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…