What Hygiene And Health Was Like In Medieval Europe

The medieval era or the Middle Ages was a period in European history that began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and ended with the Renaissance. Although it was an incredibly eventful time, it isn’t exactly remembered for its emphasis on hygiene and promoting healthy living. Plague and disease were a constant threat to those living during that time period and medical practices were nothing short of barbaric. Take a look to see what hygiene was like in the Middle Ages and how vastly different it was from what we consider to be appropriate today.

Be Thankful For Your Dentist

Dental operation
Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Because the modern toothbrush wasn’t patented until the 19th century, for the most part, people were on their own when it came to taking care of their mouth and teeth. Typically, people in the medieval era would rinse their mouths with water and use a rag to wipe their teeth as a basic form of cleaning.

It was also common for people to chew on mint and other herbs to help improve their breath. Regardless, noble or not, people’s teeth would usually rot, and they would have to be removed without the use of anesthetics. Pray you don’t have any serious dental issues, because little could be done to help.

Without Forks, Food Was Often Contaminated

Nobles banqueting
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Although spoons and knives were available at the time, forks weren’t, which resulted in much of the lower class eating with their hands. While this might not seem like the worst thing, considering that we still eat many things with our hands today, back then, their hands were far dirtier.

While we frequently wash our hands with soap and water, this was uncommon back then, with most people didn’t even wash their hands after going to the bathroom, working with animals, or worse. This resulted in a lot of people getting sick by contaminating their food.

Commoner’s Floors Were Absolutely Filthy

Medieval peasant home
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images

To clean up any dirt, mud, or other mess that might be tracked in from the outside, many commoners placed rushes on the floors of their homes. Rushes are a water plant that was dried out and laid on the floor to act as a type of removable carpet.

While this might not sound like the worst idea, the reality was that rushes weren’t changed as often as one might think. This meant that the floors were covered with animal waste, mud, and whatever else is outside, which became a breeding ground for diseases and unwanted critters who made their home in the rushes of a home.

Taking A Bath Didn’t Necessarily Mean You Got Clean

Women filling bath
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Back in the Middle Ages, taking a bath was something typically reserved for the rich, and even then, they didn’t do it as often as we do today. However, if you didn’t have the luxury of living in a castle, your chances to bath were few and far in between, and on the rare occasion that you did, it wasn’t the most pleasant experience.

When the poor would bath, it would be a communal affair, with countless people all using the same tubs and water. Considering how dirty everyone was, you might be cleaner skipping out on the public bath.

Surgery Had Little To No Sterilization

Early surgery
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Although there was some degree of medicine and surgical procedures during the Middle Ages, the concept of bacteria and microorganisms wasn’t known, and surgery often resulted in the death of the patient.

While sterilization is one of the most important aspects of any surgery today, back then, physicians wouldn’t always wash their hands or even clean their equipment before performing an operation. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that people began washing their hands after Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis discovered that clean hands and instruments lowered the risk of infection.

Urine Was Used For Unlikely Purposes

Woman doing laundry
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Human urine was used for a variety of purposes in the Middle Ages, including as an antiseptic to clean wounds. As if that wasn’t enough, even though clothes were rarely washed, when they were, it wasn’t uncommon for urine to be used as a cleaning agent.

In order to get stains out of clothes, it was common for people to use a combination of ash, lye, green grapes, and urine. Considering that their clothes weren’t washed for extended periods of time, surely using urine didn’t help in regards to their smell.

Many Peasant Men Didn’t Shave

Man resting
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While some peasants did have the opportunity to wash their hair every now and then, shaving was not at the top of the list in terms of hygiene. At the time, mirrors were made of blackened glass or polished metal, so it was difficult to shave even if you wanted to.

For the majority of the population, the only option men had was to visit a barber to get a proper shave. However, this required money and resulted in a lot of men foregoing shaving altogether.

Beds Were Not A Space Of Cleanliness

Man sitting on straw bed
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Unless the individual was a member of the nobility, their bed was likely made of straw. While this might make sense, the problem was that the straw was rarely changed. On top of that, it was slept on by someone who had been working outside all day and rarely bathed.

This made beds particularly enticing to fleas and lice, which would make the straw bed their home. However, some preventative measures were taken, such as mixing herbs and flowers into the straw.

