Weird History

What Was Hygiene Like For Medieval Peasants?  

Erin McCann
7.9k views 15 items

Although cleanliness in the Middle Ages was primitive compared to what modern people enjoy, it doesn't mean medieval hygiene didn't exist. Despite living in an era long before indoor plumbing, shampoo, and nail salons, people used the best hygiene practices they could. Unfortunately, they didn't have a lot to work with. Peasants had it especially bad and weren't often able to afford luxuries like more than one set of clothing. For the lower classes, personal hygiene in the Middle Ages meant keeping clean however you could, even if it wasn't easy.

Overall, hygiene in Medieval Europe was an upward battle. The abundance of waste and inefficient methods of dealing with it resulted in disease. Such waste added to an abundance of vermin, fleas, and lice, which in turn caused sickness and even plague. Hygiene in medieval times relied on washing often and utilizing herbs and flowers to deter pesticides and provide pleasant odors. Peasants who couldn't afford these things bathed less often and lived closely surrounded by filth. Feminine hygiene in the Middle Ages led women to use a variety of everyday objects during their periods. Although living in the Middle Ages had obvious and often uncomfortable differences from the modern world, these medieval hygiene facts show peasants tried their best to stay clean.

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Photo: Queen Mary Master/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Most Peasants Rarely Bathed - Others Never Did

While many upper-class people could bathe in tubs with hot water, and many of the middle-class folk made use of public baths, peasants had to make do with much less. Since there was no running water, and peasants had to haul water from wells or rivers to their homes by hand, bathing required a lot of labor. Many people had to bathe with a small amount of water, and it was often unheated.

Those who didn't have a suitable area in their homes bathed outdoors. Since many peasants performed manual labor all day, bathing helped remove dirt and stinky sweat - and it also helped them avoid lice and fleas. They didn't always use soap, but when they did, it often consisted of an alkaline solution, such as a mixture of salt and lime. Since bathing required so much work, some peasants decided not to wash themselves at all. These people were relatively rare, however; most peasants found time to bathe, even if it didn't happen frequently.

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Photo: York Museums Trust Staff/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0
Running Water Was Rare Among Medieval People, So Peasants Used Outhouses Or Chamberpots

People living in castles used toilets consisting of a bench with a hole placed over an opening leading to a cesspit; peasants did not have this luxury. Instead, the lower classes made use of outhouses and often had to share them with the community. Those who did not have outhouse access used chamberpots. If they could not afford such things, they used waste buckets. People then emptied their chamberpots and waste buckets into nearby cesspits or into the river. Instead of toilet paper, they used straw, grass, moss, or hay to wipe themselves.

Before modern ideas of sanitation, some people believed the smell of waste caused disease, not the waste itself. Historians believe that, in order to get rid of the smell from indoor chamberpots, some people dumped their contents out the window or into the street. Dumping chamberpots outside the house, as well as people relieving themselves in public, was frowned upon by society, and regulations were created against such practices. People occasionally disregarded the rules, however, causing streets to become filthy and the water supply to be contaminated after rainstorms.

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Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Those Who Could Afford More Than One Pair Of Clothes Did Laundry Once A Week

Although people in medieval times dressed in layers in order to avoid washing outer garments too often, peasants often owned just one set of clothing. Clothing worn next to the skin was made of linen, and heavier wool garments were worn on top of the undergarments. People understood that washing their clothing helped keep parasites away, and etiquette books advised changing one's underwear every day. For peasants, however, that often wasn't an option. Those who could afford more than one set of clothing changed into fresh garments once each week while washing their other clothing.

Many peasants slept unclothed at night when the weather permitted, meaning they needed even less clothing. Peasants who couldn't afford to send their garments to a professional laundress did their laundry themselves, washing their clothing in the river, typically with lye soap. Unfortunately, medieval rivers were often poluted with human waste, garbage, and runoff from animals' waste in the streets.

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Photo: Adriaen van Ostade/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Peasants Regularly Deloused One Another

For medieval people, especially peasants, dealing with fleas and lice was a fact of life. Parasites were such a problem that comb-makers began adding finer teeth so users could remove dirt and lice while combing their hair. People often used their fingers to do the same job and would get together to delouse one another. As strange as it sounds, delousing groups formed a social activity for peasants.

Lice didn't limit themselves to hair, however, and clothing had to be deloused, as well. Women skilled at delousing clothing and hair were in such demand that members of the Third Crusade took them along on their journey.