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The usual narrative: No bathing

There is a frequently debunked claim that medieval Europeans did not bathe. Occasionally, the claim is connected to pandemics of the era and extended to the idea that Aztecs may have burned incense around the conquistadors (they did that, this part is well-documented) to hide their unpleasant body odor.

Arguments against the usual narrative

The articles aiming to debunk the claim point to the existence of public baths and illustrations of these, medieval texts promoting bathing for health reasons, as well as the idea that outward cleanliness reflects the purity of the soul.

Arguments in favor of the usual narrative

However, it appears that some medieval writers did show some hostility to bathing, including pope Boniface I (418-422) and that public baths were associated with prostitution and vanished at some point in parts of Europe. They may also have believed that bathing causes disease by allowing bad odors into the body through the pores (or so), but maybe this idea belongs more to the early modern period. (Erasmus seems to have written in 1526 that "Twenty-five years ago, nothing was more fashionable in Brabant than the public baths. Today there are none, the new plague has taught us to avoid them.")

Confusion

The evidence we have on the topic seems to be contradictory; the same goes for the interpretation in the easily accessible accounts on the topic. Sometimes, the narrative seems to be that medieval hygiene was terrible and it got better with the Renaissance, sometimes the other way around. Some sources quote accounts of monks bathing 2-3 times a year as prohibition to bathe more often, others as evidence for ubiquity of bathing and hygiene. You can see how this is confusing. The switch from wool to linen clothing in early modern times may have played a role (cause since linen can easily be washed, there's no need for people to wash themselves, right?).

Question

There is probably a fair bit of regional and intertemporal variety: Europe is huge and the Middle Ages span almost 1000 years (for the first several hundred, the evidence is probably quite sparse though). Nevertheless, there are probably some patterns. Was there a common trend in attitudes towards bathing, if not a uniform belief? Was there a time when attitudes changed? Were there persistent differences between certain regions? Can we at least say something about some region then? Or do we simply not know?

Edit (Aug 18 2020):

Thanks for the comments and replies so far. I can see that my list of questions was more confusing than helpful. I will try to explain more clearly:

Is the question too broad? / Should the question be narrowed down to one historic time and place (e.g., say, Subroman North Britain 6th century)? I am specifically not asking about some specific time and place. I am asking about the big picture. Did they bathe a lot less than regular pre-modern societies or is that a myth?

Why should we care? If they did indeed bathe a lot less, then this would have had far-reaching implications for population dynamics, pandemics, health in Europe, pandemics in the Americas at the time of the Spanish takeover of the continent, as well as cultural perception of Europeans by non-Europeans. If this is, on the other hand, a myth, these implications are not only false, but it would say a lot about the later perception of the Middle Ages.

The question how often St. Mungo bathed (@MAGolding) is also interesting, but not what I am interested in in this context. I apologize if I was not clear enough before.

What type of reply do I hope for? One of the following plus details:

  1. Usual narrative is clearly a myth (they did not bathe significantly less than others)
  2. Usual narrative (no bathing) is clearly true
  3. Historical science does clealy not know
  4. There are clear historical, regional patterns (I.e., we can identify times/regions where they did indeed neglect bathing and hygiene.)
  5. There are very complicated historical, regional patterns that are too complicated to explain here. (I.e., there were times/regions where they did indeed neglect bathing and hygiene, but any patterns are very complicated or we are unable to make sense of them.)

Some comments/answers (@LarsBosteen, @MAGolding) allude to possibility 5: The true answer is too complex for the scope of a H:SE question. This would be disappointing. However, I am not convinced this is the case. As I understand it, the evidence we do have is very sparse. Asking the same question for any specific time and place in the 1000 years of the European Middle Ages would for almost all times and places lead to the assessment: We do not know and we have zero evidence. As a consequence, it should be possible to map out the evidence we do have and see if it yields a consistent pattern or story. While this would be clearly too much for a H:SE answer, I am hoping that given the prominence of this premise/idea/narrative (medieval Europeans were stinky and did not bathe), some historians may already have published extensive research on this question. I am hoping that someone on H:SE may be aware of such research and give a brief summary.

