Continuing with my last post’s theme on bathing through history, this one deals specifically with bathing in the Middle Ages.

While the Crusades are generally blamed for a number of things, they triggered significant advances in the West. Indeed, some scholars think the intercultural exchanges between East and West were partly responsible for the Rennaissance – the other part being due to the influx of Greek scholars following the fall of Constantinople.

Among the other advances were the establishment of hospitals and significant advancements in naval architecture and nautical sciences including the development of the compass.

Bathing in the Middle Ages | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

Medieval hospital. Image: The

Bathing in the Middle Ages

One of the more interesting indirect consequences of the Crusades, however, is the rebirth of the bathing culture.

First, a clarification: contrary to popular belief, people in the Middle Ages bathed regularly. They did not go around dirty and stinking. 

As The explains, baths and bathing were actually quite common in the Middle Ages, but in a different way than one might expect.

As with most of our beliefs, this myth is down to the 19th century. One nineteenth-century historian writing about daily life in the Middle Ages commented that there were no baths for a thousand years. He supported this thesis with stories of how people didn’t bathe in the Middle Ages – for example, St Fintan of Clonenagh was said to take a bath only once a year, just before Easter, for twenty-four years. Meanwhile, the Anglo-Saxons believed that the Vikings were overly concerned with cleanliness since they took a bath once a week.

Medieval personal hygiene

However, personal hygiene did exist in the Middle Ages. People were well aware that cleaning their faces and hands was a good idea and health manuals from the period note that it was important to get rid of dirt and grime. They also explained that it was important to keep the entire body clean. For example, the fourteenth-century writer Magninius Mediolanesis stated in his work Regimen Sanitatis that “The bath cleans the external body parts of dirt left behind from exercise on the outside of the body.”

He also adds a second reason for bathing: “if any of the waste products of third digestion are left under the skin that were not resolved by exercise and massage, these will be resolved by the bath.” There was a strong connection between bathing and eating, which could affect one’s overall health (these ideas have not quite left us – many people might remember their mother telling them not to go swimming for an hour after a meal). Baths could relieve digestion and stop diarrhea. However, taken improperly cold, they could lead to weakness of the heart, nausea, or fainting.

When to bathe

Medieval writers saw bathing as a serious and careful activity. One medical treatise, the Secreta Secretorum, has an entire section on baths. It notes that the spring and winter are good times for bathing, but it should be avoided as much as possible in the summer. It also warns that excessively long baths lead to fatness and feebleness.

Meanwhile, Magninius Mediolanesis offers over 57 bathing prescriptions to use in specific conditions, like old age, pregnancy, and traveling. His rules for bathing run 1500 words long!

Some famous bathing sites had their own rules. In 1336, Pietro de Tussignano formulated twelve rules for those coming to the Italian town at Burmi, which lies near Switzerland, to get the healing effects of its bath. They include that the person should beforehand not to have too much sexual intercourse nor have abstained from it, and that he should also enter the bath with an empty stomach (if they had to have food it could only be two spoons of raisins with a little wine). You could only pour the water over your head if you were clean-shaven, otherwise your hairs might impede the effects of the water. The person should take the baths for fifteen days, spending up to an hour a day getting washed. If all goes well, the bather will benefit for over six months with improved health.

If people could afford a to have a private bath – and not many could – they would use a wooden tub that could also have a tent-like cloth on top of it. Attendants would bring jugs and pots of hot water to fill the tub.

Fit for a Lord

Bathing in the Middle Ages | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

Image: The

Bathing in the Middle Ages | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

Image: The

In John Russell’s Book of Nurture, written in the second half of the fifteenth-century, he advises servants that if their lord wants a bath they should:

“hang sheets, round the roof, every one full of flowers and sweet green herbs, and have five or six sponges to sit or lean upon, and see that you have one big sponge to sit upon, and a sheet over so that he may bathe there for a while, and have a sponge also for under his feet, if there be any to spare, and always be careful that the door is shut. Have a basin full of hot fresh herbs and wash his body with a soft sponge, rinse him with fair warm rose-water, and throw it over him.”

