Did people really stop washing in the Middle Ages?


When I was taught history, the conventional wisdom was that after the fall of the Roman Empire – the bathhouses were shut down and people stank to high heaven. Not only did people refuse to wash but they even venerated a man like Saint Godric who walked all the way to Jerusalem without washing or changing his clothes once. Washing was believed to open the pores to disease and the bathhouses had been seen as licentious places by the early Church Fathers.  It was the crusaders who re-introduced the art of bathing to western Europe from the Holy Land where it had not died out in the Islamic realms, that had continued Greek/Roman practice though on religious grounds of purification. Bathhouses opened in London but were then closed again during the Black Death.  Bathing only really became fashionable again with the Renaissance and the revival of interest in Roman and Greek culture.

So is any of the above actually true?

Well, some of it is. The bathhouse did indeed cease to have the central social role that it enjoyed during the Roman Empire. Important to note that it wasn’t just about keeping clean for the Romans – they also socialised, gambled, slept with prostitutes, etc in the bathing houses. There were also of varying degrees of hygiene. Far from emerging healthier, a Roman bather might emerge with any number of ailments.  But once the empire had gone, the great baths – like that of Diocletian in Rome – were often converted in to religious houses.  Or they were just abandoned.

But it’s simply not true to say that nobody took a bath from the last western emperor in 475AD until the Renaissance a thousand years later. There’s ample evidence that bathing of sorts did occur in the Middle Ages though less frequently, among the wealthier classes and without the elaborate buildings of the Romans.  Within the Templar era that is the subject of this blog – there is even a list of regulations from a thirteenth century bathhouse in Paris – and here they are:

  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.

Etienne de Boileu: “Livre des métiers”

I can remember staying in a very old medieval farm house in Portugal in the 1970s where the only place to get clean was a wash bowl and stand.  As late as the nineteenth century, people had to be instructed on how to take an ‘all over bath’.  And for many people in history, getting clean meant a change of clothes as opposed to necessarily washing the entire body. So in the Middle Ages, a man of rank might change his linen shirt a couple of times a day – but he would bathe far less frequently.

Complex subject and I’m happy to hear more from users!

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One thought on “Did people really stop washing in the Middle Ages?

  1. Hello,

    I often found this an interesting subject, especially in it’s relation to the Knights Templar.

    If I recall the Latin Rule correctly, I don’t remember anything specific in them not being allowed to wash themselves, although they are described as *Men’s MEN!* by Bernard de Clairvoux, who seems eager to distinguish them as different from the more vain knight, who sets his hair and wears expensive clothes.

    I am sure I’ve read that they were not to be punished if late for dinner or mass if they had just washed their hair.

    Bathing in the medieval times was a society activity, which one did in groups and as these monks/knights were under such strict rules, such as not being allowed to kiss their own mother, I’m sure social bathing was not even considered an option.

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