What about natural climatic effects? Winter bathing may have been more common in 10C weather in Sicily than in -25C weather in Finland. (@Lars Bosteen's hypothesis) Yes, I could imagine that this is true. But is it? Do we know? Also: Are there still other patterns? (Some sources specifically mention that compared to the rest of Europe, public bath houses may not have declined in Northern Europe, being combined with saunas instead.)

What about the link between prostitution and bath houses? This may have creasted progressively more hostility towards bath houses (@gktscrk's hypothesis). Yes, that sounds plausible to me. But is it? Do we have evidence? Why would either prostitution in bath houses or hostility to prostitution become more prominent with time? If its just the church getting more and more outraged, should we perhaps see some evidence in religious texts? If prostitution in bath houses itself increased, then why: Was there some economic (more affluent customers?) or organizational (closure of other venues?) reason?

  • I was wondering if this question has any link with Roman public latrines – user45361 Aug 18 at 4:37
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    I'd recommend at least a period and a geographic area to narrow down (e.g., Heptarchy Britain, pre-feudal Scandinavia, Arabian Iberia, High Medieval Germany). Especially the religious connotation of bathing would have varied wildly even in one of these locations through the timeframe. Of course, for some, evidence is more easily findable than for others, but that shouldn't detract you. If nothing else, this allows the person doing the research to focus on one place. – gktscrk Aug 18 at 6:54
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    I kinda disagree with the narrowing down suggestions. If say we narrow that down to 1150, at the Court of Love in Southern France (which had some level of Islamic influence) what does such an answer to such a narrow question tell us about all the other places and times? Great question, but do we want repeated for every 200 yrs? Best to leave it fairly open. For example, MAGolding's answer is extremely narrow, but shows that maybe the Church wasn't quite so keen to condemn bathing as some claim given that the saint in question was ascetic so would have foregone it if it was doctrine – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Aug 18 at 7:26
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    related: todayifoundout.com/index.php/2019/08/… – tkruse Aug 18 at 12:52
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    It seems the concept of bathing was well known, and obviously useful to avoid smelliness (which is important for coupling and in business). It was linked to health (both as prevention or source of disease), and had implications for morality and fun. Also practical availability of viable bathing places was obviously not ubiquitous. From those surrounding facts, it seems obvious that the reality is complex and diverse, and it's unclear what else an answer could provide. – tkruse Aug 18 at 13:09
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+200

Short Answer

In general, opportunities for bathing for personal hygiene existed in most areas of Europe for those who had the financial means, including monarchs, barons, knights, merchants, doctors, churchmen, and the wealthier farmers and artisans (and their families). In many urban areas, there were public bathhouses (though facilities varied enormously over time and from place to place). There is also evidence of private bathing, particularly amongst the wealthiest. Assessing the extent to which these opportunities were availed of is far more problematic; bathing habits varied over time and from region to region and depended on a host of factors (detailed below).

Unfortunately, we have very little evidence for the bathing habits of the poor. The idea that poor peasants smelled because they didn't wash comes from some contemporary writers (who tended to look down at peasants as inferiors anyway). Prejudice not withstanding, the general assumption among academics is that the rural poor in particular did not bathe frequently, especially in winter, as they generally would have lacked the means to do so. Daily partial bathing may have been widespread among the poor but we cannot even say this for certain.

In the very early medieval period, the use of public bathhouses declined in most regions of the former Roman empire but steadily re-emerged over the succeeding centuries. The Black Death put an end to that growth, but only temporarily as bathhouses regained their popularity in many areas in the 15th century. By the mid-16th century, though, many of the more disreputable places in England, France, Spain and parts of Germany (at least) had been closed, often to be replaced by more closely regulated establishments.


