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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Health and Hygiene in the Medieval Ages Will Surprise You

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Following the collapse of the Roman Empire and the schism between the West and East,  the invasion of barbarian peoples, and the change of peoples in Europe caused by the Great Migration, the once regarded golden age of progress, stability and might was in shambles. Health and hygiene perhaps suffered the heaviest blows, as the aqueducts providing clean waters toward the cities were either destroyed or irreparably broken as those who knew how to maintain them were dead. Bath houses that provided the rest and relaxation of hot water and steamed rooms had either been contaminated beyond the possibility of being cleaned out or they were claimed and used by nobility and the religious caste.

What we know so far:

Medieval hygiene isn’t as grim as movies and quasi-documentaries would have us believe. While Europe suffered greatly from lack of health and hygiene, it became a primary concern of many groups following the outbreaks of the plague and other virulent diseases that ravaged the populations. They lacked sophistication, but this shift in focus certainly helped the population’s recovery after the devastation it had previously suffered from.

1) Personal hygiene:

Vikings were reported to have the best practices of personal hygiene in the early middle ages, as they cared greatly for their visage and how they presented themselves to the world. Most notable was the near daily bathing they did in the cold waters of fjords and rivers. They used combs made out of ivory or ornate wood carving, and practiced braiding their hair for prestige and ranking.

In the Middle Ages, the peasants were reliant on water provided from wells that dotted the landscape. They practiced cleaning their hands before eating and washing themselves a couple of times per week, or more often if the need arose to rid themselves of smell. The daily practice of bathing and personal hygiene had spared the Kingdom of Poland from the outbreak of plagues that had been seen in Europe. The Knights Templar had also brought soap from their conquest in the Middle East that was made out of the salt of fatty acids and  brought upon an era or hygiene that helped the lower classes and peasantry prevent diseases from spreading. Yet the usage of soap itself was practiced before in Europe, well known in the usage of cleaning the animals they hunted and sacrificed. Only the bones and inedible parts of the animals were offered to the gods, anything else was used by the people in Ancient Greece, Rome and later on were made by guilds of craftsmen and women in Medieval Ages, yet unlike previous wide usage as in antiquity, it was produced for the nobility and religious caste in Medieval Ages.

2) Dental hygiene:

Dental hygiene in the middle ages was practiced by using pastes made by crushing herbs and mixing with water in a mortar and pestle. The application of cleaning with a piece of cloth was the most used way of cleaning the teeth, and to rid themselves of the pungent odor in the oral cavity. The lower classes used such herbs like chamomile and lavender, whilst the nobility were noted for being taken care of by dentists for their troubles. Yet even with the practice of cleaning their teeth and ridding themselves of the smell in their mouths, their teeth eventually rotted and the only way to have them removed was without anesthetics and was done in rather grotesque fashion- either by biting down a piece of wood specifically made for teeth removal, or worse, in the case of the majority of people, by punching or having them dug out with fingers

3) Garderobes and toilets:

A general term used to describe a room in a castle or in a house, garderobes were used to store valuables and be used as a privy. The common folk were dressed in clothes made from fabrics such as cotton, wool, fur and leather. Worn according to the climate and weather, it provided them with the insulation and warmth needed to survive and go about their daily lives. They were rough around the edges, yet colorful and pleasant on the eyes, and as time went on they improved. Garderobes soon paved the way for fashion to be common to everyone. Prior to this, the same clothes had been used regularly by the lower classes, worn out and tattered, yet mended and replaced when they could afford it. They were washed in the nearby rivers or in wooded buckets made for washing clothes with water, mixed with crushed herbs to rid them of filth, smell and, prevent diseases. Despite this routine, it was still not enough to keep them being able to be used long term. The nobility used clothes made from silk and furs of exotic nature. Fabulous and colorful, they were a sight to be seen. Ironically, despite the great care the clothing was given by the servants of the nobility, diseases would often still reside on the clothes and could be passed onto the successors of the garment as the dormant virus was brought to life by the warmth given by the people wearing them.

Toilets or privies were usually septic holes for the poor, buckets if one could afford them, or entire wooden or stone rooms with a toilet like seat for the wealthy. Plumbing was either non-existent (which was the case most of the time), or simply didn’t do its job properly. As garbage and waste amounted in time, it was either buried away from towns and villages or simply thrown in the rivers and ocean. This practice gave rise to new and deadlier diseases that were spread in the bodies of those that drank from the water or as a result due of farms being established unknowingly over waste sites.

4) House/castle flooring:

Houses used by the lower classes had at first no flooring. Substitutes for dirt were either rush or straw, mixed with herbs to mask the odor by the waste created when it was laid on the ground. With the outbreak of the plagues, wooden flooring replaced the usage of these materials, and provided for people an easier way to keep a tidy living space. Those that could allow it decorated their floors with animal hides and fur, carpets made with a cloth or wool, and made their houses in such a way that it provided the warmth feeling of home. The nobility had prevented the appearance and spreading of diseases, as their floors were usually made from clay, stone or marble that gave them the prideful and classic look of antiquity. Strewn across their flooring were animal hides made from the exotic animals hunted from afar. In addition, bough carpets were also made of silk from the Silk Road, and as time went on, the classic look associated with a long red and purple carpets became synonymous with the monarchies that ruled over Europe.

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