Medieval Monday: Grooming and Hygiene

Last week’s Medieval Monday post talked about bathing, and this week I thought I would continue with the theme of grooming and hygiene. Just as we take hot and cold running water for granted in our daily routines, we also don’t give much thought to having basics like toothpaste, shampoo, and safe-to-use razors for shaving.

Antler_combHair brushes as we know them didn’t seem to exist in the Middle Ages. Instead, combs were used. The material they were made from varied depending on the wealth of the person in question. Combs could be largely decorative and made of costly materials like ivory, or were made with more humble materials like bone or antler. For the most part they were shaped like the combs still used today, though some folded out to make an X shape.

Depending on the style of the time, women might shave by using pumice stones, sharpened shells, or by plucking with tweezers, though the Church frowned on this practice. It was not common among the peasantry, but more a fashion statement for the noble and wealthy. By contrast, the Church encouraged the shaving of men’s faces, though again, changing styles were also a factor. Shaving might involve simply clipping the hair very close. To achieve a smoother shave, medieval men would apply a sharp blade directly to the skin, either a crude razor or a knife. It was safer to use a barber for those who had the time and means, as even minor cuts could quickly become infected.

Surprisingly, even in medieval times some women dyed their hair, and men were known to dye their beards. There are a number of recipes for hair dye that have been documented.

“The hair when washed with the lie made of ashes of the Barberry tree and water, will make it turn yellow. To dye the hair yellow, honey and white wine left overnight on the hair then a mixture of calendine roots, olive-madder, oil of cumin seed, box shavings and saffron was recommended. Wash off after 24 hours.”

Black hair dye might be achieved with Gall Oak; “coals of burned galls being quenched in wine or vinegar; the leaves of bramble boiled in rye.” Another recipe involves “a mixture of iron, gall nuts and alum boiled in vinegar and left on the head for two days.”

medieval dentistDental hygiene was also a concern, since having bad teeth was not just an inconvenience, easily fixed by a trip to the dentist. There was usually only one remedy for bad teeth that had become painful and bothersome, and that was to have them pulled—without sterile instruments or any pain killers. A harrowing experience that was best avoided if at all possible. (I had no desire to investigate the details of what was done, so I’ll not be sharing them here. You’re welcome.)

Rinsing the mouth with water was a normal practice, as was wiping the teeth with a cloth to remove food and tartar, or using “tooth sticks”. Herbs and sometimes seeds freshened breath, by rubbing them directly against the teeth or by chewing on them.  Common herbs were bay, fennel, sage, mint, cloves, parsley, and cinnamon. Vinegar, wine, and salt concoctions served as mouthwashes to kill germs in the mouth.

When looking for information on this topic I found a post written by an SCA member who had not only researched different medieval toothpaste and mouthwash recipes, but had tried many of them herself and reported the results. For those of you doing book research, this page is well worth checking out. Here are a few authentic “recipes” listed on her page.  Click to find more of them, and to see how they turned out when she used them on herself. Scadians are a dedicated bunch! 🙂

Hildegarde of Bingen, Physica, 1158 (German)

“One who wishes to have hard, healthy teeth should take pure, cold water into his mouth in the morning, when he gets out of bed. He should hold it for a little while in his mouth so that the mucus around his teeth become soft, and so this water might wash his teeth. If he does this often, the mucus around his teeth will not increase, and his teeth will remain healthy. Since the mucus adheres to the teeth during sleep, when the person rises from sleep he should clean them with cold water, which cleans teeth better than warm water. Warm water makes them more fragile.” (Book 2, Section 2]

Trotula, 11th Century, On Women’s Cosmetics (book 3)

“The woman should wash her mouth after dinner with very good wine. Then she ought to dry [her teeth] very well and wipe [them] with a new white cloth. Finally, let her chew each day fennel or lovage or parsley, which is better to chew because it gives off a good smell and cleans good gums and makes the teeth very white.”

 Gilbertus Anglicus, [England], 11th century

“. . . let the mouth be washed with wine that birch or mint has simmered in. And let the gums be well rubbed with a sharp linen cloth until they bleed. And let him eat marjoram, mint, and pellitory, til they are well chewed. And let him rub well his teeth with the chewed herbs and also his gums. . .

And let him drink every evening wine that hyssop, or cinnamon, or spike, or quibibis (fruit of Piperaceae, Piper cubeba) has simmered in.. . And after every meal, let him wash well his mouth and rub well his gums and his teeth so that no corrupt matter abides among the teeth.”


Medieval Monday: Bathing

It is pretty commonly known that medieval times would have been full of unpleasant smells, including but not limited to body odor. There are some historical accounts of people bathing only once or twice a year, yet others that say it was a weekly, or at least regular, practice.

There seems to be no dispute that daily washing of the hands and face was common. Even though medieval physicians hadn’t quite linked specific diseases with poor hygiene, (and didn’t thoroughly begin to question that until after the Black Death ravaged Europe) they were starting to understand that dirt and filth should be washed away.

Still, there were certain barriers to bathing, some practical, others rooted in medieval belief systems. It was a subject fraught with uncertainty in terms of both health and morality, and was only recommended at certain times of the year. In summer, when we would think people must be at their dirtiest between the heat and field work, baths were to be avoided because of the belief that certain humours governed the body. In summer’s case, the humour choler (hot and dry).

BathingThe Secretum Secretorum advised against anything heating in summer (including baths), saying that “through all the seasons of the year one must cure contraries with contraries.” This same medical treatise devotes an entire section to bathing, and warns that “excessively long baths lead to fatness and feebleness.” Other health manuals of the day use bathing as a prescription to cure specific conditions, viewing it more as a treatment than a simple cleanliness routine. Another common belief was that water could carry disease—a belief with some validity considering water was not treated then as it is now. The line of thought was that hot water opened the pores, allowing disease to access the body through the skin, not only from the water itself, but even after the bath by “infections on the air.”

Moral objections to bathing came from the Church, which over time added more and more restrictions, including the prohibition of bathing without clothes. These restrictions were largely a reaction to the problems of public bathing, which led to “immorality, promiscuous sex, and diseases.” Public bath houses, which had been around since even before Roman times, were indeed often places where questionable behavior took place—particularly those where men and women bathed together. Some bath houses were little more than fronts for brothels.

Private bathing was a different matter. The poor rarely had the time or means for a full bath, which involved the laborious task of carrying and heating water by the bucketful to fill a wooden tub. Bathing at home for a peasant would typically be little more than washing off parts of the body with a rag and a basin of cold water. For the wealthy (including wealthy monasteries), bathing was far more common. While some royals claimed to avoid it for moral reasons, others were known to indulge frequently, even making bathing a form of entertainment for guests. Large wooden tubs would be lined with either thick cloth or sponges so there would be something soft to sit on. They would be tented for privacy, and filled with warm water by servants. Bath water might also be infused with pleasant smelling herbs.

In lieu of bathing for those who either feared its dangers, or had moral objections, the body might be rubbed with scented rags or its odors masked with strong perfumes. Men sometimes wore a bag of fragrant herbs beneath the shirt, and women applied scented powders.