Everyday Life

Cleanliness is Next to Godliness: Hygiene in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages. No hot running water, no showers, no bubble bath, no shampoo, no toothbrushes and no I am not describing the Glastonbury Festival weekender.

As an adult during the Middle Ages none of these things were readily available. However, there is a common misconception that people living in the Middle Ages were smelly and even content being so. But if people living at the time were more concerned with their personal hygiene than we give them credit for, how did they do it? How did they keep clean?

Hand and Face Washing

Hand washing was a daily occurrence. In fact, the physicians of the day recognised the importance of hand, face and even bottom washing. Medieval folk were encouraged to remove surface dirt from the hands in the morning, before and after eating or after travelling. Keeping one’s nether regions clean was also considered an important daily practice.

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Your social status likely had some bearing on how you would wash yourself and on your daily grooming regime. But social status did not mean that poorer people weren’t as concerned with their general cleanliness as their wealthy counterparts. In fact, they may have been more attentive to their basic hygiene needs given they were often working with animals or out in the fields.

A medieval sweat bath. No soap needed.

In one translated French guide to 14th century housekeeping a recipe for hand washing is given: “To make Water for washing hands at table: Boil sage, then strain the water and cool until it is a little more than lukewarm. Or use chamomile, marjoram or rosemary boiled with orange peel. Bay leaves are also good.”


Unlike basic hand washing, your social status did have some bearing on how you bathed. The soothing quality of hot water was broadly acknowledged for aching limbs. In the early Middle Ages monasteries and churches built and maintained baths for the infirm or poor of society and occasionally for pilgrims (which would help turn a profit).

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Noble households with their staff of attendants were able to have their own bath tub. There was no dedicated room for bathing. Rather the bath tub was brought into which ever room it was needed. Then a curtain was used to give you some privacy.

Water would be heated and carried to the tub so filling it would take time. The water itself was scented with fragrant herbs and oils.
Your personal servant may even have assisted you with washing yourself.

Bathing feet
The bathing of feet was as important as washing your face.

If you weren’t lucky enough to own your own bathtub, public baths existed to those who could pay. However, they had a poor reputation and often doubled up as the local brothel.

The Church had a complicated relationship with public bathing and nakedness in general. Church views throughout the Middle Ages often condemned bathing as a sinful vanity with many monks shunning the practice entirely.

If you were poor, you may have made use of a basic jug and basin or simply taken advantage of a nearby river or stream.


Once we hit those awkward puberty years among the many changes that our bodies go through is the development of our sweat glands. Sweat interacting with the skin’s natural bacteria can produce an unpleasant odour. Humans have been battling against this personal scent since the Mesopotamians!

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The Ancient Egyptians honed already ancient practices of deodorising through perfumes and heavily scented oils. An unsurprising development for this part of the world considering their climate.

This practice continued into the Middle Ages with scented bathwater, floral perfumes and even herbal concoctions developed to stop perspiration altogether.
Another practice which would keep body odour at bay was the frequent laundering of your undergarments.

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In medieval times you would have worn a linen layer of under clothing: braies and a shirt for men and a chemise for women. Intended to soak up any excess sweat, these would have been washed regularly. Your outer layer of clothing by contrast would rarely be washed, if at all.

Ear Wax and Scoops

An abundance of ear wax presents another aesthetic problem – no one wants to see globules of icky yellow wax in the ear.

We know that ear wax that does not smell is a sign of a healthy ear and that it traps any dust or debris from entering. However, tiny metal scoop-like tools have been uncovered on archaeological digs dating from early Viking sites and seem to have been in use throughout the Middle Ages.

Ear scoop
Medieval hygiene sets including an ear wax scoop.

This little metal tool has a small spoon on one end and a wider, flatter end tapering to a point at the other.  Archaeologists believe that this was a multipurpose cosmetic tool with the scoop end for removing ear wax and the pointy end for removing dirt from under the nails.

Soap and Perfume

Soap has a longer history than you might imagine. Its origins are believed to be rooted in ancient Mesopotamia where a form of soap was produced from the waste fats of slaughtered animals. This was mixed with water and a caustic substance made with wood ash called lye. The resulting ‘soap’ was a concoction which we would not recognise now but which was able to lift away dirt.

Some things don’t change! This poor boy having his hair cleared of lice!

This early soap and those that followed it were not intended for cleaning the body. The Romans and Greeks who are credited with the invention of the baths didn’t even use soap. Instead they soaked themselves and used a strigil (a metal scraping tool) to remove any stubborn grime before applying fragranced oils.

Soap, as we know it today, did not become readily available until the 9th century. Aleppo soap developed in Syria and brought into Europe through trade and those traveling on crusades was the first known bar used for hygiene purposes. It had an olive oil base as opposed to animal fat.

As this soap spread throughout Europe, European versions appeared, with the most famous being developed in Castille. This was a white bar with a fragrant scent that was very popular among the royals of the day.

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Castille soap is still available to buy today should you wish to have an historic cleansing experience!


Fascinatingly the history of perfume has origins which lie with a female chemist named Tapputi. Her name appears in a cuneiform tablet which has been dated to 1200BC again in, you guessed it, Mesopotamia!

Tapputi reportedly used flowers, oils and a host of other natural ingredients to distil and filter scents.
Distillation techniques were also being employed a century later among the early Indian civilisations where extracted perfumes were intended for use by royals.

Astonishingly, a significant perfumery was unearthed in Cyprus and is the oldest industrial perfume making facility ever discovered dating from the Bronze Age!

