Tubd-a-Scrubd-art - 9/11/09
"Tubbed and Scrubbed" by Master Giles de Laval.
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of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
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Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
Tubbed and Scrubbed
An overview of bathing in the Middle Ages
by Master Giles de Laval
Medieval people never bathed. Everyone knows that, right? This is probably the biggest myth about the period we study, perpetuated by schoolroom history, Hollywood movies and outdated scholarship. The perception that medieval people never bathed and lived their lives in a state of filth is completely absurd, and no more true of medieval society than it is of modern society. In fact bathing and washing were a common part of daily life in the Middle Ages, as illustrated by a wealth of written and pictorial evidence.
Public bathing was commonplace during the Classical world, indeed the baths were a centre of social life. This tradition survived after the fall of Rome in the Eastern empire and the Moslem world. A few Roman bath houses did remain in use in Europe, including one at Aachen used by Charlemagne; but for the most part the practice of communal bathing seems to have died out in continental Europe during the Dark Ages. Early travellers such as the Italian bishop Liudprand of Cremona and the Saxon nun Hrotsvitha described bath houses in Constantinople and Cordoba respectively. Norse literature shows that bath houses and saunas were quite common in Scandinavian countries, not only towns but every large farm was said to have one. Indeed, one of the very first structures built by the settlers upon their arrival in Iceland was a sauna. Western crusaders arriving in the east were amazed and intrigued by the institution of the hammam, as both Christian and Arab historians note, and seem to have adopted this aspect of eastern life with enthusiasm (as well as something of the personal cleanliness of their Moslem neighbours, including pubic shaving). It is probable that pilgrims returning from the Holy Land re-introduced the bath house into Western Europe.
Bath houses flourished in the major European cities in the 13th century, and by the 15th century they were a feature of many sizeable towns. Unlike the elaborate fixed plumbing of the Roman and Moslem baths with large communal pools of varying temperatures, the medieval European bath house instead used large wooden tubs filled with hot water-only the very wealthy constructed special bathing rooms in their homes. These tubs were large enough for two or three people, and many illustrations show curtains that could be drawn around the tubs, either for privacy or to create a tiny sauna (and indeed some bath houses had separate "sweating rooms").
Most surviving illustrations depict people sharing baths, and usually men and women bathing together. Tables with food and drink are also commonly shown either next to the tubs or placed across them, with the bathers enjoying a meal as they soaked. One 15th century woodcut shows a single board laden with food stretching across five baths. It is interesting to note that in these bath scenes, total nudity is rarely depicted; usually men are shown wearing a hat or linen cap, and often a breechclout (or just a strip of cloth tied about the hips). Women are very often shown wearing elaborate headdresses and necklaces; it is hard to be certain whether this detail is fanciful, or depicts prostitutes in a provocative state of semi-undress.
By the mid 13th century, bath houses were so numerous in Paris that the estuviers, or proprietors of such establishments, were permitted to form their own guild. Paid criers went about the city at daybreak, announcing that the water was hot and inviting customers in. The price of admission was set by law at two denieres for a steam bath, four for bathing afterwards. This price could not be increased without the approval of the provost of Paris.
Of course, along with getting clean, there were other activities that being naked and relaxed was conducive to. Churchmen and moralists constantly railed against the predomination of prostitution in bath houses; one more reason for the church to revile the "sinful" practice. The common English word stew, meaning brothel, comes from the old French etuves, or bath house; in some cities by the 1500Ős the two terms were interchangeable. A decree issued in 1254 by the provost of Paris forbade proprietors of bath houses to keep whores on their premises or promote their commerce, under penalty of losing their establishment and assets. However, this decree was withdrawn two years later.
Aside from public bath houses, many contemporary sources give a picture of private bathing (bathing at home). There was a vogue for sunken bathtubs in privy chambers of noble residences in the early 16th century; the palaces of Chambord and Hampton court boast such bathing rooms. However the practice can be traced to a much earlier use, such as the bathing chamber in Leeds castle dating to 1291. This seems to have been a transitional phase, as water as piped from the lake surrounding the castle, to be heated for the bath, which was placed in a canopied recess. It may have also been used as a cold bath, in the same manner as the Roman frigidarium or Norse sauna.