Don’t Swim In The Moat!

Castle with moat
Michel GILE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Michel GILE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

While the primary purpose of a moat surrounding a castle was to protect the castle against attackers, it also helped with waste disposal. Many medieval castles also used a plumbing system that would flush all of the waste right into the surrounding moat — known as Garderobes.

The plumbing system extended outside of the walls of the castle that could be opened to empty into the moat. So, if someone did attempt to cross the moat, they would be met with far worse than just a body of water.

Going To The Bathroom Might As Well Have Been A Social Event

Medieval toilet
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Although not everyone had the privilege of having a toilet in or around their home, there were public facilities that could be found in more densely populated areas such as cities. Of course, these public bathrooms were rarely maintained and would have most people today running in the other direction.

Aside from the toilets being the perfect place to catch a disease, there was also little to no privacy. Many bathrooms consisted of a room above a cesspit with benches that had holes in them where people would communally take care of their business.

Chamber Pots Were The Norm

Old chamber pot
Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Because there was no plumbing, and the majority of people didn’t live in a castle that had actual bathrooms, most people resorted to using chamber pots. These were bowls or pots that were typically placed under one’s bed so they could relieve themselves during the night.

Once they took care of their business, they would usually push it back under their bed. Emptying chamber pots wasn’t the most sanitary process either. It wasn’t uncommon for people to throw the contents of their chamber pots out of their windows and onto the street below.

A Peculiar Cure For Baldness

Man balding
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Male baldness is not a new phenomenon, and men have been self-conscious about their balding heads for centuries. In the Middle Ages, there was a supposed cure for baldness for those who were daring enough to try it.

In a medical handbook written in the 17th century, a mixture of chicken or pigeon droppings mixed with ashes, lye and applied to the head was said to help the balding man. It’s not clear how many desperate men tried this formula, but surely it didn’t work.

Bloodletting Was Thought To Cure Anything

Man being cut
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

During the medieval period, a standard medical procedure was bloodletting, a process in which amounts of a person’s blood was removed from their body to cure an illness. The blood could be removed by making an incision and letting the blood drip into a basin, or leeches that would supposedly suck out the “contaminated” blood.

The leeches would be applied to the “sick” part of the body where they would feed until they grew fat and fell off. Sometimes, people would even perform bloodletting on themselves until it was discovered that removing blood from the body does the opposite of curing an illness.

Relieving The Pressure

Man undergoing trepanning
Philippe Clement/Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Philippe Clement/Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

People living in the Middle Ages didn’t have the medical knowledge we have today, so when it came to matters of the mind, things definitely got messy. Trepanning was a surgical process that was used to “cure” people suffering from mental illnesses, migraines, epilepsy, and more.

It involved drilling a hole into the skull to expose the outer membrane of the brain, which supposedly alleviated the pressure in the brain and cured the patient. Unsurprisingly, exposing the brain to the incredibly unsanitary conditions of the medieval world resulted in many people dying from the procedure.

The Least-Sanitary Job Out There

Portable toilet
Pinterest/Jeannine Schenewerk
Pinterest/Jeannine Schenewerk

While commoners and even most nobles had to deal with cesspits, chamber pots, and public bench toilets, the king was much luckier. He had someone known as “The Groom of the King’s Close Stool,” who was responsible for carrying around a portable toilet for the king and wiping him clean when he had relieved himself.

While most might assume that this position was only for the most desperate, it was the complete opposite. The Groom of the King’s Close Stool was one of the king’s closest confidants and was a respected position that usually led to bigger and better things.

The Truth About Canopy Beds

Canopy bed in France
DEA/G.SIOEN/Getty Images
DEA/G.SIOEN/Getty Images

Canopy beds can be used for a variety of reasons, such as privacy and even to retain heat. However, they also served another purpose, which was to keep the bed and the person sleeping in it clean.

In the Middle Ages, structures didn’t have the same type of roofing as today, which allowed for bugs, other pests, and bird droppings to seep through the cracks and inside the building. The canopy bed was a way to prevent anything unwanted from falling onto the bed or the person sleeping in it.

There Was No Escaping The Lice

Painting of woman clearing lice
PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Both the affluent and the poor suffered from lice, and there was no way to get away from the nasty buggers. They could be so unbearable that the wealthy would even shave their hair to escape them and don a wig instead.

