From the fall of the Roman Empire until the sixteenth century, the average European life expectancy was 30 years. Every woman would see at least one of her children die before they reached the age of five.
Despite the social class system leading to huge inequality, the filth and hygiene conditions were just as bad for everyone. The fact that population was living in hamlets and villages surrounding castles only made matters worse. There were no sewers nor concept of waste; food leftovers would mix with human feces on the floor; animals carrying virus and bacteria would sleep in the same space as the people caring for them.
War and plagues were frequent situations that escalated these issues. Decomposing bodies would be left outside for fear of contagion. Yet this act would turn into ground zero for infection, made only worse by the presence of rats and other vermin.
The fairy tales of castles, princesses, and kings surrounded by luxury are an idealized vision of the Middle Ages. Living conditions were actually not as cute. Here are some gross habits medieval people had.
Especially amongst the nobility, face washing and exfoliations were done with urine. This bodily fluid was believed to eliminate skin impurities and to be even more effective when warm. If we compare it to now, this practice is gross but not off the mark. Several antiseptic products are made with ammonia, which is found in urine.
Despite a primitive version of toilet paper already being used in China during the first centuries of our current era, medieval people would use their hand or some tree leaves to wipe themselves. This led to the spreading of intestinal diseases, since there was not such thing as cutlery back then and nobody washed their hands.
Hats and wigs
More than a fashion statement, the use of long curly wigs or hats was part of medieval clothing due to a simple idea: people’s actual hair was dirty and lice-ridden. Having something on your head assured everything would stay in its place, specially while eating.
The floor of the poorest homes was entirely of straw. People believed that stacking hay would keep things clean and comfortable. Yet it proved to be better at keeping the waste of mice and pests. The smell would become so unbearable that hay would be changed every year.
Two centuries of the Enlightenment developed more advances in medicine than the eight of the Middle Ages. Leeches were the solution to just about every discomfort. It was common to see people with leeches covering their entire bodies to fight off fever, plague, and other diseases.
Romans excelled at constructing aqueducts, canals, and bathrooms that together would create an effective sewage system for the time. However, this practice was forgotten during the dark ages of Europe. Privileged folk would have a common pit with stone toilets. But eventually the water would get stuck, causing pests, vermin, and a stench so bad that it would end up being shut down. The rest of the people would go pee or poop just about anywhere on the street or their home. When they were finished, they'd cover it with dirt, hay, or grass.
Cristianity buried the Greek and Roman traditions on personal care, constructing myths on hygiene. One of these was the cleansing of the body, which was seen as something ungodly. Most people would spend months without a drop of water touching parts of their body. Some records claim the average medieval citizen would bathe four or five times a year, when his clothing was so stuck to their skin that only water would be able to peel it off. By the Late Middle Ages the Church changed its position in favor of water-based rites.
The Middle Ages prove that human progress is not a linear situation. A great deal of ancient accumulated knowledge was lost for several centuries. In the Renaissance this knowledge resurfaced, as well as the resuming of progress.