Weird History

What Was Hygiene Like At The Court Of Versailles?

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.