However, for most of the Middle Ages large wooden tubs were used for bathing. The necessity for bathing is mentioned in the codes of courtly love formulated by Andreas Capellanus, as being clean and sweet-smelling was pleasing to oneŐs lover. The 14th century Italian Book of Manners likewise noted that bathing and changing oneŐs linen regularly was civil and mannerly towards others. According to the precepts of chivalry of Ramon Lull, one of the duties of the squire was to heat water for his lordŐs bath. Bathing was an important part of the chivalric rituals of dubbing a knight. The postulant would bathe before spending the night in prayer; thus physically and spiritually purified he was ready to take up the burdens of knighthood. As with public bathing, period illustrations often show men and women bathing together (although the women are usually without the elaborate headdresses and jewels, perhaps supporting the theory that such women in illustration of public bathing are indeed prostitutes). Several illustrations show that in pleasant weather a bath could be taken outside, and enjoyed in the garden with a table of refreshments - a very civilised luxury! Offering a bath to one's guests was considered a courtesy, and by the 15th century was firmly entrenched in the codes of hospitality.
Other forms of personal hygiene were also practiced: washing the hands before and after eating is often referred to in period literature, and basins and ewers appear with remarkable regularity in illustrations. Hand washing became an elaborate ceremony at banquets in the 14th and 15th centuries. This office was performed by a server called the Laverer, who was distinguished by the long fringed towel borne over the shoulder or around the neck. The Laverer bore water and towels to the guests for them to wash before the feast commenced. Water was dispensed from the aquamanile ("water for the hands", sometimes called an aiguiere), which in noble households was usually a finely wrought ewer, often fanciful in form, being shaped like a lion, horse or other animal, or even the bust of a young woman as in the case of a particularly fine example held in the Cluny Museum.
The Church decried bathing as a luxury and a sinful indulgence, and it is from documents recording this stance that the popular misconception that medieval people did not bathe is most likely to have arisen. This was a holdover from the early Church, where ascetics and eremites would refrain from bathing as a way of mortifying the flesh. The Benedictine Rule stated that the sick were allowed to take baths as often as they needed, but for those in good health baths would be tolerated only rarely. Less austere orders such as the monks of Cluny assembled each morning in the cloister to wash. By the late Middle Ages however this attitude seems to have eroded; with bathing and steaming so widespread at all levels of society that the practice was no longer questioned. The Domincan Felix Faber enthusiastically approved of bodily cleanliness and stressed the importance of regular changes of body linen. In the minds of many people frequent washing may have assumed the same spiritual value as frequent confession.
Suzanne Comte (trans D Macrae), _Everyday Life in the Middle Ages_, Minerva, Geneva 1978
Georges Duby ed, "The Emergence of the Individual" in _A History of Private Life Volume II: Revelations of the Medieval World_, Cambridge & London: Belknap Press, 1988
Gerry Embleton & John Howe, _The Medieval Soldier_, Windrow & Greene 1994
Joan Evans ed, _The Flowering of the Middle Ages_, Thames & Hudson London 1998
Andrea Hopkins, _The Book of Courtly Love_, Aquarian London 1994
David Nicolle ed,_Knight of Outremer 1187-1344 AD_, Osprey 1996
John Julius Norwich ed, _Liudprand of Cremona: The Embassy to Constantinople and Other Writings_, J.M. Dent/ EverymanŐs Library, London 1993
Madeleine Pelner Cosman, _Medieval Holidays & Festivals_, Judy Platkus London 1981
Muse National du Moyen Age Thermes de Cluny, _A Guide to the Collections_, Runions des Muses Nationaux Paris 1993
Paul Veyne ed, _A History of Private Life Volume I: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium_, Cambridge & London: Belknap Press, 1988
Copyright 2002 by Mark Calderwood. <giles at sca.org.au>. While permission for republication is usually granted, permission to republish this article, in part or in full, requires the explicit permission of the author.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in
the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also
appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being
reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.