5 Surprising Facts About Medieval Hygiene

Unveiling the Untold Tales of Medieval Cleanliness

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Welcome to the medieval era, where knights roamed and castles loomed large. But behind the tales of chivalry lies a lesser-known story – the fascinating world of medieval hygiene. Join us as we delve into 5 surprising facts about hygiene practices in the Middle Ages, uncovering the ingenious methods our ancestors used to stay clean in a world without modern conveniences.

inside medieval shack

1. Toothpaste Made From Eggshells & Charcoal

Imagine a world without fancy toothpaste tubes or electric toothbrushes – just simple ingredients found in every household. One common ingredient was crushed eggshells. Yes, eggshells! They were rough enough to scrub away food bits and plaque from teeth. Back then, people mixed crushed eggshells with water to make a gritty paste for brushing.

Charcoal was another surprising ingredient. Not the kind you use for grilling, but powdered charcoal from burnt wood. It might sound strange, but charcoal actually helped absorb bad smells and left mouths feeling fresh. To make the mixture taste better, people added fragrant herbs like mint or parsley. These herbs didn’t just make the toothpaste smell nice; they also helped kill germs and keep mouths healthy.

Honey was often used to stick everything together. It added a bit of sweetness to the mix and made it easier to spread on teeth. Now, you might wonder who got to use this special toothpaste. Well, it was mostly the rich people – knights, lords, and ladies. Common folks often had to make do with simpler methods like chewing on twigs or using rough cloth.

traditional mead making illustration
Credit: Ontario Honey Creations

2. Mead Was Used for Mouthwash

Imagine finishing a medieval feast and needing to freshen your breath without modern toothpaste. Enter mouthwash mead, the surprising dual-purpose elixir made from fermented honey. Not only did it satisfy thirst, but its antibacterial properties also battled bad breath.

Swishing a mouthful after meals wasn’t just hygienic; it was a cultural tradition, fostering camaraderie and conviviality. So next time you raise a glass, toast to the sweet legacy of mouthwash mead—a medieval marvel that fought plaque and strengthened bonds. Mead is one of many medieval drinks that made it to modern times.

3. Daily Baths Were Rare!

In medieval times, the concept of daily bathing as we know it today was practically unheard of. Limited access to clean water, coupled with prevailing beliefs that bathing too frequently could lead to illness, meant that most people only bathed on rare occasions, often during religious holidays or special events.

Instead, they relied on other methods to maintain personal hygiene, such as washing hands and faces regularly, changing clothes, and using fragrances to mask body odor. Public bathhouses, while available in some urban areas, were more than just places to get clean—they were communal gathering spots where people from all walks of life could come together to socialize, relax, and occasionally indulge in a thorough cleansing.

So while bathing wasn’t a daily occurrence for medieval folk, the occasional trip to the public bathhouse offered a welcome opportunity to scrub away the grime of daily life and emerge feeling refreshed and rejuvenated.

a medieval castle on a hillside
Credit: Unsplash: George Hiles

4. There Was No Indoor Plumbing

When nature called in medieval times, there were no fancy bathrooms with porcelain thrones and running water. Oh no, our ancestors had to get creative when it came to answering the call of nature!

Chamber Pots: Midnight Marvels

Imagine a world where the closest thing you have to a toilet is a humble pot tucked under your bed. That’s right—chamber pots were the nocturnal necessities of medieval life. These humble vessels, often made of ceramic or metal, provided a convenient solution for those nighttime urges without the inconvenience of venturing outdoors. And let’s face it—emptying them in the morning was nobody’s favorite chore!

Garderobes: Daylight Dignity

But what about during the day, you ask? Enter the garderobe, also known as the privy—a slightly more dignified solution for daytime ablutions. These small, closet-like structures were often built into the walls of castles, manor houses, and even humble dwellings. They featured a simple seat situated over a vertical shaft or chute, allowing waste to drop down to a lower level or directly into a cesspit below. While still lacking the creature comforts of modern bathrooms, garderobes offered a bit more privacy and ventilation compared to their chamber pot counterparts. 🤢

barber pole
Credit: Unsplash: Dan Gold

5. Medieval Barbers Were Also Surgeons…& Dentists

Medieval barbers were the ultimate multitaskers, wielding their scissors and razors with finesse while offering a variety of additional services to their clientele. Need a shave? They’ve got you covered. Suffering from a headache or imbalance in your humors? Let the barber perform a bloodletting to restore your bodily equilibrium. And if you’re unlucky enough to have a toothache, fear not—barbers were also skilled in the art of dental extractions, albeit without the benefit of anesthesia!

The Barber’s Pole: A Symbol of Tradition

But perhaps the most iconic symbol of the medieval barber’s trade is the barber’s pole. With its distinctive red and white stripes, this humble fixture pays homage to the rich history of the barber-surgeon. The red stripes symbolize blood, while the white represents the bandages used to staunch the flow—a nod to the barber’s dual role as both healer and hairdresser. So next time you see a barber’s pole spinning outside a salon, take a moment to appreciate the centuries-old tradition it represents.

Conclusion

And there you have it—our whirlwind tour through medieval life! Wasn’t it a trip? From the humble chamber pots to the bustling barber shops, we’ve uncovered some real gems from the past. But hey, before we go, let’s raise a glass (of mead, perhaps?) to the lessons learned and the laughs shared. Because let’s face it—medieval life may have been a bit rough around the edges, but there’s something undeniably charming about its quirks and traditions.

So as we bid farewell to the knights and peasants, let’s remember to take a little piece of their spirit with us into the present. After all, whether we’re using a modern toilet or getting a trim at the local barbershop, we’re all connected by the threads of history.

Here’s to the past, the present, and all the adventures yet to come. Cheers, my friends!