Saturday, April 28, 2012

Medieval Bathing for Cleanliness, Health and Sex

by Katherine Ashe
There is a quite erroneous notion that medieval people didn't bathe. Some Tudors may have been proud of bathing once a month whether they needed to or not, but their ancestors had looked upon bathing as one of the sensual pleasures of life. King Henry III even had a special room for the purpose of washing his hair.
The medieval approach to washing hair
True, the poor had little access to bathing facilities other than the local well, and hefting buckets of water home for cooking purposes was probably quite enough of a burden. What personal washing was to be done could be done with a bowl of water. Laundry might be done in a village washhouse where once in the spring and once in the autumn stream water could be diverted to large stone tubs. Pounded lavender and soapwort made the washing compound,for soaps were not invented until the mid-thirteenth century. Soap was then imported from Spain and was only for the rich. Note, however, the shared linguistic root of "lavender" and "laundry," shared with the French word "lavande" and the Latin, heard in the Mass as the priest says, "Lavabo," "I will wash." Not too bad, having your laundry smell of lavender - even if it's only twice a year.
In cities the early mornings began with the water sellers wheeling their barrow-like barrels through the streets and selling door to door. Few houses, even of the wealthy, would have their own tubs for the immersion of a full grown person. Personal washing would be accomplished with a bowl, filled by a servant with one pitcherwith very hot water from a cauldron in the hearth and another pitcher of unheated water from a barrel or stone tank in the kitchen or cellar.The desired temperature was achieved by mixing the water from the two pitchers. This arrangement would prevail for most people until the mid-nineteenth century.
So much for washing,but what of bathing? To bathe, medieval men and women went to a bathhouse.
Individual tubs were an option
Picture a vast cellar, an undercroft with broad columns supporting the building, or multiple buildings, up above. The ceiling is low and groined and there are no windows. Iron chandeliers or candle stands, rusted to a mellow brown, bear numerous fat, white wax candles giving off a scent of honey. At one end of the room is a huge hearth hung with several cauldrons, each giving off a different perfume: attar of rose, mossy vetiver, musk or the haunting sweet aroma of civet (refined from the chokingly foul odor of the civet cat's spray to make one of the loveliest of perfumes.) The atmosphere in the low, dim room is dense with mists and laden with seductive aromas.
Arranged in aisles between the sturdy columns are curtained booths, their drapes hung from tall stands to provide total privacy - or, for parties of a racy nature, the curtains could be drawn back. Within each booth is a standing rack for clothing, a small table equipped with fruit, sweets, a carafe of wine and goblets, and soaps, oils and strigils (which we will discuss below.) And the central feature of the booth is of course the tub, made of wood like a huge bucket and equipped with seats inside so that the bathers may be immersed up to their necks when sitting. A friend of mine recently bought just such a tub from Russia, where apparently such bathing has continued in some places, sans plumbing, to this day. Such a tub will accommodate at least two people.
Or one could share…
If this sounds a bit like the modern "hot tub" and the pleasures of the "fast set" in places like Las Vegas, you've got it about right. While such bathhouses were where one went to seriously wash, they were also popular with married couples with sensual tastes, were notorious trysting places for clandestine lovers and were a favored workplace for courtesans. Priests and street corner preaching monks inveighed against them as halls of sin and depravity, and seem to have succeeded in reducing their presence until their reincarnation (with plumbing in place of hot and cold running servants) in modern times. Most illustrations from medieval manuscripts disapprovingly depict the bathhouse of the brothel variety.
What of bathing for health? Spas developed all over the Roman empire, wherever there were hot springs and waters with minerals thought to heal or restore health and vitality. Many of these spas have never been out of business since Roman times. Probably everyone knows of Bath and its Pump Room, made the height of fashion by Beau Brummel in the early 19th century. So I'm going to describe a somewhat less grand, and more close to ancient usage, spa, that of Dax, in England's medieval dukedom of Gascony in southwestern France.
In medieval times Dax was especially busy, as it was located on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostella. Hence it was richly supplied with jewelers' shops to make settings for theseashells which were the proud souvenirs of anyone who had reached Compostella. Today the elegant shops lining Dax's main streets offera wonderful array of toys for grannies to bring back to their grandchildren, and the most beautiful candy shops perhaps in the world: row after row of footed crystal dishes heaped with chocolates wrapped in gold foil, each variety labeled with a tiny reproduction of a painting by Vermeer, Rubens, Rembrandt, etc.Dax, as it always has been, is a place for the rich and elderly to recover, indulge themselves, and think pleasantly of those back home.
And the bathing there? The bathers, monkishlysandaled and bundled in hooded white robes as they always have been, hurry through the streets to the bath. Which could hardly be more different from the undercroft bathhouse. Along the main street is a marble trough the rear wall of which has a row of Roman bronze lion heads with open mouths, each spewing a stream of hot water. Above the wall of these small but magnificent public spigots rise the weatheredcolumns of the Roman bath, at the street front of a rectangular, roofless temple-like structure. Where the floor of this temple of health would be is the pool, steaming with water from natural hot springs. A crowd of bathers, immersed amid the wreathing steam, soak in hopes of curing everything from rheumatism to varicose veins. Pilgrims too are still there, soaking their blistered feet after their trudge across the Pyrenees and back again.
The bath at Dax today
Strigils? I mentioned that soap was a Spanish invention of the mid-thirteenth century, so it was probably available at Dax very soon after its first appearance in Spain. But how did people wash before that? They rubbed themselves with scented oils and then scraped off the oils, dirt and shedding skin with a strigil, which looks rather like a marriage of an old fashioned straight razor with a butter knife. With the sharpness of the latter. The heat of the bath caused pores to open, helping to expel dirt, and the strigil scraped it away, leaving the skin smooth, clean, oiled and scented.
A Roman strigil
This was how people bathed in ancient Rome, this was how they bathed in Europe - until the invention of soap, in Spain, which may or may not be an improvement when dry skin is taken into consideration. However, the new Spanish luxury took over and made the strigil obsolete. Other means of hygiene associated with Spain were not so universally embraced. Gaius ValeriusCatullus, in about 50 BC, pokes a jibe at a Spanish customs of cleanliness in a poem addressed to Egnatius, a young Iberian gentleman overly given to flashing his brilliant smile. Catullus claims he would not be offended by such smiles from people of any of a number of other nationalities, but Egnatius is a Spaniard, and in Spain, according to Catullus, bright, clean teeth were achieved through the use of one's urine. If this seems shocking, we might take note that synthetic urine (urea) is an ingredient in many modern compounds. No doubt the synthetic variety is to be preferred.
Cleanliness has meant different things to different peoples at different times. It has always been considered a virtue, in whatever form was current, except of course when it was pursued with excessive sensual gusto. Then it could be a sin. The spa has two-thousand years of history as a treat for the rich and a hope for the sick. And lavender still scents some of our laundry detergents.

