Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Keeping it Clean in the Middle Ages

By Jeri Westerson

My medieval mystery series is styled a “medieval noir;” hard-boiled detective fiction set in the middle ages. The second in the series, SERPENT IN THE THORNS (featuring my ex-knight turned detective, Crispin Guest), will be in bookstores on September 29th.

Back in the day before I was published and I was trying to peddle my own brand of medieval mysteries to agents, I came upon an astonishing bias. One agent rejected my manuscript because she couldn’t get past the notion that my protagonist would be intimate with someone with all that “lack of hygiene.” She said it made her skin crawl.


But she wasn’t the only one. Seems that if you aren’t a regular reader of things medieval, you are stuck in the rut of thinking that medievals never bathed or brushed their teeth. In which case, I might agree with that agent that rejected it. In a word, “Eww.”

So what about it? Without indoor plumbing were medieval people stinkier? Were they, in fact, the Great Unwashed?

Well, no. They rather enjoyed bathing. While it’s true that the average person did not have the servants to provide for heated water to be hauled into a tub for a full immersion bath (and these were great occasions for noshing. Think of sipping wine with nibblies as you sit in your Jacuzzi), there were certainly bath houses for this purpose, which also served as a social meeting place. Both men and women. And yes, naked! Because they were religious people, we tend to give them a Victorian sense of their bodies, but this was not true. They had a pragmatic approach. And though no woman would dream of wearing a gown at calf-length, they weren’t afraid to bare a little. Everyone was certainly aware of bodily functions. And anatomy.

In England, the City of Bath was built because of the natural hot springs. Bath was considered a very holy place by the early Celtic people. Think about it. It’s bloody cold in England and here is hot water simply bubbling out of the ground. It’s a miracle! Hallelujah! The Romans added buildings and the innovation of pipes to fill many bath spaces at once.

But even if you didn’t travel to Bath, there were streams and rivers and a good old-fashioned bucket in which to wash yourself. In the winter when fuel was scarce and heating water for the purpose of spit baths would be wasteful, it was done cold. Brr.

Teeth were brushed with fingers, hazel sprigs, or cloth rubbed across the teeth. Bad breath was certainly noticed so the chewing of parsley and other herbs might be used to sweeten the breath.

Deodorants were not invented yet, but for wealthier patrons, there were perfumes and flower water to staunch some of the smellier aspects of life.

Foul odors were associated with evil and evil-doing and preventing them or masking them was important in society, though the lowlier you were the harder this was, foisting an unfair disadvantage on the poorer classes.

In the opposite end of the spectrum is the sweet-smelling, often attributed to the saintly person, their “odor of sanctity.” Indeed, a few saints were said to give off a sweet smell to show to the world their holiness. Incense in churches sweetens. Garlic does not.

So the next time you read about medieval protagonists in a clinch, remember that they might be hot and bothered, but they also probably did their best to smell good and stay clean.

You can read more about SERPENT IN THE THORNS on Jeri’s website www.JeriWesterson.com; or read her blog about history and mystery at www.Getting-Medieval.com


Lyn said...

Wow--the Middle Ages must have been a lot like camping! That's kind of a joke, but the rougher parts of it, such as bathing in a bucket or stream, really do sound like camping. Ditto the hazel twigs as toothbrushes.

And I am sosososo excited about the next book!

Jeri Westerson said...

I suppose you could think of it that way, Lyn. Without running water and without means to pump it meant you just got used to thinking differently about hygiene.

Misa Ramirez said...

Fascinating, Jeri! Your book sounds very intriguing. I'll be looking for it on the 29th! Good luck with it!!! And thanks for the history lesson on medieval bathing. I never would have known... =)

Patg said...

Great blog and an interesting piece of information. People tend to 'assume' what they don't know much about.
And another thing to consider. If everyone is 'that way' it seems normal. How about the 'hobby' of later wealthier people of collecting the flies that lived on a loved one and keeping them in a locket.

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