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To Bathe, or Not to Bathe: Part 4 – Bathing in Medieval Europe


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Myself  .By T.V. Antony Raj

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We all stink. No one smells.
– Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – August 20, 1153)

Antiquity, the Medieval period, and the Modern period are the three traditional divisions of Western history. In European history, the period 5th to the 15th century is known as the Medieval period or the Middle Ages. It began with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and merged into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The Medieval period is itself subdivided into the Early, the High, and the Late Middle Ages.

In European history, the Early Medieval Period (or Early Middle Ages) lasted from the 5th century to the 10th century. This period has been labeled the “Dark Ages,” due to the relative scarcity of literary and cultural output, especially in Northwestern Europe. However, the Byzantine Empire or Eastern Roman Empire, continued to survive. And, in the 7th century, the Islamic caliphates conquered regions of former Roman territories.

The High Medieval Period (or High Middle Ages) was the period of European history around the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries (c. 1001–1300). During this period, the population of Europe increased and brought about great social and political change from the preceding era.

The Late Medieval Period (or Late Middle Ages) was the period comprising the 14th and 15th centuries (c. 1301–1500). It preceded the onset of the early modern era and, in much of Europe, the Renaissance.

The great social and political change from the High Medieval Period in Europe came to a halt in the early 14th century. A series of calamities such as the Great Famine of 1315-1317 and the Black Death reduced the population to around half of what it was before. The prosperity and growth in Europe came to a halt. Along with depopulation came social unrest and endemic warfare. France and England experienced serious peasant uprisings: the Hundred Years’ War, the Jacquerie, the Peasants’ Revolt, as well as a century of intermittent conflicts.

The Hundred Years’ War was a series of wars waged from 1337 to 1453 between the House of Plantagenet, rulers of the Kingdom of England, and the House of Valois for control of the Kingdom of France.

The Jacquerie was a popular revolt by peasants in northern France in the summer of 1358.

The Peasants’ Revolt, also called Wat Tyler’s Rebellion or the Great Rising, was a major uprising across large parts of England in 1381.

To add to the many problems of the period, the Western Schism shattered the unity of the Catholic Church. By and large, these events are sometimes called the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages.

Despite these crises, the 14th century was a period of great progress in arts and sciences.

Icon of St. Gregory the Great by Theophilia (Source: theophilia.deviantart.com)
Icon of St. Gregory the Great by Theophilia (Source: theophilia.deviantart.com)

Pope Gregory I (c. 540 – 12 March 604), commonly known as Saint Gregory the Great, was Pope from September 3, 590 until his death in 604.

Jay Stuller of Smithsonian magazine wrote:

“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…”

Icon of St Bernard  of Clairvaux by Benedictine nun in England (Source: newclairvaux.org)
Icon of St Bernard of Clairvaux by Benedictine nun in England (Source: newclairvaux.org)

During the High Medieval Period (c. 1001–1300) the Europeans smelled terrible and they were used to it. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (born 1090), a French abbot and the primary builder of the reforming Cistercian order summed up the tolerance of the people to their stinking bodies thus: “We all stink. No one smells.

Saint Francis of Assisi
Saint Francis of Assisi

Saint Francis of Assisi (1181/1182 – October 3, 1226), Italian Catholic friar and preacher considered an unwashed body a stinking badge of piety.

In his article, “A History of Private Life,” the French historian Georges Duby, specializing in the social and economic history of the Middle Ages wrote:

Among the dominant class at least, cleanliness was much prized. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Cluniac monasteries and houses of the lay nobility continued to set aside space for bathsNo formal dinner (that is, no dinner given in the great hall with a large crowd of guests) could begin until ewers had been passed around to the guest for their preprandial ablutions. Water flowed abundantly in the literature of amusement — over the body of the knight-errant, who was always rubbed down, combed, and groomed by his host’s daughters whenever he stopped for the night, and over the nude bodies of fairies in fountains and steam-baths. A hot bath was an obligatory prelude to the amorous games described in the fabliaux. Washing one’s own body and the bodies of others seems to have been a function specifically ascribed to women, mistresses of water both at home and in the wilderness.