Arabian Aroma

The practice of using strong oil-based perfumes was extremely popular (and still is) throughout the Islamic world. With the rise and spread of Islam (which encouraged daily bathing, tooth brushing and the wearing of perfume), Muslim scientists such as Avicenna made significant advancements in the distillation process allowing for the development of more delicate fragrances such as rose water.

Lily perfume
An Egyptian scene showing the preparation of perfume from flowers.

Arab scholars wrote books on perfumes recording hundreds of recipes for popular scents. Many of the plants are still used as base scents in modern day perfume making.

Most are native to the Middle East and trade with India and China increased the variety of scents and available. The Middle Eastern climate also allowed for these new plants to be cultivated there giving easy access to popular scents such as rose, musk and ambergris.

But how did these exotic delights make their way into medieval Europe? The answer: crusaders. Crusaders returning to Europe brought with them floral perfumes which captured the senses of the European nobility who were ever desirous to mask unpleasant body smells.

By the 14th century the Hungarians had developed their own perfume and the rest of Europe followed suit with France taking the lead and becoming the European centre for medieval perfume production.

Hair Washing and Hair Care

Hair washing did occur during the medieval period but as air drying was the only real means of drying your hair physicians cautioned against it due to the risk of catching a cold.  

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However, if it remains unwashed, your scalp will eventually become ‘greasy’. This grease is a naturally occurring sebum excreted through the pores in the scalp and these are the natural oils which keep your hair nourished.

Produce too much sebum, and your hair becomes a greasy, itchy mess and begins to smell rather unpleasant.

One thing you could do to combat this was to rake a comb through your hair to assist in distributing the natural oils along its lengths preventing any build up.

Hair brushing was also important as long hair was favoured among women. Girls would have worn their hair loose before marriage. Once married, hair would have been braided and covered under various styles of head coverings.

A comb was a very important to both men and women in medieval times. This one is in St. Albans Cathedral.

Archaeological digs have uncovered many medieval combs. Some are very simple and others have two sides. One with a wide tooth end and with a narrow tooth end which looks like a modern-day nit-comb (for removing headlice and their eggs).

Avoiding Lice

Headlice were a common feature of life for all levels of society. To the extent that there was etiquette around ridding yourself of the itchy problem. No scratching or picking of lice at the dinner table!

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Some members of the clergy embraced their lice infestations; their itchy suffering was a demonstration of their devotion to God. A good example of this belief was practice by the head of the Catholic Church himself, Thomas Beckett.

Murdered in front of the alter in Canterbury Cathedral, as his body grew cold his clothing appeared to move and pulsate.

Swarms of lice were leaving his body in search of a new host. Apparently “…the vermin boiled over like water in a simmering cauldron.” In life, Beckett chose to wear a hairshirt designed to irritate the skin and likely infested himself with lice to do penance for his earlier sins.

Who’d have thought Beckett’s body was riddled with lice which left his body after his death.


For the most part however, the common man wanted nothing to do with these nasty little ‘worms with legs’ . They invaded your hair, body and pubis. Herbal remedies and cures abounded and some of these even involved highly toxic substances such as mercury!

Not realising that lice laid eggs people instead believed that they self-generated from dirt. As time went on medieval society began to view lice infestations as a definitive sign of poor hygiene. Efforts at washing and maintaining general cleanliness was redoubled along with the frequent application of natural repellents such as lavender.

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Other types of lice also survived in the seams and folds of clothing. Hanging your outer clothing near a smoking fireplace was deemed to work. Or if you were wealthy, hanging them in the offensively smelling toilet was believed to deter lice and other pests.

Brush Your Teeth

Tooth cleaning must surely have been a particular issue. Not least because of unpleasant smelling morning breath but also the threat of tooth and gum decay. This caused halitosis and eventual loss of teeth!

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Surprisingly, analysis of medieval skulls give evidence of plenty of healthy teeth. So why did people who didn’t have the luxury of fluoride based, mint scented toothpastes, dental floss and all singing all dancing toothbrushes not have mouths full of decay?

The answer – a lack of refined sugar. Honey was the most common sweetener throughout the period. Sugar itself only rising in popularity around the Tudor era which is where the real dental issues began.

So how did medieval people keep their teeth clean?

Tooth brush
A reproduction of a medieval toothbrush. Better than nothing I guess?

A form of toothbrush called a miswak did exist in the medieval Middle East. This was a special type of stick, used to clean the teeth via chewing and scraping. In Europe, a rough linen cloth was used to rub any deposits off the surface of the teeth. Hazel twigs were sometimes employed in the same way as miswak.

Pastes and powders were developed to assist with whitening the teeth and freshening breath. Cloves and clove oil was also employed as a traditional method of treating toothache.

Vinegar and clove oil based mouthwashes also existed. Evidence of toothpicks have also been uncovered along with guides on the etiquette of not picking your teeth at the table!

So, where did the misconception that medieval people were smelly and dirty come from?

I think on this occasion, we can blame the beliefs of the medieval Church who preached against sinful pride and needless vanity.  It can’t have helped that so many of these products and practices originated first among pagan civilisations and were then imported from the largely Islamic Middle East or North Africa by returning crusaders. 

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The view of the Middle Ages may well have been skewed also by early archaeologists, with most drawing their conclusions from church documents which were the most readily available source at the time.

However, before long even the Church did a U-turn with a new belief system which extolled the virtue: ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’.