The popular perception of personal hygiene in the Middle Ages is that there wasn't any. In truth, the medieval world was full of hygienic practices that, while different from modern notions of cleanliness, met people's needs at the time. Access to bathing was complicated by economic status, but even the wealthiest of medieval lords could fall victim to bothersome bugs.
Cleanliness in the medieval world was practiced both publicly and privately, carried spiritual and social implications, and - generally speaking - was much more widely understood and implemented than many modern people realize. Tied to health, class, and purity, hygiene in medieval castles, monasteries, and villages meant clean hair, fresh breath, and a smoothly shaved head - at least on occasion.
While bathing was recognized as important during the medieval period, the practice also proved challenging depending on a person's location and resources. Groups like the Vikings were particularly interested in cleanliness and bathed for religious and medicinal purposes. Monks and nuns also bathed at their respective houses, often as part of a ceremonial practice.
Bathhouses and communal bathing were common - held over from the Romans in many areas - but many residences also had bathing facilities of their own. That said, having a place to bathe was often associated with wealth, and even with a makeshift bathtub on site, a full-body washing wasn't a daily practice.
Commoners were more likely to bathe in springs, streams, and other water sources near their homes. This meant they were vulnerable to weather and rarely, if ever, bathed in anything other than cold water.
While full-body baths were somewhat infrequent, medieval folk did recognize the importance of clean hands and a clean face. Hands were washed before eating as part of Christian and Jewish ritual practices. People also washed their hands after meals, given how much food was consumed without utensils.
Those dining at elaborate medieval residences were required to clean their hands upon entry. An aquamanile - a hand-washing basin whose name derives from the Latin words for water and hand - could be both decorative and practical, and often featured elaborate animal imagery. Soap may have been used, but the entire hand-washing process often consisted merely of a quick rinse and dry.
The regularity with which women bathed during the medieval period varied, but hair-washing took place regularly. Often a task reserved for Saturdays, women washed their hair to "rinse away all the dust and grime that may have accumulated through the course of the past week's labors."
Peasants and commoners may have washed their hair less often, but regardless of regularity, the process was very involved and may have required assistance. Women would remove their clothes from the waist up and have water poured over their heads using a pitcher of water and a basin. If available, a pseudo-shampoo made from oils, herbs, and minerals was applied and rinsed out.
Soap was made from a variety of substances during the medieval period. A mixture of lime and salt was often used to form an alkaline substance, and other recipes included potash from wood ashes mixed with lard or oil - Northern Europe often used lard, while those in the Mediterranean opted for oil. Soap could be molded into cakes, balls, or bars, and - depending on the user's wealth - could include scents such as lavender.
Soaps with high lye content were quite harsh and could remove skin as easily as they could grease. These soaps were much cheaper than oil-based soaps, however, given the necessity of fats and oils in cooking. Those who could neither afford soap nor make their own often used soapwort, a flower with natural cleansing properties.