Following the collapse of the Roman Empire and the schism between the West and East, with the invasion of barbarian peoples and the change of peoples in Europe caused by the Great Migration had left the once so well regarded and golden age of progress, stability and might in shambles. Health and hygiene were perhaps suffering the heaviest blows, as the aqueducts providing clean waters toward the cities were either destroyed or broken with the people capable of maintaining them and of repairing them no longer existing. Bath houses that provided the rest and relaxation of hot water and steamed rooms had either been contaminated beyond capability of being cleaned out or they were claimed and used only by nobility and the religious caste.
What we know so far:
Yet it isn’t as grim as movies and quasi-documentaries would have us believe. While Europe has suffered greatly in the lack of health and hygiene, it had become a primary concern after the plagues and outbreaks of virulent diseases had ravaged the population. They lacked sophistication and effect, but helped in the population’s recovering after the devastation it had previously suffered from.
1) Personal hygiene:
Vikings were reported in history to have the highest practice of personal hygiene in the early middle ages, as they cared for their visage and how they presented themselves to the world. Most notable was the near daily bathing they had done in the cold waters of fjords and rivers. They had used combs made out of ivory or ornate wood carving, and practiced braiding their hair for prestige look and ranking. In the Middle Ages, the peasantry were reliant on water provided from wells that dotted the landscape and practiced cleaning their hands before eating, washing themselves a couple of times per week, or 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 brought soap from their conquest in the Middle East, that was made out of the salt of fatty acids and had brought upon an era or hygiene that helped the lower classes and peasantry of Europe to allow themselves cleanliness and prevent diseases from spreading. Yet the usage of soap itself was practiced before in Europe, well known to use 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 noted by the usage of herbs or pastes made by crushing them 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 had the use of certain herbs, such as 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, when time had given them bad teeth, the only way they had them removed was without anesthetics and was done in …well, a 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 been 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 had provided them with the insulation and warmth needed to survive and go about their daily lives. They lacked in look and were rough around the edges, yet colorful and pleasant on the eyes, and as time went on and better ages had come, it is notable that garderobes paved the way for fashion to be common to everyone. 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. Done so with water, as soap became common later on, mixed with crushed herbs to rid them of filth, smell and prevent diseases, 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, was these were almost everlasting due to the care they were given by the servants of the nobility, and no matter how much they were cleaned and nurtured, some disease would be passed on to the successors as diseases that were virulent, laid dormant on the clothing, brought to life by the warmth given by the people wearing them.
Toilets or privies were usually septic holes for the poor, buckets if they could afford them, or entire wooden or stone rooms with a toilet like seat for the wealthy. Plumbing was either non-existent in most cases, or simply didn’t do its job properly. As garbage and waste amounted in time, they were either buried away from towns and villages, or simply thrown in the rivers and ocean. This practice had given the rise of new and deadlier diseases that were manifested in the bodies of those that drank from the water, or due to the waste disposal sites being forgotten by time and people made farms over them, had brought upon themselves a whole lot of trouble than they bargained for.
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 that was laid on the ground. With the outbreak of the plagues, wooden flooring replaced the usage of rush and straw, 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 had given 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.