Strangest Hygiene Practices From The Middle Ages
Strangest Hygiene Practices From The Middle Ages

Strangest Hygiene Practices From The Middle Ages

Shannon Quinn - December 6, 2020

Strangest Hygiene Practices From The Middle Ages
A medieval laundry woman. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

23. People Used Urine to Do Their Laundry

When people washed their laundry in medieval times, they cared a lot more about removing dirt, grease, and stains. There was no fuss about making clothes smell like roses, or using fabric softener. Many poor people would go days or weeks without washing their clothes, or simply rinse them off in lakes and rivers. But for the upper class, they could afford to hire services of a laundry woman to give their clothing a deeper clean. Instead of detergent, they used “lye”, which was a mixture of white ash and urine. As gross as it sounds, urine contains ammonia, which helped to remove stains from clothing. According to records, the urine also acted like bleach, taking away stains and turning yellowed fabric white again. Personally, I don’t want to experiment with this any time soon.

Strangest Hygiene Practices From The Middle Ages
A miniature painting of a public bath from Spain. You can see people in bed in the back corner, as well as leaving together on the left. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

22. Getting Naked In Front of a Crowd Was Totally Normal

In many medieval cultures, public bathing was commonplace. The Romans were especially known for their bath houses. And in the spring and summer, commoners could be spotted using streams and rivers to take a bath on a warm day. Back then, this wasn’t seen as being indecent or strange. Water was scarce, and the process of heating a bath was time-consuming and expensive. So it was also common to share bath water among a lot of people to be less wasteful. However, people are still humans, after all. So public bathing became associated with sensuality. In Japan, they still continue the tradition of public bathing in hot springs today. However, they segregate men from women, so it’s not often that people leave the public bath to hookup.

Strangest Hygiene Practices From The Middle Ages
The terrifying gomph stick. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

21. In Medieval Europe, Toilet Paper Didn’t Exist

China had toilet paper figured out as early as the 6th century, making small squares of rice paper. However, the Europeans found this to be horrifying, because they thought it was disgusting that the Chinese only wiped without actually washing their backside with water. Today, you’ll still find a lot of bidets in Europe, for those who prefer to wash over using toilet paper. However, we all know that there are moments when water isn’t going to cut it, and we need a little help. In medieval Europe, people sometimes used devices called “gomphus” or a “gomph stick”, as well as a “torche-cul” or “torchcut”. The gomph sticks were sponges on a stick, basically. It looks like something you’d use to clean a toilet, rather than a backside. The term “torche-cul” was anything used to wipe the bottom, like straw, moss, or leaves.

Strangest Hygiene Practices From The Middle Ages
Women spent a lot of time styling their hair. Credit: Bustle

20. Woman Had Intricate Hairstyles

Women rarely cut their hair, and there wasn’t really any time in the middle ages where short hair for women became trendy. Lower class women typically wore their hair up in braids and buns, because it was easier for them to work. Upper Class women styled their hair with a more intricate process. Many women used ribbons and metallic wires to help keep their braids and buns in shape. Flowers were also used in their hair for special occasions. Earlier in this list, we mentioned how women only washed their hair on Saturdays. Now, we can see why! On a Saturday, it was fine to take as much time as necessary to pull off these amazing styles. In Germany, men also typically wore their hair long, but they would tie it in a bun on top of their head, and sometimes hide it under a fancy hat.

Strangest Hygiene Practices From The Middle Ages
Monks were highly respected members of the church. Credit: Medievalists

19. Shaving Your Head Was a Form of Humility

In today’s world, men shave their head for all sorts of reasons. They could be naturally losing their hairline, and decide to simply shave it all off. Some men also prefer the style of having a bald head but keeping their beard, because it makes them look tough. However, in medieval times, hair was considered a symbol of power. Royal men never cut their hair, so the longer the locks, the more powerful you were supposed to be. So as a man, if you let go of your hair, this was a huge sign of humility. Monks would shave their head, only leaving a narrow strip of hair. Other times, only the middle of a man’s head was shaved, and the rest was left alone.

Strangest Hygiene Practices From The Middle Ages
Beards were a knight’s badge of honor. Credit: Shutterstock

18. Beards Were Very Serious Business

Recently, beards have made a huge comeback, especially among hipsters. Studies have shown that people also associate a man with a beard as being more intelligent, and many people find them to be incredibly attractive. Respect for beards is nothing new. During medieval times, knights were known to grow out their beards as a sign of honor. If one man touched another man’s beard, this was enough of an insult to challenge them to a duel to the death. Shaving was common during the middle ages, and commoners would be clean shaven. Royalty was also usually shaven, or had very trim beards that were kept neat and tidy.

