Three Men in a Tub? Medieval Bathing

Were people in the Middle Ages unwashed? Certainly not, says Dame Aoife, as she brings us a bevy of links about how people kept themselves clean in the Middle Ages, in more ways than just the physical.

Greetings my Faithful Readers.

Well, I've done it. I've drilled a hole in the wall of the locker room, and now you all can take a peek at Medieval People in their Baths, in a PG-13 sort of way. If you thought your days of community showering were over when you graduated from high school, be glad you live NOW, instead of then. The links in the list below do carry contemporary images of partially naked medieval people (waist-up, mostly), and they are a lot cleaner than you'd think (in more ways than one). If you don't want to see these images, please don't look. However, if you chose to look, and to read the articles, you might learn a few things. These images are innocent, and would not have been deemed wrong during their time. My 10 year old daughter suggested this topic, and I'd probably show the list to her (doubtless she'd find it a huge bore) since we are marginally progressive at our house, but please use your own best judgment.

It seems obvious to most of us that most people in the middle ages liked to bathe, though stereotypes still abound, even in the scholarly world. Apparently in some cases bath-taking was a normal social occasion, with food and wine served and the best jewelry and hats being worn in the community tub. While I can't imagine that today, I like the idea of the hot-room, the cold room, and the bathing chamber. And I love the idea of herbs and flower petals in my bath water. Some of those scrub-brushes look intriguing. And I must try to find a half-barrel big enough to soak in — no jokes about how big that barrel would have to be, please! :)

For what it's worth, here's this week's look at medieval baths, bathing and attitudes about it. Of all the sites, only two poke fun (and then only a little). So I salute The Bohemian Bathhouse Babes for having the guts to make an alliterative pun (but just a little, in the title) and Baths in Medieval and Renaissance Works of Art (for the "special naked friends" comment) at what is, when you get down to it, a ridiculous, slippery, and glorious pastime. But I'll do my socializing dry and fully clothed, thanks.


mka Lisbeth Herr-Gelatt
Endless Hills

About: The bad Old Days: Baths
(Site Excerpt) Most peasant folk could not afford a bathtub and used a barrel with the top removed. The time and energy required to draw enough water from the well to fill a barrel was prohibitive enough to make a full-body bath a rare occasion. However, it wasn't necessary to immerse oneself completely to get clean. Think of what you can do with some cloths, soap, and a bucket of water.

Gode Cookery: Tales of the Middle Ages. Daily Life
(Note especially the illustrations of medieval folk in the tub)
(Site Excerpt) Contrary to popular legend, medieval man loved baths. People probably bathed more than they did in the 19th century, says the great medievalist Lynn Thorndike. Some castles had a special room beside the kitchen where the ladies might bathe sociably in parties. Hot water, sometimes with perfume or rose leaves, was brought to the lord in the bedchamber and poured into a tub shaped like a half-barrel and containing a stool, so that the occupant could sit and soak long. In the cities there were public baths, or "stews" for the populace.

The Gibraltar Museum: Moorish Baths
(Site Excerpt) The original city of Gibraltar founded in 1160 by Abd-al-Mumin would have included both private and public baths, but these, situated in the Gibraltar Museum, date from 1333 and are contemporary with the Moorish Castle Tower of Homage.

The Official Roman Baths Website
(City of Bath, England. Note that there is an audio tour you can listen to online)
(Site Excerpt from the What's Included page) The Roman Baths is below the modern street level and has four main features, the Sacred Spring, the Roman Temple, the Roman bath house and finds from Roman Bath.

The History of Plumbing - Roman and English Legacy
(Site Excerpt) Testaments to the ancient plumber echo in the ruins of rudimentary drains, grandiose palaces and bath houses, and in vast aqueducts and lesser water systems of empires long buried. Close to 4,000 years ago, about 1700 B.C., the Minoan Palace of Knossos on the isle of Crete featured four separate drainage systems that emptied into the great sewers constructed of stone. bathing during the Middle Ages
(Site Excerpt) Hot baths were very popular and most towns, as late as the mid-1200s had public bathhouses. Wood fires heated the water, but this posed two problems. First, out of control fires could consume several blocks of buildings. And as the forests were depleted, firewood became expensive and the rising costs of heating the water forced most of the bathhouses to close. Some tried burning coal to heat water, but the fumes proved to be unhealthy.