Details

That “the evidence we have on the topic seems to be contradictory” and “confusing” can be attributed to a number of factors, including:

  • The failure of many online sources to clearly indicate that what they are writing about relates to a specific time period and / or a limited segment of the population and / or a limited geographical area. Basically, there’s a tendency to over-generalize when, in reality, the evidence suggests that people often had different bathing habits at different times in different regions.
  • The, at times, lack of consensus among medieval writers as to the benefits and dangers of bathing. Also, bathing for the sick was sometimes recommended, sometimes not, this depending on the affliction.
  • The difference between what was recommended and what people actually did. For example, bathing in warm water was discouraged by many writers of the mid and high medieval periods, but there is evidence that many people did not follow this advice, at least until the late medieval period.
  • The extent to which people, as individuals, were influenced by arguments on the morality of bath houses, and the extent to which they may have preached one thing but practiced another.
  • The variable amount and quality of the evidence we have, depending on time, region and for whom. On peasants, for example, none of literary evidence comes from peasants themselves. Also, evidence for the first 300 years of the medieval period is especially limited for most of Europe.
  • Christian beliefs and practices were not uniform throughout Europe, and we also need to consider the Jewish diaspora, as well as Muslims in Spain.
  • The different bathing habits of males and females of different ages.
  • The immediate environment (e.g. ease of access to water), the climate and the season.

Given the points above, it is difficult to make generalizations about the entire period for the whole of Europe. However, there were two practices which were probably widespread for the entire medieval period: the washing of the hands before meals and the washing of the face in the morning. Academic sources have made other, more limited generalizations but often qualify these with words such as ‘probably’ and ‘perhaps’. Their observations are primarily based on:

  • medieval chronicles which mention personal hygiene / bathing, usually in passing.
  • medieval medical / health treatises
  • various other documents, such as wills
  • medieval art
  • archaeological evidence

Aside from the already mentioned widespread practices of hand and face washing, the most common general narrative varies little from this (for the high and late middle ages):

Bathing habits varied tremendously in medieval Europe. Although the peasantry generally did not bathe very often, many Europeans did wash themselves regularly… In the 13th and 14th centuries wealthy people typically bathed once a week… Europeans kept their teeth clean by rubbing them with twigs or chalk.

Source: Amy Hackney Blackwell, ‘Adornment: Europe’. In Pam J. Crabtree (ed.) ‘Encyclopedia of Society and Culture in the Medieval World

Similarly,

Medieval people did wash parts of their bodies with some regularity, but peasants were often criticized for excessive odors…. It also appears that medieval Europeans tried to clean their teeth; at least there are reports of people using woolen cloths and hazel twigs for this purpose.

Source: Jeremiah D. Hackett et al., ‘World Eras, vol. 4: Medieval Europe, 815 – 1350’ (2002)

Just as evident, though, are contrasting bathing practices. For example, in the British Isles,

Some Irish people during the early medieval period appear to have bathed and combed their hair daily. The Anglo-Saxon people of Britain did not bathe their whole bodies frequently, but they did wash their faces, hands, and feet daily, and many people owned their own wash basins

Source: Blackwell

An even greater contrast can be found in Spain. On the one hand,

The Arab commentator al-Himari described the residents of Galicia in northwestern Spain as formidable warriors who bathed but once a year and then in cold water.

Source: James F. Powers, ‘Frontier Municipal Baths and Social Interaction in Thirteenth-Century Spain’. In ‘The American Historical Review, Vol. 84, No. 3 (Jun., 1979)’.

On the other hand,

In medieval Christian Spain, bath houses were integrated into the fabric of urban life, much as they were in al-Andalus. From the tenth century, it became normal to find bath houses in Christian cities, not only in areas that had once been in Muslim hands but also in regions that had continuously been under Christian control.

Source: Olivia Remie Constable, ‘Cleanliness and Convivencia: Jewish Bathing Culture in Medieval Spain’. In ‘Jews, Christians and Muslims in Medieval and Early Modern Times’

The popularity of bathhouses in Spain is evidenced by the considerable profits and tax revenues accrued, so much so that

Some cities enforced the general public use of bath houses, spurred by the revenues from rents, leases, fees, and other income generated by these urban facilities. In Tortosa, for instance, the Libre de les costumes generals (1279) stated that “the baths in which one pays, and which charge a fee for washing oneself, are for all of the people in Tortosa. All of the citizens and inhabitants of the city and its surroundings, including Muslims, Jews, as well as Christians . . . must pay the fees to bathe [here] and not in other bath houses.”