However, this proved to be futile because the wigs were made with real hair, they could become infected just an easily as someone with natural hair. At times, people could be so infested with lice that they wouldn’t remove their hat when eating for fear of getting lice in their food.

Plague And Disease Was Rampant

Physicians assisting ill man
Henry Guttmann Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Henry Guttmann Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Considering that the people living in the medieval era weren’t knowledgeable about how a lack of hygiene greatly affected one’s health, plagues and epidemics were common and devastating. Living in constant filth, poor food preparation and storage, among countless other things gave way to constant sicknesses.

One of the most devastating, however, was the Black Death, which was rampant between 1347 and 1351, killing a vast amount of the medieval European population. Of course, this was just one of the many illnesses that swept across Europe due to poor hygiene, false medical practices, and deplorable living standards.

Rain Was Not Good For Sewage Systems

People In A Flood
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

With people emptying their chamber pots in front of their houses, the roads were already disgusting and disease-ridden on an average day. However, when it rained, things got a whole lot worse.

Streets tended to be made of dirt and cobblestone that sloped into a rainwater ditch in the middle of the road to prevent flooding. Yet, with people discarding their waster wherever they could, when it rained, these sewage ditches would overflow, leading all of the trash and human waste to flood into the streets.

The River Thames Was A Cesspit In Itself

South side of the river
Ian West/PA Images via Getty Images
Ian West/PA Images via Getty Images

While almost all of medieval Europe smelled worse than most people today can even imagine, few places stank worse than the River Thames in England. This is because it was used as a natural sewer that people would dump just about anything in.

One bridge became so popular among butchers to discard their rotten meat and animal parts that it became known as “Butchers Bridge”, constantly covered in dried blood and rotting meat. It wasn’t until 1369 that it became illegal to dump such waste into the river. But that didn’t make the smell go away.

Spitting Became A Health Hazard

spittoon-85069
Pinterest/michellefaym
Pinterest/michellefaym

In the Old West, many of the men spit tobacco, and when in a saloon, would spit it directly on the floor where spittoons lined the bar (as seen here). The saliva on the floor and the spittoons were then covered in sawdust, which became an issue due to respiratory diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis.

The spit-riddled sawdust was a breeding ground for germs. A lot of people slept on the floor when the saloon would rent out space to travelers. For this reason, spitting was banned in some places altogether, and to do so would mean a fine or prison time.

You Took Your Chances Sleeping On A Public Bed

Man reading with candle on his head
Print Collector/Getty Images
Print Collector/Getty Images

Although not every bed in the American Frontier was made from straw and hay, many of them were. Because they weren’t cleaned often, many of these beds became infested with what became known as “seam squirrels,” or lice. However, these were just one of the many types of insects that plagued those living in the Old West.

Flies were everywhere, contaminating food with their larva as well as mosquitoes making their way into poorly insulated structures. Furthermore, few people had screens on their windows, welcoming in any kind of insect that passed by.

Soap Wasn’t A Top Priority

Women washing clothes with soap
Sean Sexton/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Sean Sexton/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

An associate of Billy the Kid, Frank Clifford wrote a memoir about his life in the American West, even discussing his experiences with soap. He describes a product called “soap-weed,” which Mexican women would use to wash their hair. It is made from the yucca plant and supposedly left their women’s hair “soft and clean and lustrous.”

While some people used soap-weed, many settlers relied on soap made of animal fat. These homemade soaps were known to be particularly harsh and would cause skin irritation. Furthermore, body odor was considered to be just a fact of life with many believing that having overly clean pores would subject them to germs and disease.

Women’s Complexions Were Important

Woman on top of a horse
Pinterest/ Sterling Klein
Pinterest/ Sterling Klein

For women, a popular look at the time was to keep their skin as white as possible, and without blemishes and freckles. Many middle and upper-class women did this by either bleaching their skin or keeping out of the sun as much as possible.

If they did find themselves outdoors, chances are they wouldn’t be seen without a bonnet, gloves, and long sleeves. Unfortunately, not all pioneer women had this luxury and were exposed to the sun regardless. Many women also went against social norms and conformed more with the cowboy way of life.

