Why the medieval antipathy toward baths?

I’m reading a book on the Black Plague right now, and one of the risk factors was that medieval people lived in filthy areas and didn’t bathe. I’ve also read other histories where high-born people actually bragged about not bathing (I can’t remember who exactly, but there was one queen that bragged she was bathed at birth and before her wedding [she had another after she died]).

I understand that it was difficult in a practical sense, and I think there may have been some teachings by the Church Fathers that said taking a bath was a temptation.

So, why did medieval Europeans hate baths? And why was not taking a bath something to be proud of?

The fact that the occasional person bragged about not bathing doesn’t really tell us much. One swallow does not a summer make.

This site gives a more realistic picture:

One factor - although not the only one - is the strong association of pagan Rome with bathing. The Romans did like bathing, and not bathing was a way to distinguish oneself from them and emphasize that one was not a decadent pagan. Combine that with mortification of the flesh and denial of earthly pleasures, and you have a religious reason not to bathe any more often than you have to.

I suspect the common person, along with royalty, didn’t have a problem with a thorough scrub once in awhile. It’s just that it was nowhere near as easy for them to draw a hot bath as it is for us.

The Roman empire made Christianity it’s official religion way before the medieval period.

One of the complaints written about the Norse in England a thousand years ago was that they took baths and combed their hair.

So the attitude varied among different people.

Next time you want to take a shower, do this, instead:

Walk at least half a mile to a friend’s house, with two buckets. Fill those buckets with cold water from their tap. Bring them back to your house and dump them into the tub. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat until you have enough water to fill your bathtub. Now take some of the water back out of the bathtub and put it in your biggest pot set over your barbeque grill out back. Heat until hot, and then put the water back into the tub. Repeat until the water is warm enough to bathe in, but remember that your husband gets to bathe first, then any of your sons, and then you. The smaller girl children can use the water last.

Oh, you’ll need soap, too. Burn a bunch of bracken or wood until it’s powdered ash. Soak the ash in water - careful, it’s lye now, so it will burn your skin and cause blindness if you get it in your eyes! Now add in some melted fat. Pig’s fat will work, although it’s smelly. Heat and stir and heat and stir and careful not to splash, and if you get the temperature just right, your lye and your fat will emulsify and you’ll end up with soap. If the proportions or the temperature isn’t just perfect, it will end up greasy or just won’t mix together at all. You’ll have to taste it to see when it’s right - the burning sharp taste of the lye will disappear when it’s ready. Just don’t test it too soon or often, or the lye will burn your throat and mouth.

And mind you have dinner on the table on time! And is that another soiled (cloth) diaper to change? Hey, isn’t it time to get Granny her posset? You know she gets confused and belligerent if she isn’t given a little milk and wine laced with poppy soaked rag to suck on. Oh, look, the children just chased the goat through the house again, and here comes the chicken after them. That’s going to be a mess to clean up.

I appreciate the religious, political and social explanations for infrequent bathing, but as a mother and homemaker, I can see much more boring practical reasons why I’d discourage full body bathing under the technology of the day. Hands, face and genitals were indeed washed daily, with a rag dipped in water. A full bath was a full day’s labor, and just not worth it all that often.

A Cecil column that may be of interest:

So? What actually happened and what people think happened often bear very little similarity to each other. Also, the empire was pagan for most of its existence; Christianity was sporadically tolerated starting in (IIRC) the latter half of the 3rd century, and the empire no longer really existed in any formal sense late in the 5th century.

In any case, the early pagan emperors were notorious for their debauchery, and they are a substantial part of how the empire was remembered by many people of that time.

The thought of what women smelled like back then during certain days of the month (when she was on her period) makes me dizzy.

Back then? WhyNot nailed it but I can bring it even closer to home.
I stayed a long time with my poor family in India. They had what they called a “tanky”, a tank full of water. It was covered over, and they’d fill it periodically. They didn’t have to go get water regularly.

The water in the tanky was always cool. So you’d get some in a big pot. You’d have your brother lug the pot to the stove, which was about 12 inches off the ground - no oven - then you’d boil the water.

Meanwhile you’d pour some of the water from the tanky into a bucket. When the water boiled, you’d mix the two. It didn’t matter if it was too hot/too cold. Remember, other people have to bathe too. So you took what was there and went in the bathroom.

In India a bathroom is a real bathroom. It’s usually a small square room and the whole thing gets wet. So you’d sit on a low bench. You put the bucket in front of you. In the bucket would be a dipping pail. You use the dipping pail to pour water all over yourself. Then you scrub yourself down with soap. Then you pour water again to wash it off.

Want to wash long hair? Tip it forwards, so it’s hanging over your face, and wash it between your legs. Make sure you don’t use up all the water.

Have your period? What a nuisance, especially since I didn’t wear tampons (and I don’t know if Indian people use them much at all.) You usually made do. I am not going to get into the grisly details of how, suffice it to say it was tough.

Then you clean up the area around you with the last bit of the water, and come out. By this point you’re shivering because the water has gotten cold.

And this is your daily bath, in a country where people generally do try to bathe regularly if only because it gets so hot. If this is what it was like as of 1993 (last time I went) small wonder they didn’t want to bathe in the Middle Ages when it was even more trouble.

I kind of figured the practical difficulties were the reason people didn’t take many.

I’ll have to check out aldiboronti’s site as well.

Great post. Works for me.

This is pretty much, minus the long hair and the period bit, how I bathed everyday in Cuba. Our house had plumbing but there was never enough water pressure to reach anyhting but a faucet in our backyard about 6 inches off the ground.

The last to bathe of course is the baby, then the water is emptied (tubs often had a pitcher-mouth shape for easy dumping). Hence the phrase “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”, and one reason for such high infant mortality rates.

