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Medieval Hygiene

Medieval life and Times

Medieval Hygiene
Medieval Hygiene was extremely basic in terms of the disposal of waste products and garbage. However, personal hygiene was better than the perception of Medieval Hygiene. People did wash, bath and clean their teeth. The terrible outbreak of the Black Death made Medieval people look for a link between health and hygiene.

The words of men who lived during the Medieval times provide a fascinating and informative first-hand view of different aspects of Medieval hygiene during the period. Associated articles may be accessed by clicking one of the following links:

Medieval Doctors
Medieval Health
Medieval Medicine

Medieval Hygiene - Personal Hygiene
During the Middle Ages the crusaders brought soap back from the far East to Europe. Medieval People generally washed in cold water unless they were wealthy when hot water would be provided for bathing purposes. Bathing was usually conducted in wooden barrels but simply designed bathrooms were added in Medieval Castle interiors for the lords. Before people entered the Great Hall for meals they washed their hands. As cleanliness and hygiene improved during the Medieval times lavers were introduced which were stone basins used for washing and provided at the entrances of castle dining halls. Bathing was usually conducted in wooden barrels but simply designed bathrooms were added in Medieval Castle interiors for the wealthy nobles and lords.

Medieval Hygiene - Dental Hygiene
During the Middle Ages people did pay attention to dental hygiene. There was only one remedy for a bad tooth - it would be pulled out without the use of any anaesthetic or pain killer - the pain must have been excruciating. There were no false teeth, or dentures and women especially would have been very concerned about losing their teeth. Teeth were cleaned by rubbing them  with a cloth. Mixtures of herbs or abrasives were also used including the ashes of burnt rosemary.

Medieval Hygiene - Garderobes or Privies
There were many lavatories, called garderobes or privies, included in large Medieval buildings such as castles, monasteries and convents. The Garderobes or Privy chambers were positioned as far away from the interior chambers as practical and often had double doors added to reduce the smell! Chutes were provided for the discharge which often led to the castle moat. Privy seats were made of wood or stone.

Threat to Medieval Hygiene - Rush Flooring
The practice of covering floors with rushes was a a real threat to hygiene and health during the Medieval times. Following the Black Death a limited number of carpets and mats were introduced to replace the floor rushes but floors strewn with straw or rushes were still favoured. Sweet smelling herbs such as lavender, camomile, rose petals, daisies and fennel were added to disguise the bad smells which were prevalent due to the inadequate plumbing systems and the rushes.

Erasmus Quote on Middle Ages Health and Hygiene:
The great  Scholar, Humanist and Reformer Erasmus (1466-1536) wrote to friend describing the state of the Medieval floors during the Medieval times:

"The doors are, in general, laid with white clay, and are covered with rushes, occasionally renewed, but so imperfectly that the bottom layer is left undisturbed, sometimes for twenty years, harbouring expectoration, vomiting, the leakage of dogs and men, ale droppings, scraps of fish, and other abominations not fit to be mentioned. Whenever the weather changes a vapour is exhaled, which I consider very detrimental to health. I may add that England is not only everywhere surrounded by sea, but is, in many places, swampy and marshy, intersected by salt rivers, to say nothing of salt provisions, in which the common people take so much delight I am confident the island would be much more salubrious if the use of rushes were abandoned, and if the rooms were built in such a way as to be exposed to the sky on two or three sides, and all the windows so built as to be opened or closed at once, and so completely closed as not to admit the foul air through chinks; for as it is beneficial to health to admit the air, so it is equally beneficial at times to exclude it".

Threat to Medieval Hygiene - Waste Disposal
Following the devastating outbreak of the Black Death in England (1348-1350) a link appears to have been made between health and hygiene. In 1388 the English parliament issued the following statute in an effort to clean up England and improve Medieval Hygiene:

"Item, that so much dung and filth of the garbage and entrails be cast and put into ditches, rivers, and other waters... so that the air there is grown greatly corrupt and infected, and many maladies and other intolerable diseases do daily happen... it is accorded and assented, that the proclamation be made as well in the city of London, as in other cities, boroughs, and towns through the realm of England, where it shall be needful that all they who do cast and lay all such annoyances, dung, garbages, entrails, and other ordure, in ditches, rivers, waters, and other places aforesaid, shall cause them utterly to be removed, avoided, and carried away, every one upon pain to lose and forfeit to our Lord the King the sum of 20 pounds..."

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