Clean Water Wasn’t A Guarantee

Men sitting by puddles
VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images
VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

In the Wild West, finding clean water was imperative to survival, especially when traveling. Yet, it wasn’t easy to come by. Even when people believed they found drinkable water, it was always possible that an outhouse had been built upstream, potentially contaminating the water.

On the other hand, stagnant water was essentially poison as it usually attracted insects or had already been stepped in or drank by horses. Furthermore, the rainwater that was collected using cisterns was fresh at first, but would eventually become undrinkable over time.

Dust Was A Part Of Life

wagons and dust
MIKE NELSON/AFP via Getty Images
MIKE NELSON/AFP via Getty Images

In the Wild West, dust was inescapable whether you were in or outdoors. Dust storms were frequent and devastating, covering entire towns in a thick layer of dirt and grime. Sarah Raymond Herndon, a young girl who traveled from Missouri to the Montana region in the 1860s, reflected:

“Oh, the dust, the dust; it is terrible. I have never seen it half as bad; it seems to be almost knee-deep in places […] When we stopped, the boys’ faces were a sight; they were covered with all the dust that could stick on.” Of course, the presence of so much dust also caused severe respiratory illnesses.

Outhouses Were A Nightmare

Two outhouses
Museum of the City of New York/Byron Co. Collection/Getty Images
Museum of the City of New York/Byron Co. Collection/Getty Images

As you can imagine, going to the bathroom in a shed that’s built on top of a hole in the ground isn’t the most pleasant experience. Although nobody had a problem taking care of their business outside in the bushes or the woods, outhouses were typically built near homes, and when the hole became full, it was buried, and the structure was moved to another hole.

Unsurprisingly, considering the smell, outhouses attracted all kinds of insects and were an easy way to catch a disease. There was no toilet paper at the time either, with people relying mostly on leaves, corn cobs, and grass.

There Were A Few Different Types Of Shampoo

Girl washing hair
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

If they were lucky, some people had access to soap-weed in order to wash their hair, but that wasn’t the only method around. Besides drinking it, whiskey served a variety of purposes ranging from a disinfectant to a shampoo.

When mixed with castor oil, it was used to wash hair, which was then rinsed with rainwater or water softened with borax. When it came to women styling their hair, it wasn’t uncommon for them to use heated pencils as rudimentary curlers.

Women Had Much Better Hygiene Than Men

Women washing clothes
Oxford Science Archive/Print Collector/Getty Images
Oxford Science Archive/Print Collector/Getty Images

Everyday laborers, cowboys, soldiers, and other men typically spent their time outside and would go extended periods of time without bathing. When they did, it was usually in a body of water, something they typically avoided during the winter months. Women, on the other hand, had both more time and resources to maintain slightly better hygiene practices.

According to Sarah Raymond, each morning she would go down to the spring where she “bathed my hands and face in the water, picked a bouquet for the breakfast table, and returned to camp.” However, due to a lack of privacy, they weren’t always able to do much else.

Communal Towels Were Used In Saloons

Man and bartender
Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Bars back in the Wild West looked different than they do today, as many of them didn’t have stools to sit on. Instead, they had rails at the bottom and the top to lean on, with the top rail having hooks to hold towels.

These towels were then used by the men occupying the space to wipe beer foam from their mouths and beards. Because these towels were communal, used by numerous patrons a day, and rarely washed, they also carried countless germs and diseases.

Long Hair On Men Wasn’t Unusual

Wild Bill Hickock with long hair
Archive Photos/Getty Images
Archive Photos/Getty Images

Although long hair might seem like a hassle to keep clean and something that will make you hotter, it was a popular style among men in the Wild West, with some of the most notable figures of the time sporting long tresses.

However, men didn’t just let their hair grow as long as they could. When arriving in a town, many cowboys would treat themselves to a trim, a bath, new clothes, and a shave. During the 19th century, shorter hair became the norm among men.

Disease Was Inescapable

sickness
Blank Archives/Getty Images
Blank Archives/Getty Images

Because of the unsanitary conditions that many people living in the Old West experienced, it was common for diseases to ravage settlements in the American Frontier. One of the most prominent was cholera, which was devastating to both Native Americans and settlers alike.