Strangest Hygiene Practices From The Middle Ages
Gong farmers raked and cleaned up human waste. Credit: Mental Floss

17. Cesspits Were a Dumping Ground For Human Waste

Before the invention of indoor plumbing, people used cesspits. Latrines were set over top of a deep pit, or on top of a water source like a stream. The human waste would flow down the stream, and be carried away. However, the toilets that were simply holes in the ground were very smelly, and downright terrible. (Imagine a porta potty that never got cleaned.) Castles tried to install larger ventilated bathrooms, much like the public toilets of today. If they couldn’t make it outside to the outhouse, people relieved themselves in a chamber pot and disposed of it later. The entire process was so disgusting, that royalty used privy servants to help them go. Waste collectors, or “Gong Farmers” would show up at night to clean out gutters and cesspits when they got too full, similar to today’s septic workers.

Strangest Hygiene Practices From The Middle Ages
The mallow flower was once chewed for cleaning teeth. Credit: Shutterstock

16. Teeth Were Cleaned With Twigs And Mallows

There is a huge stereotype that people in the middle ages had rotting teeth, and most likely breath that reeked. While it’s true that people didn’t have access to the dentist, they wanted clean teeth just like we do. People use twigs and hazel wrapped in cloth as toothpicks and floss. They also cleaned their teeth by chewing on the mallow plant. They also chewed mint leaves, fennel, and anise seeds. Mouthwash made of water and vinegar was also an effective antiseptic.

Strangest Hygiene Practices From The Middle Ages
A metal ear spoon from Ethiopia. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

15. People Cleaned Their Ears With Long Spoons

Nowadays, people use q-tips to clean their ears, and some doctors recommend using rinses rather than inserting something inside your ear canal. As cringe-worthy as it sounds, people used long wooden or metal spoons called “ear scoops” or “ear picks” to remove wax. Archeologists have found them among the Vikings, as well as post-Tudor times. These same spoons could also be used for cleaning under fingernails. It was common for the Vikings to carry their ear spoon on a chain around their neck so that they never had to be without their little tool, should they ever have to clean their ears.

Strangest Hygiene Practices From The Middle Ages
People must have been drunk all day, every day in the middle ages. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

14. The Water Was Unhygienic, and Often Too Dirty to Drink

Earlier on this list, we mentioned how people relieved themselves in local streams, lakes, and rivers. Because of this, a lot of the fresh water was too dirty to drink. This especially became a huge problem during the plague, and water became synonymous with disease. Some cities tried to find a solution to this problem by drilling wells, but they often became polluted by groundwater contamination. The same issue happened with bath houses and laundry workers. They would try to keep well water strictly for sanitation, but it was sometimes impossible to keep clean. Instead of water, people drank wine, beer, or ale with nearly every meal. This means that people had an incredibly high tolerance for alcohol, and may have been drunk every night.

Strangest Hygiene Practices From The Middle Ages
Glass perfume bottles found from ancient Rome. Credit: Shutterstock

13. Women Actually Wore Perfume

So far on this list, we’ve mentioned a lot of very stinky stories. But believe it or not, upper class women actually did wear perfume. The Crusaders discovered perfumes from far-off lands, and brought back the samples for their ladies in England. After discovering this foreign formula, medieval women started making oils out of rose and lavender. Musk was very expensive, because it had to be imported. So many scents were only accessible to the upper class.

Strangest Hygiene Practices From The Middle Ages
This painting shows bugs crawling all over people while doctors dismay. Credit: Aeon

12. Fleas and Lice Were a Huge Issue For Everyone

During the middle ages, the entire world was plagued by lice and fleas. They could be found in bedding, clothes, hair, and more. This was far more common to see fleas and lice on the poor, because they couldn’t bathe as often. However, even wealthy aristocrats sometimes had fleas in their home, because they were carried in by mice and pets. The act of delousing, or removing parasites from people’s hair, was always done by women. At the local hospitals, they would take small combs that looked like brooms, and pick through the scalps of people who were infected.

