• Authors: Pobezhimova M.A.1, Nenakhov I.G.2
  • Affiliations:
    1. Voronezh State Medical University nadem after N.N.Burdenko
    2. Voronezh State Medical University named N.N.Burdenko
  • Pages: 417-420
  • URL:

Cite item


Relevance: the popular notion of the unsanitary conditions of the Middle Ages is challenged by looking at the existence of public baths, the use of soap and water, and the creation of sewer systems in some cities. By analyzing historical evidence and archaeological finds, the article seeks to provide a more accurate understanding of medieval hygiene practices and how they relate to our modern practices.
Purpose: dispel major misconceptions about hygiene practices in medieval Europe.
Methods: general methods of scientific research, analytical method.
Results: the data obtained shows that medieval Europeans were not completely ignorant of hygiene and developed various methods and ways of maintaining cleanliness and preventing diseases. The poem "The Romance of the Rose" deals with aspects of both enlightenment and the delusions of people of that time in matters of self-care. The article also explores how these results can help us evaluate the historical evolution of hygiene practices and examines the influence of cultural and economic factors on their development through numerous examples of the life and life of people of that time.
Conclusion: medieval Europe is rich in myths about its unsanitary conditions. Europeans understood the importance of cleanliness and personal hygiene, which contributed to her undeniable fight against infectious diseases.

Full Text

The perception of the Middle Ages as a time of extreme uncleanliness is a common misconception in modern society. It is often believed that in that era, excrement was thrown directly into the streets, people were reluctant to observe basic hygiene rules, and living conditions were characterized by complete unsanitary conditions [1]. However, this depiction is a gross simplification that does not reflect the complexities of hygiene practices that were common at the time [2].
For example, medieval people believed in the importance of regular bathing, and public baths were a common feature in many villages. Moreover, in many medieval houses there were specially designated places for washing and maintaining personal hygiene [3].
The idea that excrement was thrown directly into the streets is also a fallacy. In medieval cities, waste was usually collected and disposed of in specially designated areas outside the city walls. In addition, many medieval houses had primitive sewer systems that removed waste from the living area [4].


Dispel common misconceptions about hygienic practices in medieval Europe by examining evidence of the sanitary habits of people from the 7th and 8th centuries ago.
Materials and methods: general methods of scientific research, analytical method.

The 13th-century Old French poem The Romance of the Rose contains a wealth of advice for lovers, ranging from ways to spend time together: “Without leaving each other, two should swim together; At the same time find a safe haven, and then their enjoyment will be complete.” And ending with the strategic advantages of women's tricks in relationships.
This work, which enjoyed extraordinary popularity in France, Italy, England and the Netherlands over the next two centuries, is partly an allegorical interpretation of the code of chivalry, and partly a collection of traditions and folk wisdom used by medieval readers [6].
The poem contains a lot of advice on personal hygiene and its role in love. Cupid, an allegorical figure of the god of love, addresses a young man: “Wash your hands often, take care of your teeth and make sure that black dirt never remains under your nails. Sew up your sleeves, comb your hair, but do not reach for the paint, because only ladies should do this.
A young woman, on the contrary, is advised to meet her lover in the dark so that her lover does not notice a pimple or something worse: “He should not like to see this flaw, because he will immediately think how to take his legs in his hands and run away, and she will remain with your shame. Women were also encouraged to keep their clothes clean. The Romance of the Rose conjures up a land of delights where graceful ladies and sophisticated youths dance to the sound of violins and drums, flirt over dice, chess or backgammon, and feast on exotic new fruits such as oranges and apricots.

Despite the undoubted idealization of the life of the medieval aristocracy, the picture of society drawn in the novel reflects significant, real changes in it, noticeable already in the 11th century.
As Europe began to accept the feudal system of fiefdoms and kingdoms, freeing itself from the marauding bands of barbarians, and Christianity gained a foothold in almost the entire continent, the church and secular authorities felt more secure [5]. The ensuing relative peace made travel less dangerous, which in turn led to the development of roads and a network of inns, as well as the importation of luxury goods from afar [3].
Home life has become more comfortable. Some of the old Spartan habits of the early Middle Ages, such as lack of attention to personal hygiene, became increasingly offensive to both clergy and laity. "Dirt has never been dear to God," the clergy said more and more often in their sermons.
The advice given in Ancrene Wisse, a treatise for hermits from the first half of the thirteenth century, has survived. Addressing his work to devout women who preferred to live in simplicity and solitude, often in small cells located near churches, the English author, presumably a Dominican, recommends: “Wash when necessary, and wash your clothes. Dirt has never been dear to God, although poverty and simplicity are pleasing to Him. This simple statement "dirt was never dear to God" was a kind of revolutionary manifesto. Dozens of early medieval hermits, monks and saints devoted to the cult of mud would have been horrified to hear such a dangerous statement [6].
In medieval paintings depicting domestic interiors, in the corner of the room you can often see a jug, a basin and a rag for drying hands [1]. Not washing your hands is a phenomenon that is shocking enough for the average European. Soane of Nancey, the wandering hero of a thirteenth-century French novel, notes with horror, for example, that Norwegians do not wash their hands after eating. The people of the Middle Ages loved all kinds of reference books and manuals, and both those addressed to pious women, as in the case of Ancren Wisse, and those addressed to young people who dreamed of love conquest, as in the Romance of the Rose, were popular. ". Manuals appeared on refined behavior, childcare, education and health of boys, written by a variety of authorities, from alchemists to philosophers, including the work of the great humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam [3].
Of course, food manuals recommended washing hands before and after eating, and this instruction appears in medieval treatises, with a frequency bordering on obsession [7]. It is rare that a poet of the Middle Ages depicted a feast or even a simple meal without mentioning that all participants washed their hands.

