A History of Humanity's Disgusting Hygiene
There is nothing like a good hot soak in a bath or a bracing shower. Putting on clean clothes and generally giving ourselves a mini make-over lifts our confidence and mood. More importantly we we smell better.
However, travelling back in time, we might be shocked at some of the un-hygienic practices that were carried out - or not carried out as the case may be. Having said this, it's a myth that people in the past never had a bath. Most rich people did, using a large barrel shaped construction for bathing in hot water. From the 13th century, there were also public baths. The water was heated from the log fires nearby and carried by servants to the tub. However, the down side was that many of these buildings caught fire and usually took a number of other structures down as well before the fire died out. In addition, when firewood became more scarce, due to decimation of forests, it was expensive to have a bath. Either whole families and friends shared the water or many had to remain dirty.
Poor people bathed in cold water, but for obvious reasons probably washed less frequently. They would use water where it was convenient to do so - a river, lake or by carrying water to the home.
In addition, most large houses and castles did have areas for washing hands both before and after a meal. Nevertheless, in other areas of life hygiene was practically non-existent. Mainly due to ignorance of, for example, bacteria and viruses and the principles of cross-infection.
'Garde Loo' and Other Toilet Habits
The romantic scene of a towering castle surrounded by the pristine sparkling waters of a moat is not strictly true. Especially when we talk about toilets from hundreds of years ago.
In Tudor houses they were called 'privies'. Many were basically a bowl with a slab of wood and a hole carved in the top. This would be set into a recess or cupboard-like area called a garderobe.
The castles were not much better. The slab of wood often just covered a hole in the floor that took waste products straight into the moat - now you know why there are no picturesque paintings of some cute rustic fishing in a castle moat.
Peasants did not have the luxury of any form of toilet no matter how crude. They were forced to relieve themselves where they could and then bury any waste matter. Washing your hands after doing your business was not practiced by anyone.
Of course, rich or poor, neither had toilet paper. Poor people would use leaves or moss to wipe their bottoms. If you had a bit more money then you would use lambs wool.
However, if you were the King, then you employed someone to wipe your bottom for you. The position of royal bum wiper was officially called 'The Groom of the Stool' the more formal title would be read as 'Groom of the King's Close Stool to King (name )'. As disgusting as this job may seem to be, it was a much sought after position. Noblemen would fight hard and dirty - excuse the pun - to get their sons employed in this role, as it often resulted in, eventually, advancing to powerful roles such as Private Secretary to the King. The reason for the promotion was that the groom, who knew the King's most intimate secrets, often became his most trusted advisor and friend.
If you ever find yourself transported back in time to old Edinburgh be prepared for the shout of 'garde loo '. If you were not quick enough - or if you were disliked - you could find yourself being showered with the contents of chamber pots hurled from the tenement windows. Chamber pots were of course used to collect urine overnight.
The term 'garde loo ' comes from the French garde L'eau which means 'watch out for the water'. This is where the nickname - 'loo' - for the toilet may have come from. The resulting stench of chamber pot contents was ironically known as 'the flowers of Edinburgh' .
So what happened to all this waste littering the streets? There was, in theory, supposed to be some form of street cleaning, but this was seldom carried out effectively. The streets all year round were covered in faeces - human and animal - urine, rotting food, corpses of animals and so on. It wasn't until the end of the 18th century that an effective street cleaning regime came into force.
Personal Grooming and Hygiene
King James VI of Scotland, I of England - the son of Mary Queen of Scots - was called 'the wisest fool in Christendom '. Unfortunately this wisdom didn't include personal hygiene. The king wore the same clothes for months on end, even sleeping in them on occasion. He also kept the same hat on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, until it basically fell apart. He point blank refused to wash or bath as he was convinced it was bad for your health.
Beasts and nasty things
Medieval Times and later
One major source of infection was bites from fleas and body lice - they were rife. The poorer people in particular were very susceptible. Due to a meagre diet and malnutrition, the sores from bites would often become infected. In addition, the human flea is capable of spreading diseases such as typhus and parasites such as tapeworms.
Another source for infection, especially in medieval times, was the use of rushes/straw on the floors. They were used to cover up the natural dirt floor of the building and the top rushes were often changed. Added to these would be sweet smelling wild flowers and herbs to fragrance the room. However, often the bottom layer of rushes was not completely cleared and this led to all manner of possible infection sources. The great scholar - Erasmus - visited Britain in the 16th century and made this statement:
"The floors are, in general, laid with white clay, and are covered with rushes, occasionally renewed, but so imperfectly that the bottom layer is left undisturbed, sometimes for twenty years, harbouring expectoration, vomiting, the leakage of dogs and men, ale droppings, scraps of fish, and other abominations not fit to be mentioned. Whenever the weather changes a vapour is exhaled, which I consider very detrimental to health."
The rushes were particularly prone to dirt and filth in the eating halls within manor houses or castles. Various foodstuffs, drinks and other deposits were frequently thrown or spilled onto the floors and left - many of the household dogs would eat up the majority of the food. But even they left enough to encourage rodents and bacteria to flourish.
Samuel Pepys was not only one of the most humorous of diarists but there was no subject that he would not write about. The following are extracts about life that give some wonderful insights into the way people lived hundreds of years ago:
"...27th March 1667 'I did go to the Swan; and there sent for Jervas my old periwig-maker and he did bring me a periwig; but it was full of nits, so as I was troubled to see it (it being his own fault) and did send him to make it clean..."