Strangest Hygiene Practices From The Middle Ages
People in the middle ages believed that Eve’s sin cursed women everywhere. Credit: Shutterstock

11. A Woman’s Monthly Cycle Was a Punishment From God

As a woman, getting your monthly cycle is never a pleasant experience. However, we understand that it’s a necessary and healthy part of fertility in the female body. Back in the middle ages, they had no idea why this was happening to women, so they assumed that it must be a curse from God, because of Eve’s sin in the garden of eden. Because of this, doctors never gave women anything to alleviate cramps or pain, because it was punishment that we “deserved”. However, women came up with their own herbal plant medicines to help one another. Many nuns stopped menstruating, which served as “proof” that if a woman devoted her life to God, the curse of Eve would be broken. In reality, holy women were given such poor diets, they were often malnourished, which led to their menstrual cycle stopping.

Strangest Hygiene Practices From The Middle Ages
Apparently, even barbour surgeons did a bad job shaving. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

10. People Needed Their Friends to Help Them Shave

Back in medieval times, mirrors were very small, cloudy, and not very reliable. They were also only available to the upper class. On top of that, razors as we know them today didn’t exist, either. If you wanted to shave, you needed to use a dangerously long razor blade. This is why a lot of people would have their shave at a local barber surgeon. As we mentioned earlier, monks had shaved heads and no bears. So they took turns shaving one another as a community.

Strangest Hygiene Practices From The Middle Ages
The chamber pot of King William III. Credit: Atlas Obscura

9. Royals Hired Servants to Take Care of Their Excrement

Earlier on this list, we mentioned how disgusting it was for anyone to go to the bathroom. The royals had the privilege of hiring chambermaids, or a “groom of the stool.” Whenever the king or queen had to go to the bathroom, they would do it on plush velvet box called the “close stool”. Once they were done, their servant would come in and dispose of the waste. Even though this was a disgusting job, this was actually a highly coveted servant’s position, because it meant that they were in close proximity to the king. They would often become good friends with their Groom of the Stool, because they needed someone to talk to. In a lot of ways, the position was almost like a therapist, listening to the king during his morning poop. These men were even given the title of “sir”, and had a portrait painted of them.

Strangest Hygiene Practices From The Middle Ages
This is a healthy man walking his good boy. Credit: History Today

8. There Was a Guide For Medieval Health and Hygiene

During the 12th Century, the Salerno Medical School published a guide for healthy living. They gathered advice from classical tests like Hippocrates, Galen, and Arabic texts. In this guide, they instructed people to do as follows: “In the morning upon rising, wash your hands and face with cold water; move around awhile and stretch your limbs; comb your hair and brush your teeth.” This is very similar to what people do today. It also encouraged people to exercise and eat healthy. However, they said that if you tried to take a bath during certain times of the year, or stay in the bath too long, you’d become feeble.

Strangest Hygiene Practices From The Middle Ages
Moats look pretty, but they were actually filled with sewage. Credit: Shutterstock

7. Castle Moats Were Filled With Human Waste

Anyone who’s a fan of medieval castles probably loves the idea of having a moat. This body of water surrounding the castle was an extra step of protection to fend off invaders. However, this was actually disgusting water that was filled with the excrement from the people living inside the castle. The plumbing pipes, called the garderobes, emptied from an opening at the bottom of the castle, and dumped out to the moat. In the TV show Escape to the Chateau, a couple purchases a castle in France. They were trying to modernize the plumbing system so that their waste no longer dumped into the moat. The process was extensive, and expensive. However, it wasn’t as smelly as you would imagine, mostly because they had fish living in their moat that most likely eat whatever came down the tubes.

Strangest Hygiene Practices From The Middle Ages
A YouTuber called Zabrena recreated the middle ages makeup look. Credit: Zabrena

6. Women Wore Natural, Healthy-Looking Makeup

Most people know that Queen Elizabeth I caked on thick makeup to the extent that it looked almost clown-like, in order to hide her smallpox scars. Priests would tell women not to wear makeup, because vanity was a sin. However, if a woman was sick and dying, wearing rouge to mask her illness was acceptable. Pale skin was seen as being the most attractive, because getting a tan made you look as though you were working in the fields. Upper class women were known for making foundation out of lily root powder to lighten their skin. Lip balm was popular, and it was made out of grease with wine. This was like a modern-day lip tint or stain. Compared to today’s makeup, this never made a dramatic difference in their appearance except to make them look healthier and vibrant.

