Somehow we learned that Medieval folk were dirty, uncultivated, and die-hard religious but actually they’re not but mere misconceptions that have stuck in our collective imaginary.
History is full of misconceptions and myths that are replicated everywhere. The Middle Ages are probably the epoch that falls into this category the most through vague and inaccurate representations on media, entertainment, and yes, even history books. Somehow we learned that Medieval folk was dirty, uncultivated, and die-hard religious, but actually they’re not but mere misconceptions that have stuck in our collective imagination.
With this in mind, we must admit we fell into that inaccurate narrative with this article we incorrectly titled "7 Medieval Practices That Were Way Grosser Than You Thought." After seeing the recent response on social media (and after a little embarrassment, if I may add), we decided to step up our game and debunk these seven myths that we’ve deemed true and try erasing that prejudice over this time in history that still fascinates us.
So, let's deal with the problematic misconception of hygiene in the Middle Ages (also, we promise never to call it Dark Ages ever again) and go back through those myths regarding hygiene:
Back in the original article, we incorrectly claimed that people in the middle ages had terrible hygiene habits, including bathing only a couple of times a year. Actually, according to Medievalists, baths were really common during that time, the thing is they didn't do it as we'd expect. Most people in the Middle Ages were conscious of the importance of having a clean face and hands, body parts they would constantly wash. Moreover, the idea of having a clean body was also of utmost importance since they were aware of the health problems uncleanness would carry, especially those related to the last phase of the digestion process, if you know what I mean.
Bathing was also considered an important medical prescription for several conditions and as a preventive method for circumstances like traveling and pregnancies. Of course, how people bathe was connected to their social status. Upper classes would have access to private baths that consisted of wooden tubs filled with hot water. Not very privileged folk would attend public baths that were quite popular throughout Europe, like the one in Burmi, Italy. Even this bath had the most strict hygiene rules, including not eating for some hours before the bath, avoiding intercourse, and even pouring water over the head for those with hair to avoid contaminating the water.
It’s somehow believed that the aristocracy used this bodily waste for exfoliating during this time. Now, there isn’t much evidence of urine being used as a beauty treatment, however, it’s known that it was a widely used product for many purposes. For instance, urine was one of the most important products used in the textile industry. Medieval artisans would use urine to soften the leather. Thanks to its high concentrations of urea (that turns into ammonia), pee was also used to whiten fabrics and remove stains. If it wasn’t enough, urine was discovered to make colors richer. Since back in those days, dyes were natural they needed a little extra to brighten the colors.
Another practical use of urine during the Middle Ages was to produce gunpowder. Charcoal and sulfur, two of the main ingredients for gunpowder, were easily obtained at the time, however, potassium nitrate or saltpeter, wasn’t widely produced until the 20th century. Their alternative was the natural nitrogen found in urine.
Now, as for personal usage, urine did have a known purpose, whiten the teeth. Pee was commonly added to concoctions and remedies to create a mouthwash that would help whiten those dentures. This was an inherited practice from the Romans, who also noticed it helped reduce morning breath and all these thanks to that precious compound, ammonia.
Toilet paper as we know it today was not invented until the 19th century; however, there was some sort of primitive version of toilet paper widely used in China during the first centuries CE. Thanks to the many commercial and cultural exchanges between Asia and Europe, this prototype did arrive in Middle Ages Europe; however, it didn’t stick. This doesn’t mean Medieval people just cleaned their behinds with their bare hands and then carried on with their lives just like that. It’s well known that people of the time would make use of sticks, moss, and plants to clean themselves; not to mention washing with water afterward. Besides that, there’s been archaeological evidence that people would also use small pieces of cloth for those purposes.
It's a common belief that wigs were highly used during the Middle Ages. This is mainly because sometimes people think of other time periods as part of the Middle Ages. Actually, wigs fell into disuse during the Middle Ages, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t used, especially by the aristocracy. Lice was a real issue back then and for common folk the most practical way to avoid or get rid of it was shaving their heads. Wigs also had a fashion purpose for high-class ladies who would want longer manes and, due to the demand, poor women would even sell their hair. Even when it was a popular trend among the nobility, the Church spoke against it claiming it a clear sin of vanity.
One huge myth about the Middle Ages is that everybody peed and pooped basically anywhere. It's often thought medieval folk would use hay to cover their waste. While some castles did have the privilege of stone floors that kept living conditions better, the rest of the population, peasants in its majority, did use hay to cover their floors and help keep them warm and more comfortable. In most places throughout Europe, England for instance would mix straw with some aromatic plants to freshen the odors of their huts. Straw floors would be changed once a year which became, indeed, a nest for pests and smells. However, public bathrooms were highly popular, especially in big cities. In some small towns, people would relieve themselves on the side of roads or the woods, basically far away from their houses to keep smells and waste away from everybody.
Medicine during the Middle Ages is often considered the most outdated in history even more obsolete than in Ancient times. This misunderstanding is strongly related to the fact that the institution of the Church had a major influence on Medieval life. However, although many practices of the time indeed lacked scientific backgrounds (like leeching and bleeding in many cases), most of these were rooted in Greek and Roman traditions like the theory of the four humors.
Outside Europe, in the Arab world, medicine had a huge advancement. Soon, many of these practices traveled through the many commercial routes and were slowly implemented in Medieval Europe. By the 12th century, the continent experienced an increase in medical schools in which Botanics had a massive impact. Right before the start of the Renaissance, Europe had several advancements in medicine that this epoch exploded.
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