"...3rd September 1665. Up, and put my coloured suit on, very fine, and my new periwig, bought a good while since, but durst not wear, because of the plague and was in Westminster when I bought it; and it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done, as to periwigs, for nobody will dare to buy any hair for fear of infection, that is had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague..."
Ten Weird Facts About Grooming In The Past
- Eyebrows that did not look fashionable were often masked by tiny pieces of skin from a mouse.
- Ceruse was the foundation make-up of choice for both men and women, that gave the famous smooth, pale look. However, it contained lead that seeped into the body through the skin leading to poisoning. This make-up also tended to crack and had a strong odour.
- Although the men wore linen drawers, the women wore no knickers at all.
- The reason why so many marriages took place in June was that most people had their yearly bath in May so they were still fairly clean when June arrived. However, as a precaution brides carried bouquets of flowers to cover up any odious smells. June weddings and carrying bouquets are still traditional today but most wedding parties smell a lot nicer.
- When people took their bath it was the man of the house who had the privilege of the tub filled with clean water. The sons of the house were allowed next, then the wife, the rest of the females and the babies were last.
- Houses in the past did not have the protective roofing we have today. It was not unusual for bugs, pests and droppings to fall onto your clean bedding from the roof. So four poles and a canopy was invented to keep the bed clean and this is where the origin of the canopied and four poster beds come from.
- A 17th century publication by Peter Levens gives clear instructions to men on how to cure baldness and thinning hair by making the following mixture - a strong alkaline solution containing potassium salts and chicken droppings to be placed on the area to be treated. In addition if men wanted to remove unwanted hair from any area of the body they should make a paste that contains - eggs, strong vinegar and cat dung. Once beaten into a paste, this should be placed on the areas where the hair is to be removed. Why they didn't just shave is not documented.
- When Mary Queen of Scots returned to her native Scotland from France she was astounded and not a little put out that the men continued to wear their hats while sitting down to eat at her banquets. It was then pointed out to the young Queen that this was not a sign of disrespect to her but necessity. The men kept their hats on in order to prevent not only their long hair from touching the food but head lice from falling into their plates.
- In the 16th century some members of the church condemned using forks to eat as against the will of god. One put out minister remarked: "God would not have given us fingers if He had wanted us to use forks."
- The use of condoms goes back many thousands of years. They went out of favour after the decline of the Roman Empire but re-emerged in the form of linen condoms in the 16th century - perhaps due to the fear of the disease syphilis. The church condemned condoms as a way for the devil to encourage elicit sex. One incensed churchman raged that "the use of these foul things allows people to play filthy persons greater than ever."
Cesspits and Water
In the good old days there was no such thing as proper sewer drains. Most town and city streets had open sewers running down them in to which all kinds of waste was thrown. There was in theory at least a system of refuge collection to clean up the streets that were littered with rotting food, dung, animal corpses, human faeces and other waste products. But the cleaning up system was sporadic and not carried out effectively enough.
In addition people had to make do with burying much of their waste material in a cesspit either in their cellar or in the garden. Technically these were supposed to be emptied regularly, but many were not. The stench was overwhelming not only in summer but in winter as well.
If you were fairly well off then you could hire a water-carrier to bring water to your home. The poorer folks had to collect their own either from a nearby river or public well.
The super rich paid private water companies for their drinking and general water needs. But this didn't necessarily make the water any healthier or taste better. The main water supply was via elm trunks and domestic pipes which were lead lined. In addition because the water supply only ran for a few hours at a time it had to be stored in large lead tanks and often became stagnant. The famous diarist Samuel Pepys believed he caught a cold after washing his feet in water taken from a lead-lined tank.
When doing your laundry in the past you didn't have the luxury of biological or non-biological soap powders nor sweet smelling fabric conditioners. Your clothes, linen etc would have been scoured in lye made up from ashes and human urine. The use of human urine to wash clothes and linen goes back to at least Roman times and was favoured for it's great ability to remove stains.
The lakes and rivers - as they are today - were becoming increasingly polluted by people dropping waste into them. The amount of filth being dumped was reaching such a level that in the 14th century, just after the outbreak of the Black Death, the English Parliament made a declaration, that clearly shows they are beginning to identify a link between disease and waste disposal. The 1388 declaration states:
"Item, that so much dung and filth of the garbage and entrails be cast and put into ditches, rivers, and other waters... so that the air there is grown greatly corrupt and infected, and many maladies and other intolerable diseases do daily happen... it is accorded and assented, that the proclamation be made as well in the city of London, as in other cities, boroughs, and towns through the realm of England, where it shall be needful that all they who do cast and lay all such annoyances, dung, garbages, entrails, and other ordure, in ditches, rivers, waters, and other places aforesaid, shall cause them utterly to be removed, avoided, and carried away, every one upon pain to lose and forfeit to our Lord the King the sum of 20 pounds..."
However, numerous generations would pass before Britain developed a superior and cleaner sewage system. Until this time some of the most dangerous diseases known were rampant due to poor sanitation, hygiene and overcrowded conditions. Some of the most virulent were, as they are today in some parts of the world:
- Typhoid Fever
It would be all to easy for us to gloat, ridicule or laugh at our ancestors for their less than clean lifestyle. However, it should be remembered that many of their habits, or lack of them, was not due to laziness but lack of understanding about the true nature of disease. In addition they had a different set of priorities from us today.
Death and disease was a daily battle for people in the past. It was not until the 20th century that we found the means to really begin the fight against dangerous infections. But this conflict continues even today. A number of our oldest disease adversaries are making a comeback. We may have, so far, won the battle against disease but will we win the war? The fight continues.
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Further Information & Sources
- British History Online
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- BBC - History
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