Misuse of the Word “Medieval”: Cleanliness

Phineas and Ferb: “Grandpa Fletcher, we should have a medieval tournament like the knights did in days of yore! We can have jousting, a catapult, and not bathe.”

One of the most common affirmations I hear about the Middle Ages is that people did not bathe, cited by the example of Queen Elizabeth I having only two baths in her life (never mind that Queen Elizabeth I did not live during the Middle Ages). The other I hear is that rich people never ate vegetables. Thankfully, medieval man had more sense than to live in these ways, though this may be a disappointment to anyone who loves Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Renaissance fair turkey legs (never mind, again, that the Renaissance is not the Middle Ages—most people at the fairs don’t bother with the distinction).


One of the most-read treatises on health that was circulated during the Middle Ages was the Regimen sanitatis from the medical school in Salerno. Aimed at the upper classes, it places emphasis on “the necessity of combing the hair, cleaning the teeth, washing, changing one’s linen and many other things usually associated with a much later age…. But the fact that such ideas were commonly bandied about is proof enough that dirt and filth were not the accepted concomitants of life in a medieval city.” [1] Bathing with soap had been considered a medical necessity since Anglo-Saxon rule, and the Middle Ages favored cleanliness even more than citizens of the 16th and 17th centuries. [2] The wealthy could have baths in their own residences, but plenty of public bathhouses, separated by sexes and supervised by a bath keeper, were available for the poor. [3] In 1292, Paris had 26 public baths. [4]

Cleanliness was seen as very important for health, but not for the ways that we think they are today. Nobody knew about germs, of course—people thought that disease spread by bad smells. However, the links between squalid surroundings and disease were obvious from experience. [5] Courtesy books begin meals with hand-washing. [6] Doctors often washed their hands before treating patients. Full-immersion baths were often prescribed for sick people with temperatures carefully regulated to the 4 humors. A hot-blooded person should have a cool bath. A cold-blooded person should have a warm bath, but not so hot that it makes him sweat—this could make him too dry, which would aggravate his illness. Baths for the ill could be prescribed at times numbering from once a week to twice a day.

Records from hospital records show that bedridden patients had their hands and faces washed daily and sheets washed at least weekly. [7] The hospital floor was washed daily, [8] and clothing was washed twice a week. [9] Other records show that babies were often bathed twice a day. [10]

Plumbing slowly made its way into populated areas for transporting fresh water. Franciscan and Dominican friars were among the first to implement such systems from unpolluted springs. [11] In towns, strict rules were enforced about allowing waste to accumulate in the streets, particularly offal from butchers and poulterers. [12] In the Middle Ages, standards of cleanliness, though not identical to modern standards, were high.


Modern people have an idea that rich people in the Middle Ages subsisted only on meat. This is ridiculous, though meat was a staple food for all classes of laypeople. Hunting as an activity reserved for nobility only appears at the very end of the Middle Ages [13] (my apologies, Robin Hood enthusiasts). Some of the wealthy did try to subsist on meat, but their doctors treated in about the same way that I treat my college-aged friends who never eat their vegetables. We have plenty of recorded complaints about scurvy, but they are pretty evenly distributed among the classes. Meat could be preserved easily, but vegetables could not, so most scurvy complaints come from the end of winter when vegetable stores had run out.

In royal households, staple foods were bread, ale, cheese, eggs many kinds of fish, beef, pork, mutton, rabbit meat, venison, and other kinds of game. Fewer records of vegetables exist in royal households since the records that we have are mostly from traveling kings and vegetables could not be easily preserved for travel. [14] Fruit appears little in lists of kings’ food: only figs, raisins, and almonds, things uncommon in England that had to be imported. [15] For the poor, staples were bread, fish, and shellfish. [16] Fruit was plentiful: cherries, apples, plums, pears, peaches, and medlars. [17] Hospital patients were given meat 3 to 4 times a week. [18]

The earliest recorded description of a garden that we have is from the second half of the twelfth century. Alexander Neckham writes that a garden should have “on one side roses, lilies, heliotrope, violets, mandrakes: on the other, parsley cost, fennel, southern-wood, coriander, sage, savory, hyssop, mint, rue, dittany, smallage, pellitory, lettuce, garden cresses and peony. There should also be beds of onions, leeks, garlic…shallots and cucumber. Nor should the pot-herbs be forgotten, such as beet, mallow, herb-mercury and orache. There should be mustard, white pepper and wormwood…medlars, quinces, peaches, pears, lemons, oranges, pomegranates, almonds, dates and figs.” [19] Religious orders were completely vegetarian, which was reflected in records of the monastery gardens. [20] Cookbooks survive with examples of recipes for a number of vegetables, especially cabbage, beans, and squash. [21]

We tend to think of medieval cooking as consisting of chunks of roasted meat, but cooking was far more complex—we also see recipes for ravioli, rissoles, lasagnas, pancakes, potatoes, pies, pates, and sauces. [22] Upper classes usually drank wine. Lower classes usually drank ale. [23] The ale was much weaker than modern ale: it had just enough alcohol to disinfect it, and could be drunk in much greater quantities with no ill effect. [24] For a look at some authentic recipes from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance published in original and translated forms, hop over to The Boke of Goode Cookery.

Note: Some of the information above is not documented because I no longer have access to the original source or I cannot cite the original source—for example, my professors’ class lectures. I’ve included it anyway for the benefit of casual readers and documented the information that I can still access. It’s not a good practice, but this isn’t a scholarly publication or a university assignment.

  1. Talbot, C.H. Medicine in Medieval England (London: Oldbourne, 1967), 144-45.
  2. Ibid., 146-47.
  3. Ibid., 147.
  4. Ibid., 144–45.
  5. Chambers, R.W., ed. “A general Rule to teche euery man that is willynge for to lerne to serve a lorde or mayster in euery thing to his pleasure.” A Fifteenth-Century Courtesy Book and Two Fifteenth-Century Franciscan Rules. Ed. R.W. Chambers and Walter W. Seton. (1962 repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1914). 11–12.
  6. Pernoud, Régine. Women in the Days of Cathedrals. Trans. Anne Côté-Harriss. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998). 82.
  7. Ibid., 174.
  8. Ibid., 175.
  9. Ibid., 176.
  10. Pernoud, Régine. Women. 79.
  11. Talbot, C.H. Medicine., 151.
  12. Ibid., 155.
  13. Pernoud, Régine. Women. 79
  14. Talbot, C.H. Medicine., 147.
  15. Ibid., 149.
  16. Ibid., 152.
  17. Ibid., 148.
  18. Ibid., 175.
  19. Ibid., 153.
  20. Ibid., 153.
  21. Pernoud, Régine. Women. 81.
  22. Ibid., 80.
  23. Ibid., 152.
  24. Ibid., 150.


Misuse of the Word “Medieval”: Cleanliness — 2 Comments

  1. Oh fair maid of wynn, how is it you always seem to provide me with new interesting topics to research? Fantastic piece and one that I might try to expand on at some point in my undergrad work.