Source: Constable

Far to the north of Spain, in Iceland, archaeologists have found that some (but not all) farms had their own bathhouses, and other evidence on personal hygiene in Scandinavia also shows variations:

Viking-age Scandinavians' personal hygiene was probably low, at least by our modern Western standards—and also by medieval Muslim ones. Ibn Fadlan comments on the Rus's lack of sanitary efforts....drawing attention to the fact that they do not wash after urinating, defecating, ejaculating, or eating, and when once a day they do wash, they all use the same water, into which they also spit and blow their noses. It is, however, possible that within Scandinavia and in the Norse colonies in the North Atlantic people were a little more concerned about personal cleanliness. Indeed, the eddic poem Havamal (Sayings of the High One) tells that a guest should be greeted at the table with water and a towel, and it also specifies that a man should be washed before going to the assembly. Moreover, Old Norse-Icelandic literature regularly makes reference to saunas and hot baths in Norway and Iceland. In Eyrbyggja saga (Saga of the people of Eyri), the sauna at Hraun in Iceland is described as being partly dug into the ground and with a hole in the top for pouring water on the stove from the outside.

Source: Kirsten Wolf, ‘Daily Life of the Vikings’ (2004)

In eastern Europe, the first hot baths in Budapest were founded during the reign of King Stephen of Hungary (1015–27). In European Russia, where Ibn Fadlan was sent as an ambassador in 921-922, Islam played a key role in the spread of the use of baths:

The conversion of the Volga-Bulgars to Islam contributed to a strong cultural influence connected with the religion. Mosques and baths have been documented from the eleventh century, but certainly must have existed already shortly after the conversion in the 920s.

Source: Johan Callmer, ‘Urbanisation in Northern and Eastern Europe, ca. AD 700-1100’. In Joachim Henning (ed), ‘Post-Roman Towns, Trade and Settlement in Europe and Byzantium, Vol. 1’

Evidence from France shows that, even in the early medieval period, the Merovingian elite visited baths, as did the later Carolingians. Also, despite what the church hierachy may have thought,

Sidonius Apollinaris, the late 5th-century bishop of Clermont, erected a luxurious villa complete with baths and a swimming pool.

Source: William W. Kibler et al., ‘Medieval France: an Encyclopedia’ (1995)

Charlemagne had a “predilection for steam baths” and bathed “with his courtiers and retainers, even bodyguards.” Further,

During the later Carolingian period, perhaps under Louis the Pious, a large bath was installed….”large enough to accommodate hundred”

Source: Herbert Schutz, ‘The Carolingians in Central Europe, 750 – 900’ (2004)

Moving forward a few hundred years,

Bathhouses, or “stews,” were popular enough to number at least twenty-six in Paris under Philip II Augustus (r. 1180–1223). Royal control was maintained by licensing, but it could extend further, as when Louis X (r. 1314–16) ordered new étuves [steam baths] built in Provins to keep up with the growing population.

Source: Schutz

Later,

There was a slow move towards the separation of the sexes in French baths during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with some towns adopting it up to a century later than others, but even then ‘it was never in practice universal’

Source: Virginia Smith, 'Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity' (2007)

By the early 15th century, diplomatic bath feasts were popular in France and surrounding regions. For example,

In 1446 the bathing arrangements in the Grand Palace of the duke of Burgundy, at Bruges, were overhauled and renewed for the wedding of Charles the Bold and Margaret of York. Steam rooms and barber’s shops were provided for the duke and his guests, but the star attraction was a great bathing basin...

Source: Smith

Also,

The accounts of Philip the Good show how he used them to give important guests a good time. Throughout December 1462 the duke gave several banquets in the baths at his palace for most of the local nobility, including one for the ambassadors of the wealthy duke of Bavaria and the count of Wurttemburg, where he ‘had five meat dishes prepared to regale himself at the baths’. Philippe de Bourgogne hired both the bathhouse and its prostitutes at Valenciennes, ‘in honour of the English ambassador who was paying him a visit’

Source: Smith

and

Nor were noblewomen excluded: in 1476 a reception was given in Paris to Queen Charlotte of Savoy and her court, where ‘they were received and regaled most royally and lavishly, and four beautiful and richly adorned baths had been prepared’.