He adds that if the lord has pains or aches, it is good to boil various herbs like camomile, breweswort, mallow, and brown fennel and add them to the bath.

Records from medieval England show that its kings often enjoyed these baths. When King John traveled around his kingdom, he took a bathtub with him and had a personal attendant named William who handled it. Meanwhile, in 1351 Edward III paid for taps of hot and cold water supply to his bathtub at Westminster Palace.

Royalty throughout Europe often entertained guests with baths, often trying to impress each other with how luxurious they could make it. This tradition even goes back to the Carolingians – Einhard says that Charlemagne loved taking baths, and that

“he would invite not only his sons to bathe with him, but his nobles and friends as well, and occasionally even a crowd of attendants and bodyguards, so that sometimes a hundred men or more would be in the water together.”

Holy bathman!

Wealthy monasteries often could pipe in water and have baths as well. Some monastic rules suggest that monks did not take regular baths. The monks of Westminster Abbey, for example, were required to have a bath four times a year: at Christmas, Easter, the end of June, and the end of September. It is hard to know if these rules were being followed, or if they specified a minimum of bathing. The latter seems more likely given that Westminster Abbey employed a bath-attendent who was paid daily two loaves of bread, as well as a stipend of £1 per year, which seems to indicate his services were regularly used.

Public baths

Bathing in the Middle Ages | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

Public bath (left). Image: The

For most people, having a private bath was not an option – it was simply too costly and too time-consuming to have their own baths. That does not mean they went without bathing, for public baths were very common throughout Europe. By the thirteenth-century one could find over 32 bathhouses in Paris; Alexander Neckham, who lived in that city a century earlier, says that he would be awakened in the mornings by people crying in the streets that “the baths are too hot!”

In Southwark, the town on the opposite side of the Thames River from London, a person could choose from 18 hot baths. Even smaller towns would have bathhouses, often connected with the local bakery – the baths could make use of the heat coming from their ovens to help heat their water.

In her book Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity Virginia Smith explains:

”By the fifteenth-century, bath feasting in many town bathhouses seems to have been as common as going out to a restaurant was to become four centuries later. German bath etchings from the fifteenth century often feature the town bathhouse, with a long row of bathing couples eating a meal naked in bathtubs, often several to a tub, with other couples seen smiling in beds in the mid-distance.”

Public bathhouses were very popular throughout medieval Europe but they also raised controversy as some objected to the fact that men and women could see and be with each other naked, and that this could lead to illicit sex. A thirteenth-century church writer made this prohibition: “Hast thou washed thyself in the bath with thy wife and other women and seen them nude, and they thee? If thou hast, thou shouldst fast for three days on bread and water.”

However, it seems that church officials had little influence on bathhouses in the Middle Ages. Medieval people, in fact, seem to have accepted that the bathhouse was not only a place to get clean and healthy, but it could also be a place where sex and prostitution could occur. The bathhouses in Southwark were called the Stews, and were largely seen to be just fronts for brothels. These practices were usually overlooked by local authorities, who believed that it was best to allow some level of sexual outlets for its young men, otherwise risk more serious problems.

The prominence of the public bathhouse went into rapid decline in the sixteenth-century, following similar trends with clothing and architecture, as I describe in my post on public nudity in the Middle Ages. Several suggestions have been made to as why – were more puritanical religious people able to impose their moral values on the community, or were the diseases that struck Europe since the Black Death convincing people from to avoid them. The disease of syphilis, which broke out in Europe in the late fifteenth-century, would have also motivated people to stop their sexual promiscuity, thus reducing the other reasons for having a bathhouse.

This theory seems the most likely explanation given the words of Dutch philosopher Erasmus, writing in 1526, who notes the fall of the public bathhouse. “Twenty-five years ago, nothing was more fashionable in Brabant than the public baths,” he remarked. “Today there are none, the new plague has taught us to avoid them.”

Back to the Crusades

Bathing in the Middle Ages | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

Mixed-sex bathing was common. Image: The

Helena P. Schrader makes the connection with the Crusades all the clearer in her post, Hygiene in the Crusader States: Of Baths, Aqueducts and Sewers.

