Well-heeled aristocrats, gilded halls, manicured gardens - the Court of Versailles is remembered for its opulence. But the reality of French court hygiene revealed that life at Versailles was likely dirtier and smellier than most people imagine. After all, thousands of people lived cheek by jowl in a 17th-century palace without the convenience of modern plumbing.
King Louis XIV of France permanently moved his royal court to Versailles in 1682. Though Versailles had originally been a hunting lodge, Louis expanded and remodeled it so that it became a glittering palace worthy of his status as the "Sun King." French aristocrats were expected to live there as well. Etiquette and manners were highly regulated at the palace, a fact that underscored the theatricality of courtiers' lives.
But though Versailles was gorgeous to look at, living there was another story. Aristocrats at Versailles kept as clean as they could, based on the practices, knowledge, and assumptions of the era. But like hygiene during the French Revolution, cleanliness at Versailles was not just a way to keep clean; it was also a way of being. Hygiene at Versailles was consistent with other aspects of life at the palace: It was built on artifice. Some of the most intimate acts a person could perform - like cleaning their bodies or producing waste in Versailles toilets - were also social and political acts that demonstrated there was little distinction between public and private life at the elite court of the Sun King.
People Believed Hot Water Invited Illness
Folks in the 17th century didn't see hot-water baths as a pleasurable indulgence or hygienic necessity. In fact, many of them believed that bathing in hot water was bad for one's health.
According to historian Jules Harper, "The common belief was that warm water weakened the body and widened the pores, thus allowing diseases to enter. People everywhere, not just in France, found it much safer and better for the health to have a quick wash than soaking in a tub."
The Sun King was no exception. Historians believe he only had two baths over the course of his entire life. That's not to say he never cared about hygiene - he wiped himself down with a towel, scrubbed his body with perfume and alcohol, and washed his hands every morning.
Private Bathrooms Weren't Exactly Bathrooms - They Were Chamber Pot Cabinets
Nonetheless, all inhabitants would have had chamber pots or commodes in their private rooms. The higher-ranking you were at court, the more likely you would have been to have a small closet in your chambers in which to do your business.
The first flush toilet didn't arrive at Versailles until Louis XV, the Sun King's successor, installed one for his personal use in 1738.
Public Bathrooms Were Overflowing Nightmares
Though inhabitants had commodes and chamber pots in their private chambers, Versailles had public-use latrines. But considering the sheer number of people on the estate, this was a woefully inadequate supply.
The combination of minimal toilets and high demand meant the latrines were under a tremendous strain. They often overflowed, and sewage seeped through the walls and floors into neighboring rooms.
People Used Heavy Perfumes Which Would Often Make The Smell Worse
By all accounts, Versailles was epically stinky. As one witness described:
The unpleasant odors in the park, gardens, even the chateau, make one's gorge rise. The communicating passages, courtyards, buildings in the wings, corridors, are full of urine and feces; a pork butcher actually sticks and roasts his pigs at the bottom of the ministers' wing every morning; the avenue Saint-Cloud is covered with stagnant water and dead cats.
So what did courtiers do to counteract the stomach-churning smells that filled the air? They doused themselves with perfume. As historian Alain Cobin put it, "To use excessive amounts of perfume was to protect oneself and to purify the surrounding air."
But the prevalence of perfumes only made things worse, since it added yet another fragrance to the already unbearable stench.