“Bathing and grooming were regarded with suspicion by moralists, however, because they unveiled the attractions of the body. Bathing was said to be a prelude to sin, and in the penitential of Burchard of Worms we find a full catalog of the sins that ensued when men and women bathed together… Lambert of Ardres, the historian of the counts of Guines, describes the young wife of the ancestor of his hero swimming before the eyes of her household in a pond below the castle, but he is careful to indicate that she is wearing a modest white gown. … [Public baths] were suspect because they were too public; it was better wash one’s body in the privacy of one’s own home. Scrupulous, highly restrictive precautions were taken in… monasteries. At Cluny, the custom required the monks to take a full bath twice a year, at the holidays of renewal, Christmas and Easter; but they were exhorted not to uncover their pudenda.” (p. 525)

Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor

Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor
Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor

Frederick II (December 26, 1194 – December 13, 1250), was one of the most powerful Holy Roman Emperors of the Middle Ages. He was the head of the House of Hohenstaufen. Though based in Sicily, his political and cultural ambitions stretched through Italy to Germany, and even to Jerusalem. His admirers nicknamed him ‘Stupor Mundi‘ meaning ‘Wonder of the World’ while his enemies called him an ‘Anti-Christ whore of Babylon.’

Having enjoyed discussions with Cardinal de‘ Fieschi, Frederick II admired the Cardinal’s wisdom. On June 25, 1243, Cardinal de‘ Fieschi reluctantly accepted election as Pope and took on the name Innocent IV.

The emperor was always at daggers drawn with the popes. Following the election the witty Frederick remarked that he had “lost the friendship of a cardinal, but made up for it by gaining the enmity of a pope.

At that time, the Catholic Church considered bathing a sinful act. In 1250, Pope Innocent IV passed the verdict against Frederick II of being a heathen. The first accusation on his list was the King bathed daily.

Étienne Boileau is one of the first known provosts of Paris. In 1261, King Louis IX named him provost for 10 years.

"Trades and guilds of the city of Paris: the thirteenth century" by Étienne Boileau, Provost of Paris (1261–1271).
“Trades and guilds of the city of Paris: the thirteenth century” by Étienne Boileau, Provost of Paris (1261–1271).

Around 1270, Boileau brought together the regulations for the police, industry and the trades of Paris in his book “Les métiers et corporations de la ville de Paris: XIIIe siècle” (“Trades and guilds of the city of Paris: the thirteenth century”). This work was a faithful mirror reflecting the smallest details of the industrial and commercial life of Paris in the 13th century.

Here is an excerpt from the book on the regulations governing the Guild of Bathhouse Keepers:

1. Whoever wishes to be a bathhouse-keeper in the city of Paris may freely do so, provided he works according to the usage and customs of the trade, made by agreement of the commune, as follow.

2. Be it known that no man or woman may cry or have cried their baths until it is day, because of the dangers which can threaten those who rise at the cry to go to the baths.

3. No man or woman of the aforesaid trade may maintain in their houses or baths either prostitutes of the day or night, or lepers, or vagabonds, or other infamous people of the night.

4. No man or woman may heat up their baths on Sunday, or on a feast day which the commune of the city keeps. And every person should pay, for a steam-bath, two deniers; and if he bathes, he should pay four deniers. And because at some times wood and coal are more expensive than at others, if anyone suffers, a suitable price shall be set by the provost of Paris, through the discussion of the good people of the aforesaid trade, according to the situation of the times. The male and female bathhouse-keepers have sworn and promised before us to uphold these things firmly and consistently, and not to go against them.

5. Anyone who infringes any of the above regulations of the aforesaid trade must make amends with ten Parisian sous, of which six go to the king, and the other four go to the masters who oversee the trade, for their pains.

6. The aforesaid trade shall have three good men of the trade, elected by us unanimously or by a majority, who shall swear before the provost of Paris or his representative that they will oversee the trade well and truly, and that they will make known to the provost of Paris or his representative all the infringements that they know of or discover, and the provost shall remove and change them as often as he wishes.