Katherine Ashe is the author of the Montfort series, on the life of the man who founded England's parliament in the year 1258. Montfort The Early Years 1229 to 1243; Montfort The Viceroy 1243 to 1253; Montfort The Revolutionary 1253 to 1260 and Montfort The Angel with the Sword are available from Amazon.


  1. Excellent article. I really enjoyed it. It`s great to get these pockets of knowledge and insight into areas where, you realise, you only had the vaguest notion. Thanks!

  2. Fascinating! Thanks for the post!

  3. My research has shown that the Celts invented soap and introduced it to the Romans (long before the 13th century Spanish). This fact is cited in many sources, including Kevin Duffy's "Who Were the Celts?" and is usually attributed to Pliny's writings.

  4. Great blog. But soap was available in Britain long before the Thirteenth Century and dates back to 2800 BCE. Spanish soap, olive oil based rather than animal fat based, is the soap referred to as invented/available in Thirteenth Century.

    Refer to this university museum link for correct information.

    The bathing information in this blog is great. Just some confusion regarding the date on the invention of soap, which has many ancient documentations of soap recipes in different regions and societies.

    It so important to keep historical research information accurate.

  5. Very cool! I love the luxury of those bath houses with their tables of wine etc. I was never fooled by the legendary lack of hygiene because most people want to be clean.

    Thanks for sharing!

  6. Regarding the issue of ancient soaps, there were compounds of various sorts for laundering and general cleaning, but they were rather irritating for skin cleansing. There was even a dry cleaning compound for wool and fine fabrics, but soap as we use it for bathing is descended from the more gentle olive oil Spanish soaps.

    1. That is true about soap as we now know it, but bathing soap and recipes for soap existed in GB prior to the mid 13th century. Your wonderful blog merely needed a tweak for clarification when it said twice that soap wasn't invented until the mid-13th century. Certainly no one wants misinformation about out there. especially on a site like this where there is great factual research and information.

  7. I loved this article but I have a book that describes a very soft kind of soap from early medieval times and will check later.

  8. Great post - really interesting and just the period I am wanting to learn more about! P x

  9. I think you'll find that far from being a "haunting sweet aroma", civet smells disgustingly faecal. Like other animal fixatives (like musk from the deer) it comes from the anal glands, in this case of the civet cat. Unsurprisingly it is not used for its fragrance but as a fixative to stop the volatile oils evaporating from the fragrant essential oils. This is why it's so difficult to get rid of the smell of a cat spraying around your house!