Strangest Hygiene Practices From The Middle Ages
Manneken Pis statue in Brussels. Credit: The Guardian

5. Urine Was Used as an Antiseptic

Earlier on this list, we mentioned how urine was used to do laundry. Unfortunately, many physicians in the Middle Ages also recommended urine as an antiseptic. During the reign of King Henry VIII, the royal physician Thomas Vicary recommended that all the men in the kingdom have their battle wounds washed with urine. Other doctors recommended it as a treatment for the bubonic plague. Even in modern times, you may have heard of peeing on someone’s leg or foot if they have been stung by a jellyfish. Upon further research, this is medically false, and only adds insult to injury.

Strangest Hygiene Practices From The Middle Ages
Antonio del Pollaiuolo Profile Portrait of a Young Lady. Credit: Colgate University

4. Women Dyed Their Hair For Fashion, And to Hide the Grey

Even back in the middle ages, women dyed their hair to hide the grey. Some women also experienced hair loss, and they were treated with a variety of tonics. When a woman needed to color her hair brown, she could make dye out of fruit, the bark of a tree, and leaves. However, blonde or yellow hair was considered to be more popular. Women kept a mixture of honey and white on their head overnight. Then, they added a mixture of calendine roots, olive-madder, oil of cumin seed, box shavings and saffron. Another 24 hours later, she was able to wash her hair, and it came out lighter. Just like today, blonde was one of the most popular hair colors. It would be fascinating to know just how well this medieval recipe did at coloring hair.

Strangest Hygiene Practices From The Middle Ages
Paintings from the middle ages never include women’s body hair. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

3. Women Were Discouraged From Having Body Hair

Just like today, beauty standards pressured women to remove all of their body hair. Women would puck with tweezers, but they also used dried cat waste to scrub off hair from the skin. A book from the 11th Century called De Ornatu Mulierum says as follows; “In order permanently to remove hair. Take ants’ eggs, red orpiment, and gum of ivy, mix with vinegar, and rub the areas.” Priests from the Church were enraged by the vanity of all of this, saying that hair removal meant to entice men was a sin. However, most paintings from the time showed naked women without any body hair at all, even in her private areas. Just like today, this must have only been available to certain women, because stories from the time like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, describe women’s pubic hair.

Strangest Hygiene Practices From The Middle Ages
Paintings of women showed just how large foreheads were back then. Credit: Bustle

2. Women Actually Wanted Big Foreheads

Throughout time and culture, the idea of the “perfect” woman’s body has changed dramatically. During the middle ages, the ideal woman had big hips, small perky breasts, and a large forehead. Since big foreheads were all the rage, women would actually pluck their foreheads in order to get a higher hairline. Sometimes, women would even remove their eyebrows to make their forehead look bigger. The goal was to make their face look perfectly oval shaped. As a woman with a high hairline myself, it’s nice to know that my natural features would have made me an ideal beauty back in medieval times. But in modern times, I wish I could hide it behind bangs.

Strangest Hygiene Practices From The Middle Ages
Pale skin was the ideal in the middle ages. Credit: Shutterstock

1. Skin Care Was of the Upmost Importance

The ideal woman in the middle ages had pale, smooth skin without any pock marks or blemishes. As we mentioned earlier in the list, nearly everyone washed their face with cold water at the end of the day. Some women used ointments made with animal fat in order to keep the skin soft and smooth. Even back then, people believed in the power of crystals and gemstones to heal. Women would lick amethyst and rub it over their pimples to make them go away.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

What Was Hygiene Like In A Medieval Castle? Melissa Sartore. Ranker. 2019

Scissors, or Sword? The Symbolism of a Medieval Haircut. Simon Coates. History Today. 1999

Black Death quarantine: how did we try to contain the most deadly disease in history? Helen Carr. History Extra.

11 Facts About Medieval Hygiene that Will make You Thankful for the Modern Bathroom. Cheryl Khan. Trade Wind Imports.

The (not so) stinky Middle Ages: why medieval people were cleaner than we think. Katherine Harvey. History Extra. 2020

Medieval Hairstyles. Medieval Chronicles. 2020

Medieval Feminine Hygiene. Rosalie’s Medieval Woman. 2020.

It Was Once Someone’s Job to Chat With the King While He Used the Toilet. Natalie Zarelli. Atlas Obscura. 2017.

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