The “Outremer,” or Crusader States, were established in the course and subsequent to the First and Third Crusades. They took place in locations that had been under Greek influence since Alexander the Great at the latest. They had also been part of the Ancient and Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empires before coming under Arab and Turkish influence during the 8th and 9th centuries AD. This means that for the native population the predominant traditions with respect to personal hygiene came not from the Germanic tribes, Vikings or Celts, but from Greece, Rome, Egypt, and Arabia.

Whereas bathing in Western Europe is usually depicted in small, wooden tubs with curtains over them, the baths of any Roman town were generally gracious, spacious, and elegant, often open to the skies in a series of atriums surrounded by colonnades. They were public spaces in which men conducted business and politics.

The baths of Turkey and Arabia, while darker and more inward-looking, nevertheless were gracious with domed roofs and elegantly furnished with marble floors, benches, and fountains. They were less important for business and politics but all the more important culturally because of the emphasis Islam places on personal cleanliness. Both the Greco-Roman and Arab/Turkish traditions shared the principle of having both hot rooms for steaming/sweating (like a sauna) and cold rooms for washing off. Both also integrated massages with fragrantly scented oils into the bathing experience.

When the crusaders arrived in Outremer, they found a large number of functioning bathhouses, particularly of the later (Turkish/Arab) type. Far from scorning, abandoning, dismantling or altering their function, the Frankish settlers adopted them readily — rather like ducks to water, one might say. Indeed, they started building their own, and archaeologists have identified a number of Frankish baths. These include baths in the Hospitaller and Templar headquarters in Jerusalem, at or near the monastery on Mt. Zion, at Atlit, a bathhouse on the Street of Jehoshephat near the convent of St. Anne, and another in the Patriarch’s quarter.

The Frankish settlers in Outremer adopted some of the bathing customs as well. Thus, while men and women bathed jointly in Western Europe, they probably bathed separately (either in separate spaces or at different times) in Outremer. The crusaders certainly adopted the custom of massages with scented oils stored in lovely glass vessels produced locally.

Aquaducts and sewers

It wasn’t only the bathhouses that the Frankish settlers of Outremer inherited from their predecessors. They also inherited Roman aqueducts and sewage systems. The Greeks and Romans (both Ancient and Byzantine) were famous for building very sophisticated and extensive networks for bringing fresh water to the public fountains of their cities, often from many miles away. The Franks followed this example and built a number of their own. Thus while cities dating from the Roman period or earlier had Roman aqueducts that the crusaders merely needed to maintain, the construction of new castles, new towns, or water-intensive industries such as sugar plantations, brought forth new aqueducts that clearly date from the crusader period.

Likewise, the ancient cities were served by extensive (and again very solid and sophisticated) sewage systems. These consisted both of stone-faced drains and stone or pottery pipes. The Byzantines, for example, used pottery pipes to bring sewage down the outside of their residences from upper stories to underground sewage systems.

Frankish castles had extensive latrines with sewers that emptied well below the level at which people lived. While rooftop cisterns and tanks provided the means to flush out these latrines with water (as we know castles in England did a hundred and fifty years later), the archaeological evidence is insufficient to verify the practice in the Holy Land. Archaeological evidence of highly sophisticated drainage systems to divert underground streams, however, have been uncovered, and the level of engineering skills available to the Frankish settlers of Outremer should not, therefore, be under-estimated.

To conclude, there may be a direct link between the hygienic conditions in Outremer and the hot-and-cold running water of Edward III and the Black Prince. The bulk of the crusaders, including Richard the Lionheart and Edward I of England, returned home, and by the time they went home they had probably become fond of the higher standards of hygiene enjoyed by the Frankish settlers — the very standards that had induced the crusaders to ridicule the native poulains initially. The large number of crusaders returning particularly to France, Germany, and England may, in fact, explain the flourishing of “bathhouse culture” in the 12th – 14th centuries in the West.

Medieval texting | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book


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