    Galen talks of soaps made of lye in the 2nd century AD. Tallow and ashes soaps were very alkaline and were replaced by 'Castile' type soaps developed using olive oil and precipitating out more of the corrosive parts. These were the solid soaps imported from Islamic Spain in the 12th century. Alkali is Arabic for ashes.

    The roots of the plant soapwort were commonly used for cleansing both people and clothes until soaps were mass produced, both because it was free and because it is very gentle. Textiles conservators still use it to clean heritage fabrics, tapestries, hangings etc.

  10. Hmm, this issue of soaps seems to have kicked up quite a discussion. I'm aware of the ashes and fat soaps anciently used but, having made them in third grade, I'm in agreement with those who consider them something to which one might not willingly expose tender flesh, and this article is not about laundry but about bathing.

    In addition to soapwort, sweet woodruff and a number of other herbs have been used as a laundering compound; in fact a book could be written on laundering substances through the ages. But this is an article of limited space on bathing, and perhaps I should not have mentioned laundry at all.

    Charlie, regarding civet, in the 1970's I had a lovely perfume of civet (one of those little boutique-y bottles not commercially made but the apparent handiwork of a craft person.) It ceased to be made and I complained of this to a friend who was a chemist at a major detergent manufacturing company. He soon gave me a present of two canister (the size of containers for old camera film) of civet paste (this was before buying and selling civet was illegal.) The odor was -- imagine cat spray concentrated to the density of lard and you will have it.

    My friend was quite perplexed by my stated liking for anything civet and experimented with the substance. Trying various solvents (that would have been available in medieval times -- as that was the whole point of the exercise) he eventually produced a sweet musky scent very like my perfume -- with no other scenting agent. Sometimes life experience is very helpful. Civet was a popular though expensive scent in the Middle Ages, and continued to be available even here in the US (at Kiehl's Pharmacy for example) until the late 1970's.

  11. "The odor was -- imagine cat spray concentrated to the density of lard and you will have it."

    With respect hardly a "the haunting sweet aroma of civet" then! It really doesn't smell at all nice even if heavily diluted, it is used as a fixative of other nice fragrant stuff.

  12. This is an interesting post about Medieval bathing. I like the information you have given. Thanks for sharing and keep up the good work.

  13. Description of the illustration Or one could share… /bath02.jpg

    This is not the medieval!
    Guillaume Vrelant or Willem Vrelant, the author of this illustration (Frontispiece of Book IX by Valère Maxime), was a Dutch Renaissance book illuminator. He was already active in Utrecht in 1450, where he created the Hours of William de Montfort. From 1454 to 1481 he is recorded as a member of the Bruges guild of bookmakers. His large and productive workshop produced (among others) a book of hours which is now in Baltimore (1455–60), the Hours of Isabella of Castille (c.1460), the Chronicles of Hainaut (1468) and individual miniatures in the Hours of Mary of Burgundy (c.1480).
    Valerius Maximus was a Latin writer and author of a collection of historical anecdotes. He worked during the reign of Tiberius (14 AD to 37 AD). The style of Valerius's writings seems to indicate that he was a professional rhetorician. In his preface he intimates that his work is intended as a commonplace book of historical anecdotes for use in the schools of rhetoric, where the pupils were trained in the art of embellishing speeches by references to history. According to the manuscripts, its title is Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings. The stories are loosely and irregularly arranged, each book being divided into sections, and each section bearing as its title the topic, most commonly some virtue or vice, or some merit or demerit, which the stories in the section are intended to illustrate.
    Most of the tales are from Roman history, but each section has an appendix consisting of extracts from the annals of other peoples, principally the Greeks. The exposition exhibits strongly the two currents of feeling which are intermingled by almost every Roman writer of the Empire—the feeling that the Romans of the writer's own day are degenerate creatures when confronted with their own republican predecessors, and the feeling that, however degenerate, the latter-day Romans still tower above the other peoples of the world, and in particular are morally superior to the Greeks.
    The author's chief sources are Cicero, Livy, Sallust and Pompeius Trogus, especially the first two. Valerius's treatment of his material is careless and unintelligent in the extreme; but in spite of his contusions, contradictions and anachronisms, the excerpts are apt illustrations, from the rhetorician's point of view, of the circumstance or quality they were intended to illustrate. And even on the historical side we owe something to Valerius. He often used sources now lost, and where he touches on his own time he affords us some glimpses of the much debated and very imperfectly recorded reign of Tiberius.
    He is also a typical example of Silver Latin, a literary period often criticised for poor writers.

    Zbigniew Rabsztyn

  14. Excellent post indeed! We did various research on medieval bathing for our history of the showers infographic which can be found here very surprising 1350BC there were findings of bathrooms!

  15. This is an interesting post about Medieval bathing. I like the information you have given. Thanks for sharing and keep up the good work.
    Shifa e Ajwa Paste


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