Baths in Medieval and Renaissance Works of Art
(Site Excerpt) So often, we think of the Middle Ages and Renaissance as a period in which people never bathed -- yet this is not the case. Not only did our ancestors bathe (and probably a bit more often than we give them credit for), but some of them did so with "special naked friends."

Stefan's Florilegium; Tubbed and Scrubbed by Master Giles de Laval
(Site Excerpt) Most surviving illustrations depict people sharing baths, and usually men and women bathing together. Tables with food and drink are also commonly shown either next to the tubs or placed across them, with the bathers enjoying a meal as they soaked. One 15th century woodcut shows a single board laden with food stretching across five baths. It is interesting to note that in these bath scenes, total nudity is rarely depicted; usually men are shown wearing a hat or linen cap, and often a breechclout (or just a strip of cloth tied about the hips). Women are very often shown wearing elaborate headdresses and necklaces; it is hard to be certain whether this detail is fanciful, or depicts prostitutes in a provocative state of semi-undress.
*Note links at the top of the page for more bathing messages and articles in the Florilegium

Toiletries Through the Ages
Many images of medieval folks in the process of bathing.

Islamic Architecture: Bath Houses - A place to relax and bathe
(Site Excerpt) Bath houses were not merely (only) places where believers could fulfill the Islamic ideal of cleanliness. They were also places in which to socialize and gossip. Some bath houses from the Middle Ages are still in use today. Bath houses (called "hamam" in Turkey) had both cold and hot water baths. Most bath houses were public, but some were private. In every palace there would be a bath house (as shown in the Persian miniature below).

Bathing and Personal Hygeine in Ancient India
A series of links on the subject

The Bohemian Bathhouse Babes
from the Wenceslaus Bible by Mistress Jadwiga
See also: A Short History of Bathing before 1601
(Site Excerpt) Like the nonsensical idea that spices were used to disguise the taste of rotten meat, the idea that bathing was forbidden and/or wiped out between the fall of Rome and the Enlightenment has been touted by many gullible writers, including Smithsonian magazine. However, even the Smithsonian in the person of Jay Stuller has to admit that "Gregory the Great, the first monk to become pope, allowed Sunday baths and even commended them, so long as they didn't become a 'time-wasting luxury' . . . medieval nobility routinely washed their hands before and after meals. Etiquette guides of the age insisted that teeth, face and hands be cleaned each morning. Shallow basins and water jugs for washing hair were found in most manor houses, as was the occasional communal tub..."

Castles on the Web: Medieval Bathrooms, baths and Soap
A series of messages

Kamat's Potpourri: Medieval Indian Women engaged in Bathing
(reproduced images, not originals)

Medieval bathing
(Site Excerpt) After the dissolution of the monastery in 1539 the King's Bath eventually came into the hands of the City Corporation. In the 16th century the Queen's Bath was built on the south side. Throughout the 17th century Bath became increasingly popular as a spa resort. The brass rings that can be seen visible in the walls record grateful bathers cured by the water.

Medieval Health
(Site Excerpt) They didn't undestand the science behind it, but they knew that cleanliness was a good thing. Naturally, the nobles had an easier time keeping themselves clean, as well as having well scrubbed servants in attendance. Contrary to the popular myth, bathing was popular in the period. The clergy, who wrote most of the surviving history, railed against the popular public baths. These institutions, a descendant of the enormously popular Roman baths, were often staffed by young women who did more than just pass the soap and towels. The clergy didn't like it, the bathers did. However, bathing when the weather was cooler and without benefit of a specially constructed and heated bathing establishment could easily prove fatal.