Thursday, October 9, 2014

Medieval Soap Suds?

by Barbara Gaskell Denvil

There is so much about the way of life lived by ordinary people in the past which we just cannot know for sure. We have clues, we have some documentation, we even have a few private letters from hundreds of years ago. So we are not left completely in the dark. However, there is very little certainty and authors of historical fiction – even qualified historians – are obliged to make quite a number of educated guesses.

The question of hygiene is a fascinating one. It is a subject which seems to invite a lot of assumptions from different people – and I have heard everything from “They were filthy – never washed because the church said it was sinful – and stank the place out,” through to: “No, they were regular bathers, washed their clothes frequently and smelled no worse than we do today.”

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but during the period that interests me which is the late 15th century, I veer more towards a belief in cleanliness rather than the opposite. However – nothing is ever quite that simple.

We have it on record, for instance, that in one large noble household all linen, including the intimate apparel of the nobility themselves, was thoroughly washed every three days. We are given to assume from this that the gentlemen changed their braies (underpants) that frequently. But of course this information, although fascinating, is as deceptive as most of the rest.

Since wealthy gentlemen would certainly own more than one pair of braies, it is perfectly possible that they put on a clean pair every day, and the fact that they were washed every three days would therefore be irrelevant. On the other hand, perhaps it infers that a change of pants only took place every three days. Nor can we be sure that other establishments carried out laundry duties with the same regularity. Some may have been even more diligent. Others may have been far more lax.

I also imagine that having been jousting for most of the day, or after having spent several days in the saddle, (not an unusual practise) the clothes would be sweaty and grimy, however often they were usually washed at home. What probably did not happen was the sort of shocked disgust at dirt and smells which we now experience. So his grubby knickers might not be the worst of your problems when your gallant knight came riding home.

The nobility’s outer clothes were rarely washed. The great sweeping velvets and heavy brocades with their golden laces and satin ribbons were kept clean by extensive brushing and wiping, and with the use of steam and Fuller’s Earth. But however it was managed, cleanliness was still the aim, and although the importance of hygiene as regards health was not at all understood at that time, it was – for the most part – achieved.

On the other hand, human waste was an accepted part of the everyday experience and was used as part of normal manure spread as fertilizer on country crops. Urine was considered a useful ‘crop’ in itself and was used in the process of tanning hides and in dying fabrics amongst others. Animal blood and brains were generally allowed to disappear into the shallow central gutters around the butchers’ quarters in any township, the animals that roamed most streets (dogs, goats, pigs and others) would add their own contributions, and most mornings the average housewife would empty the family chamber pots into the gutters as well. Much of this muck would remain until washed away by the rain, although large towns employed ‘raykers’ to clear the gutters on a regular basis, while diligent shopkeepers cleaned the gutters directly outside their own premises – sweeping the filth down to the next shop along!

Privies were not an entirely wholesome affair, although they certainly existed, both in private homes and for public use (though public privies were men only). They were usually small cubicles tucked away in dark and quiet areas of the house, but invariably without any enclosing door. Some public privies were built on London Bridge, not exactly private at all. These would take the form of a long polished wooden bench with several neat holes in a row. You would therefore be sitting in extremely close and undivided proximity to the next man. It was generally considered bad manners to talk directly to someone who was seated upon the privy. These ‘seats of ease’ as they were often known, usually opened down into the river, the cess pit or the moat below. Plumbing was unknown. One precarious set of London privies built to jut out with direct access to the Thames beneath, unfortunately collapsed after much use. They and the occupants hurtled into the river, and that is a picture I just cannot bear to visualise.

I have an idea that the general public went about their daily business with a constantly full bladder, suffering from the continuous discomfort of having very few opportunities to empty it. Certainly men urinating in public is mentioned as a fairly normal occurrence, (the gutters again) though surely only in some areas. Women, I imagine, found the situation even more inconvenient. Later this problem was overcome with several ingenious and hilarious methods, but during the late medieval it was a matter of suffering in silence.

There were communal cess pits and these would be emptied from time to time, but I imagine the stench was fairly strong. Many busy waterways became almost clogged with general waste. The pollution, however unpleasant, was, of course, of a natural kind and not in any manner chemical – so the fish did not object. The Thames continued to be heavily fished for many years.

So no wonder the water was, in general, unsafe to drink, although it was accepted for use in washing and cooking. It was safer when boiled, while ale, beer and wine were for drinking. In country areas, however, there would be fresh streams where the water would be drinkable, and usually deep wells would also be uncontaminated.

