20 Things Everybody Gets Wrong About the Middle Ages

A medieval illumination of a nobleman bathing; author and date unknown. Wikimedia Commons.

4. Although often depicted as a filthy, unhygienic period of history, people in the Middle Ages were much cleaner than we often give them credit for.

Among the common assumptions made about our medieval ancestors, it is widely believed that they were disgustingly unhygienic. From claims that people preferred to marry in June because of the “yearly bath” occurring in May, to the exaggeration of the brief hysteria during the Black Plague that bathing opened the pores and exposed the body to dangerous miasmas, these beliefs have become entrenched in our popular understandings. Although failing to adhere to the standards of the Modern Age, inhabitants of the Middle Ages were, in fact, surprisingly conscious of their bodily hygiene. Smells were regarded as a commentary on a person’s moral condition, with bad odors associated with sin and good smells holiness.

As a result, public saunas and bathhouses were common occurrences during the Middle Ages, whilst London brothels required patrons to bathe prior to entering. The average wealthy person would enjoy regular baths in heated tubs of water, whilst even the poorer peasantry were able to take regular spit baths. Medical manuals frequently include reference to the importance of individual cleanliness as a precursor to good health, with the Secreta Secretorum imparting an entire section on bathing. Bathhouses also served an important social function, with Charlemagne reputedly inviting his sons, nobles, friends, and even attendants to bathe with him. Westminster Abbey, for a time, even employed a “bath-attendent” with a salary of two loaves of bread per day.