Body and hygiene in the Medieval Western world

The concept of hygiene has evolved based on the idea that people had about their bodies. The practice of personal cleanliness has changed with transformations in the religious scenario, social relationships, ideologies and medical knowledge which in the different historical periods have marked the development of civilization.

Nico Zardo

In classical Greece, the bath was considered a completion of athletic activity: it had to be taken with cold water and quickly, to give energy more than solace. In archaic times, the Romans used to wash their arms and legs every morning; every nine days, during market day, they washed the rest of their bodies. Due to Oriental influence, for the Greeks - but even more often for the Romans - the bath took on mainly purposes of relaxation, solace and physical wellbeing. The steam bath and the sweat bath were introduced: these gave a sensation of wellness and pleasure that explains their extraordinary success.


IN MEDIEVAL TIMES, HYGIENIC PRACTICES CHANGED DRAMATICALLY. The fall of the Roman Empire and the decadence of the works aimed at enhancing the city's water supply cause a crisis in the use of the thermae. The countrysides empty out and in the cities, habits such as the breeding of domestic animals, of chickens, geese and pigs, clash with the most elementary hygienic norms. Clothes are washed in the waters of rivers, where frequently waste is discharged, animal carcasses are found, as well as foul liquids coming from tanneries and dye works. The fortified walls encircling medieval cities limit their development and force their inhabitants to live inside increasingly reduced spaces. The streets, narrow and tortuous, lacking pavement until the XII-XIV centuries, are often invaded by mud and debris.

Two important historical events intervene to cause a deep change in hygienic mores: the Barbaric invasions of the V century that upset the economic, ideological and social structures on which the Roman Empire1 rested, and the progressive rise of Christianity that condemns the way of conceiving those pleasures of the body that in Greek-Roman antiquity were considered positive values2.

The ideological crisis that deeply compromises Greek-Latin civilization is favored by philosophers of the late Classical period and by religions - mainly of Eastern origin - that foster an attitude of passive endurance of earthly adversities and of detachment from real life. All this contributes on the one hand, to the diffusion of the idea that the body is the enemy of the spirit, and on the other, to the birth of a certain skepticism regarding the utility of the study of nature and of scientific knowledge. Even medicine loses credibility and a conviction is born that disease can be vanquished by turning to a divinity through prayer rather than to physicians and medicines.While later it will actually be Christianity - above all through monasticism - to validly concur in the effort to safeguard and transmit the remains of classic culture, all that concerns hygienic and aesthetic care of the body will instead continue to be object of reprobation and condemnation for centuries.


FOR WHAT CONCERNS MONKS, attitude towards body hygiene varied according to the period and the prosperity of the orders they belonged to. Generally speaking, their hygienic practices included daily washing together at a fountain located in a dedicated area. On Saturdays, in order to prepare for properly hallow the coming Sunday, they would wash their whole bodies, always with cold water. On this same day, they would change the clothes they slept in every night of the week. Body cleansing takes on the meaning of a purifying ablution rather than a hygienic measure. The same can be said for washing the feet, considered a practice of humility

"The homes of the wealthy laymen," writes Attilio Zanca, "were equipped with wooden tubs for the bath, whose use was indispensable due to the habit of rarely changing intimate apparel, which was removed only at night to enter the bed naked. The tubs, usually round, were sometimes oval in shape in order to be able to take a bath with other members of the family or perhaps with guests. (...) In northern regions, in the center of bourgeois homes there was a room that was heated during the colder months - the "stove-room"- which was also used as the room for baths"3.


STARTING IN THE XII-XIII CENTURIES, SUBSTANTIAL SOCIAL CHANGES TAKE PLACE: hot and cold baths become more or less habitual in all social classes. The body returns to being considered by the feudal class - who had a passion for hunting, tournaments and battles4 - as an instrument of physical strength. But while before nudity was considered indecent, sinful and wicked, in this epoch, respect for and attention to man's corporeality is recovered. Cleansing of the skin as well as - and above all - its decoration through cosmetics is traditionally closely associated with women who, with the flourishing of chivalrous mores, triumph as the mothers of heroes, dispensers of grace.Enhanced knowledge in the fields of medicine and cosmetics was a result of treatises on Arab medical science, introduced in Europe after the conquest of Toledo in 1085 by Alfonso VI of Castile that became, thanks to Latin translations (Hippocrates, Aristotle, Galen) and to Arab works, the seat of a cultural movement having European dimensions. Knowledge of soap, introduced in Europe in the VII century in the wake of the Arab expansion, diffuses and becomes perfected through the replacement of animal fat, which emanated an unpleasant odor, with olive oil.


