The Middle Ages are often seen as a time when there was little knowledge about health and sanitation. But, attempts were made to keep communities healthy.
People in the 21st century have access to a range of anti-bacterial and specialised cleaning products, for both body and home. In the Middle Ages, the options were more limited. The first references to soap in Europe were made in around the year 1000. Bristol was particularly well-known for the number of soap makers in the city during medieval times, proving that there was a demand for such a product, at least among those who could afford this luxury. Around 180 soap makers worked in the city in the sixteenth-century, making hard and soft Bristol soap mainly for sale to shops in London.
Soap-Making in the Middle Ages
Medieval soap was made from ash and lime mixed with oil and beer or mutton fat which was heated to a high temperature before being mixed with flour and made into the required shape. Soap makers often worked as butchers or chandlers, or had close associations with these, because of the close associations between the two trades, which both used animal fats extensively.
Cleanliness in Medieval Times
Personal cleanliness in medieval times was hampered by a lack of access to fresh water supplies and frequent problems with sewage disposal in medieval towns. During medieval times, it was widely believed that bad smells were the cause of disease and so if the smell could be combated, the threat of disease was lessened.
Town authorities across Europe made attempts to get rid of their rubbish and sewage, even if the link between waste and disease wasn’t fully understood. In the late thirteenth-century, the Great Conduit of London supplied the city with clean water and in other towns, rivers were often used to carry away waste, to the detriment of those downstream.
Another problem was the lack of separation between industrial and domestic living areas. Many industries such as butchery, dyeing and tanning were carried out in or alongside living accommodation, meaning that dirt and strong, foul smells were part of everyday life. Waste from these industries often made its way back into the local water supply, further endangering health.
The widespread practice of covering floors with a rush matting was another potential health hazard. Unless the floor covering was changed frequently (as in the wealthiest households), animal droppings and particles of food would rot within the rushes, spreading germs and disease.
Medieval people did wash, often in cold water, and many cleaned their teeth, with a cloth dipped into a solution of herbs or ash. Only in the wealthiest households did people have access to warm baths in wooden tubs. For everyone else, washing in a stream, river or bowl of cold water was the only available option.
- Whittock, Martyn A Brief History of Life in the Middle Ages (Constable & Robinson, 2009)