Source: Smith

In 15th century Krakow, the official capital of Poland until 1596, baths

were incredibly popular, with people going at least once a fortnight and often more frequently. Twelve public baths were eventually opened across the city with many more in people’s residences.

Source: Leslie Carr, ‘Waste Management in Medieval Krakow: 1257-1500’ (footnote 284)

The fact that bathhouses, along with breweries and private homes, were one of the three main sources of tax revenue from supplying water further attests to the popularity of bathhouses.

Others who may have had the opportunity to bathe more frequently than most were the inhabitants of monasteries, especially when there was running water, but there could also be restrictions:

...access to water made it easier for monks to take baths, although the Benedictine Rule limited full-immersion bathing to four times a year. Baths were considered a worldly luxury, and the rule tried to redirect the monks from worldly to spiritual concerns. For this reason, medieval monks enjoyed the benefits of running water less than aristocrats, who by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries had apparently incorporated some of this technology into their structures and were enjoying the sanitary benefits.

Source: Hackett et al


Declines in the Use of Public Baths

There were declines in the use of bathhouses at various times and in various places in Europe, most notably around the time of the Black Death (though this was temporary and Cordoba in Spain was one notable exception), but also in Constantinople in the early medieval period:

Constantinople benefited from the quintessentially Roman urban amenity: a robust water supply that brought water from as far as 150 miles to feed underground sewers, fountains, massive cisterns, and baths. By the seventh century, however, most public baths had been shut down and turned to other uses.

Source: John Soderberg, ‘Cities: Europe’ In Crabtree (ed.)

Another clear trend emerged in the early to mid 16th century when the nature and popularity of public bathing in much of western Europe changed. In addition to Erasmus' observation in 1526 of the disappearance of bathhouses in Brabant,

In England, Henry VIII closed the stews of Southwark and Bankside in 1546; the brothels and stews of Chester were closed in 1542. In France the four steam baths at Dijon were suppressed in 1556; in 1566 they were closed throughout the Duchy of Orle´ans, while those at Beauvais, Angers, and Sens were gone by the end of the century. In Paris there were ‘only a handful by the end of the seventeenth century’.

The reasons for this are disputed; syphilis, increased costs, plagues, and increasingly lawlessness in these establishments have all been proposed. Religious figures also played their part, and the new bathhouses that were opened (e.g. by Henry VIII) were strictly regulated.

Public bathing, though, did not decline everywhere. For example, note this 17th century cleric’s eyewitness account of the Saturday bath from Basel in Switzerland (and note how it is family-oriented):

In the morning the bath-keeper gave a horn blow, that everything is ready. Then the members of the lower classes [and] polite citizens undressed in the house and walked naked across the public road to the bath-house . . . Yes, how often the father runs naked from the house with a single shirt together with his equally naked wife and naked children to the bath.

Cited in Smith


Other sources:

Jeffrey L. Forgen & Will McLean, - Daily Life in Chaucer’s England (2009)

Arrush Choudhary, ‘From the Light and into the Dark: The Transformation to the Early Middle Ages’ (Vanderbilt Undergraduate Research Journal, vol. 10, 2015)

Joseph P. Byrne, ‘Daily Life during the Black Death’

Jeffrey L.Singman, 'Daily Life in Medieval Europe'

Luke Demaitre, 'Medieval Medicine: The Art of Healing, from Head to Toe' (2013)

Luisa Cogliati Arano, 'The Medieval Health Handbook TACUINUM SANITATIS'

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    I'd suggest to make it explicit that any "usual narrative" that is short enough to fit into one line or a single paragraph is (likely? or always) an unsuitable oversimplification? Especially for such a vast spatiotemporal frame! / Charlemagne even favoured Aachen precisely because bathing there was so wholesome… / Then I'd suggest to differentiate a little bit more between advice/custom and between baths/personal hygiene. – LаngLаngС Aug 20 at 14:34
  • @LаngLаngС Knowing where to begin was hard enough, knowing where to end is harder still! Thanks for your useful comment, though.Differentiating between advice/custom is hard, but I'm still working on this answer. – Lars Bosteen Aug 21 at 3:01
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I am sure that bathing habits varied widely among social classes within a community and over the vast area of medieval Europe and during the approximately 1,000 years that the middle ages lasted according to most definitions.