IN THIS PERIOD, WASHING IS MORE FREQUENT, not only for social reasons but also for respect towards others, especially if belonging to the upper social standings. The bath once more becomes an occasion for social relations and for pleasure5. Charlemagne (742-814) already many years before, had taken up the traditions of Imperial Rome, using pools containing the hot thermal water of Aachen, often inviting people from his court and also his guards to take a bath with him. With the start of the XII century, the use of the steam bath, very popular with the Romans, was rediscovered by the Crusaders who learned about it from the Arabs during their stay in Palestine and imported it to Europe.

Better economic conditions, different social and political standards favor the popularity and growth of thermal establishments: in Germany, Spain, France - in Paris in 1292 there are actually twenty-six of them6 -, in Italy, but we can safely state in every European city or large village, systems analogous to the thermae of pagan Roman develop, although they are more modest structures. These bathing establishments - also called "stews" due to the presence of systems for the production of hot water - were very important for the life of the times: they were assiduously frequented not only for hygienic needs but also for more non-essential reasons. Indeed, although - at least for a while - bathing establishments were frequented on different days by men and women and separate venues existed for the two, soon public baths and brothels ended up being practically synonymous, above all starting in the XIII century7.


"THE CORBACCIO", WRITTEN BY GIOVANNI BOCCACCIO IN 1365, STATES that one would be surprised to learn how many women of apparently intact morality could be found frequenting the "stews"... and how often! ("Quante e quali solennità" da parte della donna" si servavano nell'andare alle stufe e come spesso"). Of the German city of Erfurt in the XIII century, it was said: "You will find the baths of this town very pleasant. If you need to wash and you like your comforts, you can enter with confidence. You will have an agreeable welcome. A pretty young girl will massage you absolutely in all good faith with her soft hands. An expert barber will shave you, without letting the smallest drop of sweat fall on your face. When you are tired from the bath you will find a bed to rest on. Then a pretty woman of virginal appearance, who will not displease you, will tidy your hair skillfully with a comb. Who would not kiss her, if he wishes to and she puts up no resistance? When you are asked for payment, a single penny will be enough. ...!"8. This was not an isolated case. The baths then turned into venues for parties and banquets, enlivened by musicians and by "easy" women, characterized by "a singular license in regards to common laws of morality", where "one could show himself naked and freely make love"9.

The Church did not delay in taking up a position against these places of vice and sin, but only in the XV was it made mandatory to divide men's baths from those for women. The authorities knew very well that the public baths could be a place for brawls and crimes against people and their homes, but often their intervention was limited by high-ranking personages who actually participated in the orgies.

All told, it seems that Medieval men, from a certain period onwards, cater to the cleanliness of their bodies more than their descendants, in particular of the XVI and XVII centuries: decadence in personal hygiene in this period derives from several different causes, among which also the closure of public baths due - besides to the hostile behavior of the Church - also to the fear of contracting the plague, syphilis or other diseases in such places.


MEDIEVAL RULES FOR GOOD HEALTH do not concern the cleaning of homes and streets, but regard mainly food, with continuous exhortations to moderation. In the XI and XII centuries, the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum, ("The Salernitan Rule of Health") a collection of precepts in verse to maintain good health and live longer which became popular and proverbial, had great influence. Around the end of the XIV century, the first of the popular manuals of medicine and rules for good health, known as Tacuina sanitatis, whose text is attributed to Arab physician Ibn Butlan, was composed.And while public hygiene remains in a disastrous state, around the end of the Middle Ages, private hygiene feels the positive effects of an ensemble of rules dictated both by civil life and by humoral medicine based on the teachings of Hippocrates and Galen. For example, Bartolomeo Sacchi, called Platina (1421-1481), in his book De honesta voluptate et valetudine (On Right Pleasure and Good Health), speaks above all of dietary rules and gives some advice on "What to do as soon as one awakens". First of all "it is good practice to let a certain time interval pass and them comb your hair and expel the phlegm that has accumulated during the night. It is also good to wash one's feet and head before eating and to carefully clean dejections coming from posterior body parts. It is a good rule to rinse the mouth with abundant water, above all in the summer [...]."*

One of the reasons that hindered the use of the bath was the widespread conviction that water and steam baths were dangerous because they dilated skin pores, thus exposing the body to the passage of infected air through the skin, which was retained responsible for the most serious plagues and other diseases, including syphilis. This explains the habit of "dry-cleaning" the skin and the abundant use of perfumed essences popular in the XVI and XVII centuries.


