Appalling Sanitary Practices of the Middle Ages.

(I actually tried submitting this question to But they flagged it for being incomplete for some reason. It didn’t seem anymore or any less complete than the general questions they get. But hey, judge for yourselves:).)

My question is simply this: What sanitary practices in the Middle Ages were commonplace then, but appallingly unsanitary by modern standards?

I use the term ‘sanitary’. But include whatever practices you think are terribly unclean, even if not part of sanitation per se.


I’ve read, but don’t remember where, that it was common for party guests to take a dump in the stairwells and remote hallways because bathrooms were unavailable. Currently not done except in Sanfrancisco and LA.

Not just from the Middle Ages but far back into antiquity human urine was collected, aged, then used as a cleaner. As some of it converts into ammonia that actually wasn’t all that bad an idea, and it does make a good de-greaser for things like sheep’s wool and hides. But, ya know, it’s human bodily waste and while urine from a healthy person is pretty clean stuff from the viewpoint of not having much in the way of nasties, not everyone is, or was, healthy. The guy with the bladder infection might be pissing into the collection pot, too. Actually, probably was since in some places (like ancient Roman cities) the pots for put out for urine collection were often what passed for public urinals.

Among the many uses for human urine aged into ammonia:

[li]Degreasing fleece, hides, and other animal-origin items prior to further processing[/li][li]Softening leather hides during the tanning process[/li][li]Laundry stain remover[/li][li]Dye mordant (keeps the color in the fiber after the dyeing process)[/li][li]Occasionally used to produce and extract saltpeter from manure for gunpowder[/li][li]Tooth cleaner/whitener[/li][/ul]

Cleaning the floor only a few times per year when you replaced the biodegradable floor coverings (although these were apparently not, as often supposed, dried rushes strewn loose on the floor but rather woven rush matting).

Early in The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England the traveler, approaching a typical English village, must somehow cross the Shitstream. As the name implies, it’s the dumping ground for the village’s “night soil,” animal carcasses, tannery leftovers, &c. Hopefully drinking and washing water were drawn upstream, but one never knows.

As has been noted innumerable times, medicine (what there was of it) was abominable. I recall reading that after one royal was born in public — to quash rumors of a substitution — some women who were about to deliver clamored to have the midwives attend to them without washing their hands so that the royal blood (and other fluids) would touch their babies. Bleccccch.

The English hamlet of Shitterton has a name dating back at least a thousand years, meaning “farmstead on the stream used as an open sewer”.

In New York if a horse died on the street it wasn’t unheard of it to sit there for a while until it was rotted enough to easily take apart. And speaking of horses, in 1900 horses produced nearly 2,500,000 pounds of manure and not all of it was disposed of in a sanitary manner. Streets were littered with a brown paste that stank to high heaven and attracted flies. When it dried out and turned to dust you were breathing shit and when it rained it turned into muck and got everywhere. You know those nice brownstone row houses in places like New York where you’ve got to take the stairs from street level to the front door on the 2nd floor? Yeah, those were built like that in an effort to keep shit out of the house.

At least as far back as the 15th century, some women shaved their pubic hair, in hopes of improving their personal hygiene, and to combat pubic lice. They would then wear a wig (specifically called a merkin) on their pubic mounds, because I guess you could more easily wash those? :stuck_out_tongue:


French noblewomen wore such intricate gowns that they could not be taken off to relieve themselves. So they simply crouched down wherever they were within the palaces and relieved themselves right there.

All of them?

I’m a ‘Man Outstanding in My Field’, because it’s too far to walk back to the house. :wink:

“Dennis! There’s some lovely filth down 'ere!”

I read that that was in the Louvre where they had many large parties. With no bathrooms.

I guess adding bathrooms was frowned on by building designers because they were not “pretty”. Hey, people are there for the art, not to poop right?

Even today building designers dont want to think about where pipes or air ducts should be placed.

The “restaurant” that we know today didnt come about until the late 1700’s in France. Up until then if a person needed to dine out they would eat at a common table with many others sitting next to who knows who, served whatever they had (you had no choice), and who knew the last time the dishes or utensils were washed?

Then they developed the “restaurant”. Where one could sit at individual tables. You would order off a menu. Everything was kept clean.

The French influence lasted a long time. Even here in the USA almost all “restaurants” served French food up until the 1900’s.

I read that men at inns often urinated in the fireplace. I grew up with several guys who would certainly have done that, so I can easily believe it. They were still doing it in Shakespeare’s day.

Heck, Jackson Pollock did it in the 20th century

But that pales beside the Viking habit of everyone using the same bowl, and spitting into it and sneezing into it, as depicted in Michael Crichton’s book Eaters of the Dead, the movie made from it (The Thirteenth Warrior) and the TV series Vikings. Crichton apparently got it from the source he used heavily, ibn Fadlan’s story of his travels.

See here:

They used to dispose of “night soil”, i.e. the contents of the chamber pot, by pouring or tossing it out the window in the general direction of the gutter (down).

Polite people gave those passing below them the heads-up bu yelling “Regardez l’eau” before tossing the pot, from which we get the slang word “gardyloo”.

I like that factoid, because I like saying “gardyloo”, it’s such a comical-sounding word.

It’s usually told about Versailles, even though I’d assume that the situation at the Louvre would probably have been similar.

Well, rather, there were no bathroom at all as far as I can tell. You’d relieve yourself in a chamber pot, close stool or similar. Lacking that, I guess that finding a discreet spot was the only option.

However, most of the answers refer to a time long after the middle-ages. And it’s generally agreed that hygiene was in fact vastly superior during the middle-ages than later on.

If there’s any truth to it, I would suspect it would rather come from “garde à l’eau” (something like : “warning : water” or “pay attention, water coming”).

A commenter here notes:

This is shown in a couple of scenes in Shakespeare in Love (which did a generally good job of portraying its Elizabethan setting) where people are walking down the street and a batch of brownish liquid splashes down from above. If there was a warning shouted, it didn’t seem to have made it into the soundtrack.

The first such scene also shows Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) nonchalantly walking through a pile of horse manure. Just another day in London.