Which brings another issue: since only the richest of the rich could afford clean bathwater for everybody, baths had to be recycled and thus they weren’t that hygienic. Because you’d have to bathe after the master of the house and others you could easily catch diseases or sores they may have, which helped lead to another prejudice against bathing as unhealthy. (Same goes for towels- you certainly couldn’t expect everybody to use a fresh clean cloth just to dry themselves off- and the Romans of course used those scythe shaped scrapers.)

I have a friend who grew up in a moderately wealthy (by their standards) extended family in rural Laos. The family home consisted of several related immediate families and their servants; one of the servants did nothing but bring water to the house for cooking/bathing/cleaning/drinking/etc. and purify it by boiling. It was a full-time job.

In ancient Rome the “common” people did not bathe in their houses but in the many public baths with water that continually circulated through pipes and was heated in parts of the bath courtesy of the world’s unluckiest slaves (temperatures could reach 200 degrees F to the slaves- death by heat stroke was very common). They also only used commodes (the ceramic variety, not the flush kind) in their homes unless they had no other choice as toilets were also public and provided on each block. In medieval Europe the vast majority of people were of course rural and in the cities the leaders did not provide baths or toilets.

I was watching a show on History Channel last night about Underground Edinburgh, where in the 17th century whole neighborhoods complete with streets and houses and businesses existed underground. The biggest problem they had was water and sewage and one of the big reasons the place was abandoned was because a river of sewage began to run from people emptying their pots and their household water into the vaulted streets, which of course also wiped out thousands of people with the diseases it carried (which was blamed on everything from witches to those dang meddling Jews to airborne spirits, germs being only beginning to be theorized) and the afflicted being confined to their homes (which of course wiped out everybody in the home as often as not). Water disposal was a huge problem everywhere.

My own oldest relatives, most of them born in the last 2 decades of the 20th century, didn’t bathe, nor did my father (born in the 1920s) but about once a week. By the time running water became a factor their habits were set, and there are actually hygiene books from the time that warn about the dangers of overwashing.

I love reading accounts of the southeastern Indians when they first encountered white Europeans. As usually happens when two such diverse cultures encounter each other, they each regarded the other as savages, the Indians often referring to Europeans by words that meant “rotten meat” because of their smell. OTOH, Indians used grease and fat like we would use shampoo and lotion, which the whites considered barbaric. (Not relevant but interesting: some southeastern Indians thought of whites as sexually degenerate because they seemed to think nothing of adultery but valued virginity in their wives {Southeastern Indians were the exact opposite: virginity was nice for a wife but hardly a dealbreaker, but once married she and her husband were expected to be faithful with major penalties if they weren’t, and if the temptations were too much divorce was simple and available- to whites, virgin brides were valued but marriage was eternal so adultery was often tolerated with discretion}; whites viewed Indians here as sexually degenerate because Indians had no great modesty when it came to sex or masturbation, so you’d see couples and singles doing both in full view.)

Snopes would disagree with you there.

We can’t copy/paste from snopes, and I don’t really want to write the whole thing out, so I’m afraid I can’t give you the direct quote.

Woah! This show was about Mary Kings Close and the like, right? When people lived there the closes weren’t underground, but were more like dark canyons with very narrow streets in between seven storey tenements. The underground bit came about when the closes were abandoned, partially demolished and built on top of (using the lower parts of the tenements as a foundation) in the middle of the 18th century. Those foundations are what can be visited today. Of course, the sanitary conditions in the closes would have been just as you describe.

Geez, can’t a guy make a leetle joke in GQ anymore? You honestly thought Sampiro thought that babies used to routinely get lost in baths?

I’m not implying they actually lost the babies, but the saying does come from the habit of emptying the water after the babies were washed, meaning the water was finished since kids usually bathed from oldest to youngest. Rather like “Don’t put the cart before the horse” doesn’t come from people actually doing that.

Under those circumstances, I’d make a lot of soap every couple of months. Bathing? Maybe a spongebath (ragbath)–all over, not just hands, face, and crotch. I might bathe in cold water as fast as possible, while screaming, “Holy Fuck, that’s cold!” (That’s what I did long ago for a few months when the gas company shut us off.) And there’s always the ponds of summer. I can’t see shunning bathing the way I gather they did back then.

It cracks me up when I hear about how hard our fast-paced modern life is, because everything was harder under the technology of the past. Just one example: ever try to bake bread? It’s a pain-in-the-ass, all-day affair, and that’s with powdered yeast, pre-ground flour, and a thermostatically controlled oven. I really wouldn’t want to have to do it every day, but if our ancestors were as lazy as we are, they’d have run around naked eating dirt. I can’t see people used to backbreaking labor for everything saying, “That’s where I draw the line!” when it came to keeping clean, and other cultures with no better technology did somehow manage to bathe. Maybe not autoclave themselves every morning like we do, but why didn’t medieval Christian Europe get the stink off now and then?

So, you now have to show that Rome was looked down upon by most people. Hmm, you have three Empires all trying to claim they are the legit successor to the mantle of Rome, so it isn’t the Royalty and Nobility. The Chruch was run from Rome, so it wasn’t the Church. The peasants were illiterate and knew squat about Rome.

So you have to show a large group of dudes that knew about ancient Rome, disapproved of Rome and also associated the practice of bathing with the Romans, and only the Romans, as the Greeks also bathed but were very highly regarded.

So, got a cite?

And, AFAIK the few that did disaprove of the Roman baths, disapproved of the *public *part of the baths.

As others have said, the Medieval Europeans did bath, anyway.

AFAIK, people didn’t bath as much as they did today for the simple reason it was difficult to do so. Having been out camping for extended periods, I didn’t bath either- hands & face, and maybe a dip in the creek or lake,where soap could not be used. If everyone skips bathing, the you don’t really notice the smell.