Toilets, sewers, showers? Ever heard of them? The Dark Ages didn't. Here are seven medieval habits that were way more gross than you thought.
From the fall of the Roman Empire and up until the sixteenth century, European life expectancy barely exceeded thirty years of age. All women witnessed the death of at least one of their children before the child turned five, since it was more likely to perish within the first years of life than to survive them. The social order favored large-scale inequality. Hygienic conditions were equally poor, both for feudal lords and for serfs. The population density in burgs, or towns, and villages built around castles only worsened the situation. There was no sewer system, no concept of garbage, food waste was mixed with human excrement in the dirt, and animals carrying viruses and bacteria wandered among human bodies at night.
War and plague were frequent and they helped reproduced large-scale rot. Decomposing corpses remained outside for fear of contagion and, at the same time, they meant a source of infection that worsened with the presence of rats and other vermin. The stories of castles, princesses, and kings surrounded by great wealth perfectly describe the fairy tales and an idealized characterization of the Middle Ages, but the living conditions from the time were very different from what many believe. These are some disgusting facts from the Middle Ages:
Washing and facial exfoliation were done with urine, particularly among the aristocracy, because it was believed to be useful when removing impurities from the skin, especially when it was warmer. We now know that this practice wasn’t all that bad. Many of today’s antiseptic products are made with ammonia, an abundant ingredient found in urine.
Although a primitive version of toilet paper was already used in China during the first centuries CE, people used their hands to clean themselves during the Middle Ages in Europe. Sometimes they would use a couple of sheets of paper after doing their business. This brought on the proliferation of intestinal diseases, since tableware still did not exist and nobody washed their hands.
Wigs and caps
Wigs and caps weren’t about fashion and style. The use of long curly wigs or hats that were part of people’s clothing during the Middle Ages, was a response to basic physics: people’s hairs were dirty and they were plagued with lice. Wearing something on the head ensured that all hairs stayed in place, especially during lunch time.
The peasants' floors were entirely made of straw. People believed that stacking straw was an effective way to keep a space clean and comfortable. However, it was sort of the other way around. Pests, mice, urine, and excrement were certainly better preserved in it. The smell was unbearable and, only after a few years had passed, new straw was added.
Knowledge regarding medicine advanced more in two centuries of Enlightenment than in more than 800 years of Middle Ages. One of the most common treatments for all ailments was leeches, which were believed to have properties capable of absorbing evils and returning people back to health. A common sight was people with leeches stuck all over their body, which was used to treat fever, the black plague, and other diseases of the time.
The Romans specialized in the construction of aqueducts, canals, and baths that together formed efficient sewer networks for their time, but this tradition was forgotten during the Dark Ages throughout Europe. The wealthier class were privileged in that they used shared pits with stone toilets whenever they had to go. But water remained stagnant and pestilent until it was removed. The rest of the people used to urinate and defecate almost anywhere on the street or their houses, covering the feces with dirt, straw, or grass.
Christianity buried Greek and Roman traditions about body care, and built myths around hygiene, specifically, about body bathing as an ungodly activity. Most people spent months without water touching a single part of their body. Some records state that, on average, every medieval person would shower between four and five times a year, and did it when their clothes were so stuck to the skin that it was no longer possible to take them off without water. Nevertheless, the Church corrected its point of view, and by the Late Middle Ages, it adopted rituals in favor of using water.The Middle Ages are a point in history that prove human evolution and progress is far from linear. Different knowledge accumulated by great ancient civilizations perished and knowledge remained more concentrated than ever before. In fact, it remained like this for centuries. Thankfully, though, we’ve moved on.
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