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Hygiene in Medieval Times

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…

A “noxious weed” that Culpeper praised….

Nicholas Culpeper, born 18th October 1616

My recent research has taken me into the realm of medieval plants, remedies, myths and legends. It’s fascinating, and I could easily become too engaged by it all, to the detriment of the things that led me to it in the first place.

Until two days ago I don’t think I had ever seen the orange flower that suddenly popped up all over my daughter’s garden lawn. The recent heavy rain had prevented regular mowing with her electric mower, so the orange flowers had been left to their own devices. As a result, they all sent up long hairy stems (the ones I’ve seen are about 10” tall) topped by clusters of what looked miniature button chrysanthemums. The leaves were hairy too, and the plant sends out stolons in all directions, that creep along through the grass, rather than shoot up like rose suckers.

Appropriately enough, this plant is called Orange Hawkweed, Pilosella aurantiaca, and it came from the European Alps. It then became a garden escape that is naturalised in the UK, but is still rare, even though it was introduced in the 17th century. One of its common names here is ‘fox and cubs’, apparently because of the way the buds hide away beneath the open blooms, like a vixen shielding her young. This name may, of course, apply to other varieties of hawkweed, but I came upon it when looking for the Orange Hawkweed specifically. It is also called Tawny Hawkweed, Devil’s Paintbrush, Grim-the-Collier (‘because the black hairs are reminiscent of a miner covered in colliery grime’), and Orange Hawkbit. So it’s been around enough to have acquired a handful of names. Oh, and fame has it that hawkweeds acquired their general name because ‘it is alleged that hawks eat these wildflowers and that this is the reason for their superb eyesight’.

Now, in the UK you will find a lot of different hawkweeds. Who hasn’t seen their yellow spikes topped with little yellow ‘dandelion’ flowers? They’re all similar, and can usually be differentiated by their leaves. And, of course, they all rejoice in complicated Latin names. But then, tell me a plant that doesn’t! I know there are many more hawkweeds throughout the world (Wikipedia claims there are 10,000+ recorded species and subspecies) but I’m confining this little article to the UK, and my personal experience.

1736-Johann-Weinmann – Hand-Colored-Copper-Plate-Engraving-Hawkweed
Illustration from Culpeper’s English Family Physician (1792) (from the library of the Royal College of Physicians, London via the Biodiversity Heritage 

This garden interloper aroused my interest in hawkweeds in general, whatever the variety. I immediately resorted to the beautifully illustrated and informative The Medieval Flower Book by Celia Fisher, wondering what medieval people had to say about it. Surprisingly, Celia doesn’t mention it…unless she does under a name I haven’t recognized.

The Reverend W Keble-Martin, in The Concise British Flora in Colour, describes the Orange Hawkweed without illustrating it. He illustrates many other varieties, all of them yellow.

What’s that I hear you cry out in horror? Hawkweeds are noxious, invasive pests of a weed? Exterminate! Exterminate!….

Oh, dear. I know that is how they are viewed, but Culpeper had quite a lot to say about their ‘government and virtues’. He lists their properties, and a very long list it is indeed. If he’s right, hawkweed seems to be some sort of super-plant.

“…Government and virtues   Saturn owns it. Hawk-weed (saith Dioscorides) is cooling, somewhat drying and binding, and thereforegood for the heat of the stomach, and gnawings therein; for inflammations and the hot fits of agues. The juice thereof in wine, helps digestions, discusses wind, hinders crudities abiding in the stomach, an helps the difficulty of making water, the biting of venomous serpents, and stinging of the scorpion, if the herb be also outwardly applied to the place, and is very good against all other poisons….

“….A scruple of the dried root given in wine and vinegar, is profitable for those that have the dropsy. The decoction of the herb taken in honey, digests the phlegm in the chest or lungs, and with Hyssop helps the cough. The decoction thereof, and od wild Succory, made with wine, and taken, helps the wind cholic and hardness of the spleen; it procures rest and sleep, hinders venery and venerous dreams, cooling heats, purges the stomach, increases blood, and helps the diseases of the reins and bladder….

“….The distilled water cleanses the skin, and takes away freckles, spots, morphew, or wrinkles in the face….”