Georges Vigarello, the French historian and sociologist, published his book “Concepts of Cleanliness: Changing Attitudes in France since the Middle Ages” in October 2008. In this lucid work he examines how attitudes to and perceptions of human cleanliness, health and hygiene manifested in the history of bathing. He says the use of water for cleanliness has been by no means constant in the Middle Ages. The medieval idea of visible purity, effectively meant the face and the hands only. On pages 21-22, Professo Vigarello says:

“A crier patrolled the streets of thirteenth-century Paris to summon people to the heated steam-baths and bath-houses. These establishments, already numbering twenty-six in 1292 [Riolan, Curieuses Recherches, p. 219], and with their guild, were a familiar feature of the town. They were commonplace enough for it not to be shocking to offer a session in a steam-bath as a tip to artisans, domestic servants, or day-labourers. ‘To Jehan Petit, for him and his fellow valets of the bedchamber, which the queen gave him on New Year’s Day to visit the steam-baths’… What they would find was a steam-bath, with in addition, according to price, a bath in a tub, wine, a meal, or a bed. Naked bodies sweated and were sponged down side by side in the steam from water heated by wood fires. Baths were taken in a room, often separate, crammed with heavy round iron-bound bathtubs. A steam-bath did not necessarily involve immersion, though a bath could be had. There were, for example, six bathtubs at Saint-Vivien in 1380, with three beds and sets of bedding. [C. de Beaurepaire, Noveaux Melanges historiques, Paris, 1904, p. 94]…”

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Next → Part 5 – Did the Kings and Queens of the Early Renaissance Period Bathe?

← Previous: Part 3 – Don’t Bathe Water Is Your Enemy!

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To Bathe, or Not to Bathe: Part 3 – Don’t Bathe Water Is Your Enemy!


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Myself  .By T.V. Antony Raj

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King Philippe VI of France  (1293 – 22 August 1350)
King Philippe VI of France (1293 – 22 August 1350)

In 1348, Philippe VI of France asked the medical faculty of the University of Paris to investigate the origins of the Bubonic plague. Their far-reaching opinion began with a disastrous conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars that caused disease-infected vapours to rise out of the earth and water to poison the air. They declared that susceptible people who breathed in the noxious air became ill and died.

Who were susceptible?

Some people susceptible to infection recognized in Greek and Roman times were: the obese, the intemperate, and the over-passionate. Now, the medical faculty added a new one that struck fear in the hearts of the medieval people – hot baths, which had a dangerous moistening and relaxing effect on the body. They said that once heat and water created openings through the skin, the plague could easily invade the entire body.

During the next two hundred years, whenever the plague threatened, the cry went out: “Bathhouses and bathing, I beg you to shun them or you will die.” Even so, some resisted the idea of refraining from bathing.

In 1450, during an outbreak, Jacques Des Pars, the physician to Charles VII, called for the closing of the Paris baths. This infuriated the bathhouse owners, and he fled to Tournai to avoid their wrath.

By the first half of the sixteenth century, it was common knowledge that French baths would be closed during eruptions of the plague.

Thomas Moulton was a Dominican friar, who called himself a doctor of divinity of the order of friar preachers. Around 1531, he published a small octavo treatise in England titled “The myrrour or glasse of helth.” It was a manual purported to help avoid the pestilence and maintain good health. The book became one of the best-selling medical books of the Tudor period. In it, he says:

use no baths or stoves; nor swet not too much, for all openeth the pores of a manne‘s body and maketh the venomous ayre to enter and for to infecte the bloude.”

Ambroise Paré (1510–1590) by Michiel Jansz. van Miereveld (Photo credit: The Royal College of Surgeons of England)
Ambroise Paré (1510–1590) by Michiel Jansz. van Miereveld (Photo credit: The Royal College of Surgeons of England)

Ambroise Paré (c. 1510 – December 20, 1590) was a French barber surgeon. He served kings Henry II, Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III. Paré is considered one of the fathers of surgery and modern forensic pathology. As an anatomist, he invented several surgical instruments. He pioneered surgical techniques, battlefield medicine and treatment of wounds. In 1545, Paré published his first book “The method of curing wounds caused by arquebus and firearms.”

