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.
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’
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
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
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.”
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.
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...
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’
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’.
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
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'