Good lord, a noxious weed can do all that?

The gardeners among you will no doubt be frowning and shaking their heads when I say that I have purloined an Orange Hawkweed from my daughter to put in a trough and grow. I’ll watch the ‘clocks’ though – not everyone will be pleased to have hawkweed, no matter how rare and pretty, popping up in their immaculate gardens. And if it becomes too ‘wild and woolly’, it will go into the garden refuse bin, for Tewkesbury Borough Council to deal with somewhere I can’t see.

To read some more:

and for some excellent illustrations from old herbals, try:

Myths about the murderous mandrake….


Mandrake – from Wikimedia

“….in the Mediterranean there grows a…murderous plant called the mandrake. Its roots can look bizarrely like a human body, and legend holds that it can even come in male and female form. It’s said to spring from the dripping fat and blood…of a hanged man. Dare pull it from the earth and it lets out a monstrous scream, bestowing agony and death to all those within earshot….”

Ew. But it is true that these beliefs—and many others, including that a dog had to be sacrificed in order to drag the plant from the ground!—were held of this plant, Mandragora officinarum. I have taken the above quote from this post

In ancient times, the mandrake root was used by the Greeks to produce an anaesthetic for surgery. This use was continued into the Middle Ages. The Greeks also used it as an aphrodisiac, calling it the ‘love-apple of the ancients’. It was, of course, associated with the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite. The Bible relates that to the ancient Hebrews, it was used to induce conception.

courtesy of Michael Ramstead, Fine Art Print

At her trial of 1431, Joan of Arc was accused of carrying mandrake with her as a means of controlling the minds of others. And by the 16th century, in England, mandrake was still so much in demand for its various properties, that bryony roots were being crafted to appear like mandrake, and then sold as such.

To read more of this ‘dangerous’ plant, go here

And yet it looks so innocent!

Mandragora officinarum

Yet another target for the Cairo dwellers

de Noailles

Last autumn, we reblogged posts to illustrate that the denialists of the history world, quite apart from their antics with respect to Richard III, quoted an obviously non-existent part of a document about Edward II and cited a book on botany, with reference to John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, that he couldn’t have owned because it was clearly published after his death, mentioning Queen Victoria who acceded two years after Chatham’s death.

This next case concerns two of the Seymour brothers, of whom Thomas,



Baron Sudeley, was Lord Admiral and Edward, Duke of Somerset, was Lord Protector to Edward VI – both being roles in which Richard had served before succeeding. Sudeley was beheaded for treason in 1549 during Somerset’s Protectorate before the Duke fell in early 1552. Hester Chapman, a 1950s biographer of Edward, quoted the French ambassador, Antoine de Noailles, that John Dudley, then Earl of Warwick but later Duke of Northumberland, had persuaded Somerset to execute his brother.

Edward VI



As Christine Hartweg explains, Skidmore, who wrote about the boy king more recently, made the same claim yet de Noailles did not arrive in England until May 1553, a matter of weeks before Edward’s death, as his papers, published in five parts, show and he did not write about previous events.

The Poison Garden….a list of plants to avoid….!


While going through some of my very large list of Favourites from my days of Regency writing, I came upon a site that I think will be of interest to those devoted to the mediaeval period. And writers concerned with that period, because let’s face it, if we need to bump a character off, poison is a good way of doing it. Right?

But these plants were important to mediaeval society for all manner of reasons, and most of them on this site were around in England then. Some weren’t, of course, having been introduced later. So a comprehensive list of poisonous plants, most with pictures as well, is both interesting and useful. Especially as some of them as deceptively lovely. “Come and pick me,” the flowers whisper. “Come and eat me,” wheedle those scrumptiously treacherous berries. Over the centuries too many unfortunate souls have listened to these blandishments.

I discovered this site some years back, and as you will see, it’s still going strong. Well done to the owner! Another very useful site, especially for those who do not live in the UK. It’s all about the wild flowers to be found here. Shakespeare often refers to flowers, which is all very well for the British, but must be puzzling to those who live abroad. So here is a very comprehensive site, complete with lots of pictures.

We are all interested in the flowers that Richard would have known, too!

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