In 1568, Ambroise Paré, warned about water coming into contact with an unsuspecting victim. He wrote, voicing a now common opi‭nion:

Steam baths and bath-houses should be forbidden because when one emerges, the flesh and the whole disposition of the body are softened and the pores open, and as a result, pestiferous vapour can rapidly enter the body and cause sudden death, as has frequently been observed.

This and similar statements caused the medical fraternity in Europe to unanimously believe that water and infected air carried diseases into the body through the pores in the skin. Hence, they advised people not to bathe.

The learned professors of the day said that even when a plague did not threaten, water posed a threat to the bather because of the pores in the body. Through water, one might contract syphilis or diseases, yet unnamed and unknown. They warned that women can even become pregnant from sperm floating in the bath water. Not only could spurious matter enter the body through water, but the all-important balance of the four humours – black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood – could become unstable through pores opened by moisture.

This resulted in lower class citizens, particularly men, to forgo bathing. They restricted their hygienic routine to rinsing their mouths, washing their hands and infrequent washing parts of their face. They believed that washing one’s entire face was dangerous as it would weaken the eyesight and cause catarrh.

Members of the upper classes, the aristocrats, and the royalty cut down their full body bathing habits to just a few times per year. They struck a balance between the risk of contracting a disease by bathing, and emanating body stench.

In the medieval periods, worries about the body’s vulnerability affected fashion as well as hygiene. According to the professors, since the pores might be vulnerable even when dry and not heated, clothing should be smooth, tightly woven and fitted. Taffeta and satin for the wealthy, oil-cloth and jute or hemp sacking for the poor. Cotton and wool were too loosely woven. Fur offered too many places for poisons to lodge. People wore shifts, shirts, collars, coifs, kerchiefs, etc., made of linen. They thought that linen worn next to the skin enabled it to absorb sweat, and remove dirt from the body.

To combat body odour, the men and women belonging to the royalty and the aristocracy changed their linen wear often. Even then, they still stunk. So, they doused themselves with heady perfumes, oils, and scented powders to mask the stench emanating from their bodies.

In 1526, Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, a Dutch Renaissance humanist and a classical scholar wrote:

Twenty-five years ago, nothing was more fashionable in Brabant than public baths. Today there are none, the new plague has taught us to avoid them.

Before the medieval period, water had furnished comfort, pleasure, companionship, temptation, and cleanliness. Now, during the medieval period, on much of the Continent, water was considered an enemy to be avoided at all costs. The two centuries that followed Erasmus’ lament would be among the dirtiest in the history of Europe.

As the plagues recurred somewhere in Europe almost every year, the fears about a too permeable skin lasted until the beginning of the eighteenth century.

In 1538, François I of France had the French bathhouses closed. In 1546, Henry VIII of England officially banned all public baths in Southwark. In 1566, the States-General of Orléans closed the French bawdy houses, which included any operating bathhouses.

Sadly, the best medical advice of the period, probably doomed many people. Dirtier the people were, they were more likely to harbour Pulex irritatu, the flea now believed to have carried the plague bacillus from rats to humans.

In most of Europe, the complete lack of personal hygiene lingered until around mid 19th century.

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Next →  Part 4 – Bathing in Medieval Europe

← Previous: Part 2 – The Bubonic Plague

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To Bathe, or Not to Bathe: Part 1 – That Was the Question in Europe!


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Myself  .By T.V. Antony Raj

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Around the world, the need for cleanliness gave rise to public centres for bathing. According to the historians, the Indus Valley Civilization had the earliest public baths.

The 'Great Bath', Mohenjo-daro, in Sindh, Pakistan. (Source: studyblue.com)
The ‘Great Bath‘, Mohenjo-daro, in Sindh, Pakistan. (Source: studyblue.com)

In 1926, archaeologists found the “Great Bath” among the ruins of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization at Mohenjo-daro in Sindh, Pakistan.  Housed inside a large, elaborate building the public used it for bathing. It had stairs leading down to the water at both ends. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Great Bath was built in the 3rd Millennium BC.