Bathing was certainly a generally accepted necessity and quite luxurious baths were known to exist in all great houses. Wooden and barrel shaped for the most part, they could be linen lined and cushioned with head rests. Hot water was carried in bucketfuls by the servants, with water boiled in cauldrons over the kitchen fires. There were several qualities of soap available, from the cheap brown liquid variety up to the expense of solid white Spanish soap. The water could be perfumed with herbs, towels were warmed, and apart from condensation dropping from the ceiling beams, this would be a hygienic and very cosy affair.

Of course, the poorer folk had far fewer advantages. Few if any would have a private privy within the house (a chamber pot would be the best they could do) and would be unlikely to own their own bath. There were public wash-houses however, which sometimes had a reputation for other activities apart from simply getting clean – but bathing and the washing of clothes and household linen still took place.

The far later use of perfumes (17th – 19th C) to cover and disguise the smell of unwashed flesh, did not exist at this time. Herbs were certainly used to freshen the air in houses, and there is some indication of light perfumes available for use on the hair. But as far as we can tell, this was not an age of the great unwashed, no perfume was needed to purify your presence, and the puritan strictures against the sin of bathing – thus being unashamedly naked – was also a far later development.

Washing hands before and after meals was common etiquette and normal practise. No dinner-forks were used in England at this time, and therefore fingers were an essential part of the cutlery! Consequently the washing of hands was common sense. However, it was hundreds of years before a scientific understanding of hygiene and its connection with health was discovered. Therefore the disposal of waste directly into the waterways continued and increased. Vegetables and salads would be washed to remove the earth still attached before cooking but for no other reason, contact with animals was not thought in any manner unhealthy, and I doubt that hand washing after using those doubtful privies was considered imperative either. Therefore virtually everyone from the king to the smallest peasant child suffered from small parasitic intestinal worms, and the ordinary people would also have accepted fleas and lice as a perfectly normal part of life (probably not so much the wealthy and the nobility, though Henry VII’s father, Earl of Richmond, died from the plague, and that meant a flea bite).

Conduits existed, and water carriers supplied the households of larger towns and cities but this often came directly from those same contaminated rivers, so on the whole it is surprising that the population managed to avoid disease as well as it did. There is another point to consider, of course. Our natural bodily immunity is often enhanced after becoming much habituated, and we are now told that our compulsive cleanliness only adds to our vulnerability, weakens our immune systems and brings about endless allergies. But I cannot imagine this means we would in any manner benefit from returning to the chamber pot and the use of medieval gutters.

So during the late medieval there were few standards we’d wish to copy today, indeed the smell of the cities was certainly rank, and dysentery was common – and usually fatal. However, a desire for cleanliness was an accepted part of life at that time.

It was some years later when the grosser behaviour, the overcrowding, the increased filth, cholera and typhoid became almost unbearable. We hear of the great balls and parties of the nobility during the 16th to 19th centuries, with their incredible luxury and sumptuous clothes. But our romantic fiction rarely tells us that the crush of a ballroom would have been overheated and noxious with the stench of old stale sweat and the cloying sickly smell of the perfume attempting to disguise it, the lice in the unwashed wigs, and the fleas visibly leaping on some of the bodies.

So it got worse before it got better. No wonder we are now over-conscious of our hygiene. But at least I can imagine my late 15th century characters without having to hold my nose!


Barbara Gaskell Denvil was born in Gloucestershire, England but after living in half a dozen different European countries and cruising the Mediterranean for some years, has now (temporarily) moved to a rural cottage in Australia.
When younger she worked in many literary capacities and published numerous short stories and articles, but has only recently moved on to writing full length novels.



  1. Thanks for an excellent post, which backs up my research on the subject for my current medieval WIP.

  2. Yes, good post. A key point I think is that cleanliness was valued in the Middle Ages, but it was a great deal harder to achieve without hot-and-cold running water, flush toilets, dishwashers and washing machines. So cleanliness was largely a "luxury" and even a status symbol. The great Percy castle of Warkwarth and the Black Prince did have primitive forms of hot-and-cold running water based on water tanks on the tops of towers and heated by fire before coming down ducts into the apartments of the owners. Very fine engineering indeed -- but unaffordable to any but the great magnats. Then again, the rural poor had access to cleaner water from streams etc.

  3. This is fascinating, thank you. I write in the early nineteenth century period, mainly Edinburgh, and I remember reading of the horrors of cholera when I studied history. A lot for us to ponder over. Thanks. Anne Stenhouse

  4. The Black Death caused a general distaste for immersing oneself in water because of the belief that the warm water softened the skin and allowed the disease to enter. A health concern, not one of cleanliness. So, people would change their undergarments rather than wash, although some parts of the body were always washed.

  5. Very interesting and informative! And what about shaving, do you know? I'm always curious about that. Did they shave legs at all?


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