appearance would be quite minimal, with uneven shoulders being the most noticeable feature (this of course tallies with near contemporary records mentioning a raised right shoulder.)
Archaeologist Mike Pitts has also added his bit recently and somewhat disappointingly, considering his good work elsewhere in prehistoric archaeology. In his book about the Greyfriars dig, he refers to Richard as being ‘frail.’ Nothing about Richard’s remains shows that the King was frail, which has the implication of weakness and sickliness. He had small, gracile bones, true, but that is not quite the same thing as ‘frail’, as Mr. Pitts is surely aware from excavating countless Neolithic skeletons, which also frequently have similar slender, gracile bones.
Lastly, there was a recent small feature about Richard’s teeth in an issue of World Archaeology. He had gum disease! the author wrote almost gleefully. He would have been suffering constant toothache and had bad breath!
What a load of nonsense! He had some caries as one might expect in a medieval man of nearly 33, pre-dentistry, and loss of only a few back teeth; and most of us even with modern dental hygiene will suffer some kind of gingival problem within our lifetime. These kinds of ailments are really useful to know about only in comparative circumstances….i.e. were his teeth/gums better or worse than other medieval nobility? (Obviously better than Henry Tudor’s gnashers which were described by contemporaries as ‘black’!)
Needless to say, it is disappointing that so much poorly researched or even invented data on Richard III is still being passed off as the truth. The public deserves a much less biased and melodramatic view which will allow them to make up their own minds and perhaps go on to further research into the most written about but most poorly understood King of this period.