Ancient Bath in Dion - ΑΡΧΑΙΟ ΛΟΥΤΡΟ ΣΤΟ ΔΙΟΝ (Source: panoramio.com)
Ancient Bath in Dion – ΑΡΧΑΙΟ ΛΟΥΤΡΟ ΣΤΟ ΔΙΟΝ (Source: panoramio.com)

The history of public baths in Greece begins in the sixth century BC. The Greeks used small bathtubs, washbasins, and foot baths for personal cleanliness. The earliest such findings were in the palace complexes at Knossos, Crete. Luxurious alabaster bathtubs excavated at Akrotiri, Santorini date from the mid-2nd millennium BC.

The Greeks built public baths and showers in their gymnasiums for relaxation and personal hygiene.

Bathing in Greece grew into a ritualized art. Cities in ancient Greece honoured sites where “young ephebes (adolescents) stood and splashed water over their bodies.”

In Greek mythology the gods blessed certain natural springs or tidal pools to cure diseases. The Greeks established bathing facilities around these sacred pools for those desiring healing . Supplicants left offerings to the gods and bathed at these sites hoping for a cure.

The Roman Baths (Thermae) of Bath Spa, England. The entire structure above the level of the pillar bases is a later reconstruction. (Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0)
The Roman Baths (Thermae) of Bath Spa, England. The entire structure above the level of the pillar bases is a later reconstruction. (Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0)

In ancient Rome, the need for cleanliness gained much importance. One of the daily activities practiced across a variety of social classes was bathing. In many contemporary cultures bathing was a private activity conducted in the confines of one’s home. But in Rome, bathing was a communal activity that took place mostly in public facilities called the Thermae (Greek: θερμός thermos, meaning “hot”) and the balnea (from Greek βαλανεῖον balaneion, meaning “baths”) for bathing.

The state-owned large imperial bath complexes called Thermae filled the need for communal cleanliness. In some ways, these resembled modern-day spas. The largest of these, the Baths of Diocletian, could hold up to 3,000 bathers. Fees for both types of baths were quite reasonable, within the budget of most free Roman men.

The balneum was a small private bathhouse. But some balnea were public in the sense that they were open to the populace for a fee.

Although wealthy Romans might set up a bath in their own houses, they often frequented the Thermae, because they were not only facilities for bathing, but were also centres for meeting and socializing as well. A catalogue of buildings in Rome from 354 AD documented 952 baths of varying sizes in the city.

During the 1st century BC, a Roman architect, and civil engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio discussed the design of baths in his multivolume work “De Architectura” published as “The Ten Books on Architecture“.

The Romans built their public bath around three principal rooms: the caldarium (hot bath), the tepidarium (warm bath) and the frigidarium (cold bath). Some Thermae also featured the sudatorium (steam bath), a moist steam bath, and the laconicum (a dry steam), bath much like a modern sauna. An aqueduct, stream, or an adjacent river supplied water to the bathhouses built in forts, town houses, and private villas. A log fire heated the water channelled into the hot bathing rooms.

Before the Middle Ages, public baths were common in Europe. The public bathed regularly. During the 4th and 5th centuries, the Catholic Church advocated bathing to keep oneself clean and healthy. At the same time, the Church forbade people from attending public bathhouses for pleasure. It also condemned women going to bathhouses that had mixed facilities.

Saint Ephraim, metropolitan of Kyiv and All Rus', Bishop of Pereyaslav (modern Ukraine). (Source - Kyiv Caves Lavra, Ukraine)
Saint Ephraim, metropolitan of Kyiv and All Rus’, Bishop of Pereyaslav (modern Ukraine). (Source – Kyiv Caves Lavra, Ukraine)

Before he became a monk, Saint Ephraim II of Pereyaslav, was the treasurer and steward of household affairs (1054–1068) at the court of the Iziaslav Yaroslavich, the Grand Prince of Kiev. Weighed down by the noisy and bustling life at that time he became a monk. After the year 1072, Ephraim appointed as bishop in Pereyaslav built stone walls around the city like the Greek. He adorned the city with many beautiful churches and public buildings. He also constructed free hospices and public bathhouses for the poor and travelers.

