Body Hygiene in Medieval and pre-Modern Europe

Europe wasn’t always the civilized and clean continent we know today. People though bathing caused diseases because the water would open up the skin’s pores letting in all the bacteria and viruses. Quite the opposite!

Throughout the 18th century, the majority of medical manuals and popular etiquette advised people to only wash certain parts of the body, mainly the parts visible to the public, meaning ears, face, hands, neck etc.

Such a harmful tradition was a huge regress from the Middle Ages where public baths were very common.

The 16th-century created this unhealthy social tradition with the switch from woolen to linen clothing. Linen was way easier to wash and maintain. Having lots of clothes was seen as a successful social signal, thus, a large number of clean clothes became more important than body hygiene itself. During the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation, the condition of the clothing, as opposed to the actual cleanliness of the body itself, was thought to reflect the soul of the individual. Physicians were only validating such traditions as they believed that odors (know at that time as “miasma”) caused disease by being absorbed into the skin by the water dilatated pores. Therefore, it was advised to change clothes as often as possible but to never expose the skin to the surrounding odors by bathing.

Modern sanitation procedures were not widely adopted until the 19th and 20th centuries. Historian Lynn Thorndike came to the conclusion that Medieval people probably bathed more than 19th-century people. Modern sanitation principles were only adopted after researchers like Lous Pasteur developed the germ theory of disease, demonstrating the necessity of adequate sanitation.

 

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