Sickness was at every turn, and it was seen as a miracle if you came across a camp or settlement where there wasn’t any disease at all. According to Sarah Raymond Herndon upon arrival at one camp, “There is no sickness in camp at all; it is marvelous how very well we are. I hope it will continue so.”

The Importance Of A Kerchief

Picture of a cowboy
Williams Gallery/Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Williams Gallery/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

One of the most iconic aspects of a cowboy’s outfit is his kerchief or bandana, something he couldn’t live without. They served a multitude of purposes such as keeping the dust out of their mouths and noses, protecting their neck from the sun, ears from the cold, and more.

Of course, Hollywood also likes to show them as a way for outlaws to hide their faces when committing a robbery. They were made from a variety of materials and were mostly red. To wear one, you would fold it into a triangle and tie the knot around your neck.

From Bushy Beards And Long Hair To Clean-Cut

Picture of Broncho Charlie Miller
The New York Historical Society/Getty Images
The New York Historical Society/Getty Images

In the late 19th century, as more dental products became available to the public, new hair care products and styles arose as well. Although the initial look for cowboys and other men in the Wild West tended to consist of a scruffy beard and long hair, this changed with the introduction of these products.

Men began to view their extra hair as another place that could harbor harmful germs, so many began to cut their hair and shave for a more clean-cut look.

Dental Hygiene Wasn’t A Thing

Dentist performing an exam
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Back in the Old West, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and other oral care products weren’t prevalent. This meant that a lot of people suffered from severe oral issues, and when a tooth became problematic, it was usually just pulled out.

With dentists being uncommon, this task was usually performed by barbers or blacksmiths, or even the “patient” themself. Of course, besides drinking or applying whiskey, there were few pain medications available as well. All in all, oral care was horrendous, and countless people paid the price for it.

Cowboys Suffered From Fungal Infections

Cowboy on his horse
Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

With the inability to properly bathe for weeks and even months at a time, few changes of clothes, and riding on a horse all day, many cowboys suffered from horrendous fungal infections.

Many of these infections appeared in the crotch, buttocks, armpits, and feet regions. They were terrible to live with because they severely itched and burned, and often times, scratching them with dirty hands and fingernails only led to further bacterial skin infections.

Smelling Like His Horse

Cowboy riding his horse through water
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

After weeks on the trail, many cowboys were described as “smelling like their horse.” Although this saying led some to believe this was the result of a cowboy being atop his horse for extended periods of time, this is mostly the accumulation of normal skin bacteria from not being able to shower.

Being so dirty, if a cowboy was unlucky enough to have a cut or abrasion with staph or strep, they had the possibility of impetigo. Although this was not always fatal, these infections were contagious and chronic among cowboys.

Venereal Diseases Were Rampant

Picture of Bill Hickock
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Unsurprisingly, with all of the intimate activity occurring within saloons and other establishments, many men and women suffered from venereal diseases. Not only was there very little information or education about these diseases, but there wasn’t a whole lot of hope of curing them, either.

With many people not even knowing that these diseases and infections existed, they carried on with business as usual, further spreading the ailments. It’s even rumored that the legendary Wild Bill Hickock died from such a disease.

Drinking Alcohol Was Not For The Faint Of Heart

men drinking in a saloon
Fotosearch/Getty Images
Fotosearch/Getty Images

Back then, many saloons served whiskey that was made up of burnt sugar, alcohol, and chewing tobacco, producing a dangerously strong alcoholic beverage. A nickname for the drink was also “firewater,” with cowboys lighting whiskey on fire to create a reaction to prove that it had a strong alcohol content.

Another popular drink at the time was known as cactus wine, which was a combination of tequila and peyote tea. Almost all the alcoholic beverages back then were far more potent than they even are today, and there was no shortage of people drinking them. Of course, all of these powerful drinks resulted in countless bar fights and deaths.

The Typical Diet Wasn’t All That Bad

Cowboys cooking
Kean Collection/Getty Images
Kean Collection/Getty Images

In the Wild West, frontier cooking was greatly influenced by an individual’s location and the season. People ate the indigenous plants available as well as local game such as rabbits, squirrels, buffalo, and more. Other dried provisions such as flour, beans, sugar, would also be used and restocked when possible.

Food was often cooked simply using dutch ovens, frying pans, boiling pots, and other heavy materials. However, as settlements began to grow, so did the options for food.