During the Early and the High Middle Ages, the Catholic Church imposed more restrictions. It discouraged bathing naked on moral grounds and disapproved excessive bathing. Eventually, the public bathing culture of antiquity fell into disuse in Europe.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, the returning Crusaders, from Turkey and the Arab world, who had enjoyed warm baths in the Middle east, reintroduced Roman style public baths in Europe. Once again, the public baths became popular in medieval Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France and to a lesser extent in England. During the reign of Henry II, from 1154 AD to 1189 AD, bathhouses, called ‘bagnios were set up in Southwark on the river Thames.

In due course, most of these public baths degenerated into brothels and were closed down at various times. The Medieval Catholic Church proclaimed that public bathing led to immorality, promiscuous sex, and diseases.

The disease “Black Death” was the most catastrophic pandemic the world has yet known. It claimed an estimated 75 to 200 million people and peaked in Europe in the years 1346–53. The plague killed at least one out of every three Europeans. The aftermath of the plague created a series of religious, social, and economic upheavals, which had profound effects on the course of European history. It took 150 years for Europe’s population to recover. The plague recurred occasionally in Europe until the 19th century.

In 1538, François I of France had the French bathhouses closed.  In 1546, all public baths were officially banned in England by Henry VIII due to their negative reputation.

Ambroise Paré (c. 1510 – December 20, 1590) was a French barber-surgeon. He served kings Henry II, Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III. Considered as one of the fathers of surgery and modern forensic pathology, he pioneered surgical techniques and battlefield medicine and treatment of wounds. He was also an anatomist and invented several surgical instruments. In 1568, Ambroise Paré, warned about water coming into contact with an unsuspecting victim:

Steam-baths and bath-houses should be forbidden because when one emerges, the flesh and the whole disposition of the body are softened and the pores open, and as a result, pestiferous vapour can rapidly enter the body and cause sudden death, as has frequently been observed.

This statement caused the medical fraternity in Europe to unanimously believe that water and infected air carried diseases into the body through the pores in the skin. Hence, they advised people not to bathe.

This resulted in lower class citizens, particularly men, to forgo bathing. They restricted their hygienic routine to rinsing their mouths,  washing hands and infrequent washing parts of the face. They believed that washing one’s entire face was dangerous as it would weaken the eyesight and cause catarrh. Members of the upper classes cut down their full body bathing habits to just a few times per year. They struck a balance between the risk of contracting a disease by bathing, and emanating body stench.

During the reign of Louis XIV people believed that a grimy layer of dirt would keep one healthy. They thought the grime would clog the pores on the skins and help to keep away the water from entering one’s body. Throughout the 17th century, people washed little. They wore shifts, shirts, collars, coifs, kerchiefs, etc., made of linen. It was thought that linen worn next to the skin had special properties that enabled it to absorb sweat, and remove dirt from the body. Working class people used cream, grey or beige linen not having the resources to keep their linen white.

To combat body odour, the rich used scented rags to rub the body and heavy use of perfumes to mask their stench. The royalty and the aristocracy changed their linen wear often. Men wore small bags with fragrant herbs between the shirt and waistcoat, while women dusted fragrant powders over their entire body. Even then they still stunk. So, they doused themselves with heady perfumes, oils, and scented powders to mask the stench emanating from their bodies.

A wardrobe full of fine linen smocks or undershirts to enable a daily change was the height of hygienic sophistication. Jean Racine (1639 – 1699), the French dramatist, Molière (1622 – 1673), the French playwright actor, owned 30 pieces each.

This complete lack of personal hygiene in most of Europe lingered until around mid 19th century.

Russians were not so fastidious about bathing. The Europeans considered them perverts. The Russians took regular baths at least once a month.

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Next →  Part 2 – The Bubonic Plague

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