IN THE MIDDLE AGES, SOVEREIGNS, NOBLES AND PEASANTS EAT AND TAKE FOOD FROM A COMMON PLATE USING THEIR HANDS, although the highest class is a bit more refined: they do not use both hands but just three fingers. While in Byzantine society, at least in the XI century, forks were already known, their use was introduced in the Western world only in the XVI-XVII centuries: first in Italy, inVenice at the end of the 1500s, later in France and then also inEngland and Germany.

In Medieval collections of rules for proper behavior at the table - rules, of course, directed only at noblemen and people at court - it is recommended, among other things, not to blow one's nose on the tablecloth, not to scratch or, if absolutely indispensible, not to do so with the naked hand but rather to use one's clothing; not to put one's finger in one's ears, nose or eyes, and, in lack of a table napkin, not to clean one's hands on clothing or lick them, but rather to let them dry on their own...10 This implies, of course, that behavior standards - especially among the less wealthy classes - were rather low and refined manners were not yet perceived as a common need.At the end of the Middle Ages, despite some weak signs of attention to personal hygiene, environmental difficulties, moral conditionings and the threat of disease distanced for a few more centuries the chances for any improvement in hygienic conditions as we know them today. Washing with soap and water is in the best of cases reserved for clothing while for the body, dry cleaning and perfumes are used. •


Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum

This collective work by the medical school of Salerno was diffused during the XI and XII centuries, and greatly influenced the life of European peoples for several centuries to come. Prescription II, entitled "De confortatione cerebri" (On keeping your brain comfortable), recommends washing one's hands and eyes in the morning with cold, fresh water, to comb's one's hair and brush one's teeth. All this, together with other recommendations, such as walking and avoiding exposure to the cold, are directed mainly to the comfort of one's brain; one must, of course, defend oneself from the cold even when leaving a hot bath. Prescription XXIII, "De lotione manuum" (Washing one's hands), recommends washing hands after eating, thus obtaining the double benefit of cleaning them and, by passing them over one's eyes, making eyesight more acute.


Erasmus' "Taverns"

Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) in one of his "Colloquia familiaria", entitled "Taverns", which appeared in Basel in 1523, underscores the difference between the behavior of people in German and French taverns, much more "civilized" in the latter. In the dining room of a German inn, many men and women of all ages sit one next to another, whether they be of the lower class, wealthy or nobles and all satisfy their needs in the presence of others. "...You put off your boots and put on shoes. If you will, you change your shirt, you hang up your clothes wet with rain, nigh the stove, you place yourself by it that you may be dry. There is also water ready, if you please, to wash your hands, but so clean for the most part, that other water is to be sought by you, with which you may wash off that washing." People combing their hair, drying their sweat, cleaning their shoes. The inn is overheated, everyone is sweating, shouting, pushing one another, the smell is revolting due to garlic-smelling belches, to "blasts of the belly" and to the stench of bad breath. Promiscuity is everywhere and the perils are grave: "Certainly most have the Spanish pox, or, as some call it, the French, though it be common to all nations. I think there is not much less danger from these than lepers." After describing the food, drinks and the service (tablecloths that resemble "canvass taken down from the sail-yards"), he speaks a bit about the bedrooms, where there are "beds only, and nothing else that you can use". And cleanliness? "The same as in the feast. Linens washed perhaps six months ago." (English translation: "Some select familiar colloquies of D. Erasmus of Rotterdam)


For structure and contents, this article is based on the treatise by Attilio Zanca "La pulizia del Corpo nel Medioevo", Edizioni Schering-Plough, 1992.


1. Jacques Le Goff, "Medieval Civilization", translated by Julia Barrow, Blackwell 1988.

2. J. Le Goff, "The Medieval Imagination", University of Chicago Press 1988.

3. A. Zanca, "La pulizia del corpo nel Medioevo", Schering-Ploug, (English version of the quote provided as a courtesy translation only).

4. J. Le Goff, "The Medieval Imagination", University of Chicago Press 1988.

5. N. Elias, "The civilizing process, The history of manners", Blackwell 1969.

6. - 8. J. Le Goff, "Medieval Civilization", translated by Julia Barrow, Blackwell 1988.

7. Cabanés, "Moeurs intimes du passé- La vie aux bains", (deuxième série), A. Michel, Paris.

9. E. Battisti, "L'Antirinascimento", I, Garzanti, (English version provided as a courtesy translation only).

10. N. Elias, "The Civilizing Process, I. The History of Manners, Blackwell 1969 (English version provided as a courtesy translation only).

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