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

Myself  .By T.V. Antony Raj


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]…”


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

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