In the 13th-century Provencal chivalric poem Roman de Flamenca, the husband of the title character arranges a feast for three thousand knights and ladies, who, as the poet tells us, "having washed, sat down at the tables," and "having eaten, washed their hands again." Sometimes this obsessive interest in handwashing begins to resemble an organized cleanliness propaganda campaign. However, in reality, the frequent repetition of such scenes was intended to emphasize the sophistication of the characters described.
After the hands, the cleanest parts of the body were the face and mouth. Etiquette guides recommend washing your face and rinsing your mouth with water as soon as you wake up.
Theoretically, babies of that time were also clean: Medieval maternity manuals recommended washing the offspring in warm water at least once, and sometimes even three times a day. Undoubtedly, the smallest children enjoyed bathing much more often than adults or older offspring: moreover, it was much easier to bring and heat water for bathing a child than for bathing an adult. However, the babies of the peasants and the urban poor were bathed and changed much less frequently.
Of course, the medieval world had smells, including unpleasant ones, incomparably more than ours. People got used to it and did not complain, but extremely unpleasant odors did not go unnoticed and were condemned. So, Saint Thomas Aquinas, one of the most famous spiritual figures of the era, recommended the use of incense in the church, because they extinguished the smell from the accumulation of bodies, which, according to him, "may cause disgust."

The concepts of courtly love and chivalry, common in the upper strata of society, made the degree of attractiveness of a person dependent on the degree of his personal hygiene. Dissent was met with criticism, especially among the chivalry and the aristocracy [6].
The highest state officials were also condemned for lack of hygiene. Thus, it was written about Bruno, brother of Otto I the Great, the German king and Roman emperor: familiar with such manners and royal excesses from early childhood.
In Boccaccio's Decameron, a collection of short stories from the 14th century, the characters are very sensitive to the smell of their body and the smell of their breath. The latter in particular is sometimes deeply disturbing - in one story, an unfaithful woman named Lydia first convinces two servants that their breath stinks and therefore they must work with their heads turned as far as possible. Later, she tells her husband that the reason for their strange relationship is his bad breath.
Often emphasized in The Romance of the Rose, The Decameron, and other novels, stories, and precepts, the idea that physical intimacy is more pleasurable when the loved one is clean and fragrant seems as obvious to us as it was to the ancient Romans. . But in the Middle Ages, it was a new concept that slowly penetrated the minds of that time [7]. And, nevertheless, the fact remains: the issue of hygiene in the Middle Ages was not as acute as we used to imagine, sitting in the comfort and warmth of our time.



In conclusion, a study of hygienic practices in medieval Europe shows that many popular myths about an unsanitary Middle Ages have been proven wrong. Many Europeans of that time recognized the importance of cleanliness and took steps to maintain it.
The existence of public baths, the use of soap and water, the reflection of hygiene rules in reference books and books of the time - all this testifies to the efforts made by people to maintain hygiene and prevent diseases.


About the authors

Maria Alexandrovna Pobezhimova

Voronezh State Medical University nadem after N.N.Burdenko

ORCID iD: 0000-0001-9112-7100
SPIN-code: 4940-3167


Russian Federation, 10, Studentskaya str., Voronezh, 394036, Russia

Ivan Gennadievich Nenakhov

Voronezh State Medical University named N.N.Burdenko

Author for correspondence.
ORCID iD: 0000-0001-7942-2844
SPIN-code: 9905-2934

Doctor of Medical Sciences, Associate Professor of the Department of Hygienic Disciplines

Russian Federation, 10, Studentskaya str., Voronezh, 394036, Russia


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