Medieval biographies of saints often describe them as having total contempt for bodily comfort and abusing their bodies with neglect.

Saint Kentigern or Saint Mungo supposedly lived for about 96 years from 518 to 614 in post Roman Britain, in what is now southern Scotland, in what might be called the British Dark Ages. A life of St. Kentigern/Mungo was written about 1185, as well as earlier and later lives. Saint Kentigern/Mungo is said to have died in his bath. In fact I have read that it was a hot bath, meaning someone had to heat up a lot of water.

So the biography of St. Kentigern does say that he took at least one bath during his life, although it probably doesn't mention how usual or unusual bathing was for him.

And I have read the opinion that the detail that St. Kentigern/Mungo died taking a bath is probably correct, since it was usual for saints' lives to depict them as despising bodily comfort. And in fact other parts of his biography describe him living an austere life style.

I suspect that somewhere among the vast surviving medieval literature there are discussion of the practice of bathing, including how rare or common it might have been at the times and places that those works were written.

But most of the references to bathing would be incidental mentions here and there as in the biography of St. Kentigern/Mungo.

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    Most of our knowledge of daily life before modern times is from "incidental mentions here and there". For instance, one of the major discoveries from the Roman documents recovered from Vindolanda was definite proof that Romans in Britain wore socks! – llywrch Aug 18 at 16:11
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I said I'd expand on the links between sin and bathing as evidenced in early Christianity. I came upon this while researching my answer for this question, and I'm basing myself heavily on the same article I used for my source there. I only intend this to provide more background alongside @LarsBosteen's excellent answer.

In short, a theory on the fall of states such as Rome in early Christian theology was linked to sin, prevalent in their society, of which a prime example was bathing (especially frequent bathing).

The fathers of the Church looked with deep suspicion on the bath, particularly the Roman hot bath. In part, this suspicion is the result of the asceticism of the Eastern fathers, brought into Western tradition through such men as Cassian and Jerome ... there is no doubt that the Church had good reason to condemn the public baths. The use of the baths to promote adultery is reproved by Quintilian as well as Christian moralists; the Justinian code made lascivious mixed bathing ("commune lavacrum viris libidinis causa") grounds for divorce. Despite the Church's disapproval, the practice of mixed bathing seems to have continued through the medieval period, as the penitentials show.25

Two instances will make clear how indulgence in the hot bath was regarded by the central tradition of the Western Church. The first is the regulation on the use of the bath in the Benedictine Rule: "Balnearum usus infirmis quotiens expedit offeratur, sanis autem et maxime iuvenibus tardius concedatur." The second is a famous decision of Gregory the Great in a controversy over the morality of Sunday bathing. Gregory ruled that bathing should be permitted "pro necessitate corporis" as well on Sunday as on any other day. But he added the warning that bathing "pro luxu animi atque voluptate" is forbidden at all times, and backed up his warning by quoting Romans 13:14, "Carnis curam ne feceritis in concupiscentia."

Thus there is a good deal of evidence that infulgence in the hot bath was judged to be concomitant and even a promoter of luxuria. In its context in the poem ['The Ruin'], after a clear reference to pride and a probable one to avarice, the description of the hot bath would remind the audience of exactly this judgement. In other words, the likelihood that the poet intended the hot bath to be a symbol of the lust of the city is strong.
25: Burchard of Worms ... provides a penance of three days for mixed bathing. Earlier penitentials are stricter: the "Poenitentiale Hubertense" (mid-9th c.) ... and the "Poenitentiale Merseburgense" ..., both prescribe a penance of a year.
—Doubleday, '"The Ruin": Structure and Theme'

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