Cleanliness and Godliness
How does one describe the feel of, or for that matter, the smell of an era? Were the Middle Ages as we have been taught and certainly as depicted in our films and literature, a dirty malodorous break between the public bathing obsessed Romans and the freshly laundered Italian Renaissance?
Modern writers tend to focus on the most outlandish or different behaviours in past societies to make a point as can been seen in programs like Horrible Histories and sometimes quote medieval examples that even for their time may not have reflected the norm. A case in point is sumptuary laws which decree what is appropriate wear for different classes of person; do we take these as a description of what was actually in wear; or do we read between the lines and surmise that these laws are trying to ban what is already a norm?
Personally I tend to the later, laws generally don’t prohibit what is not already present in society and frequently they are not effective. Medieval clergy certainly heaped scorn and damnation upon the women who ‘painted and adorned themselves’ as in their eyes such vanities were only practiced in order to lure men into committing sins of the flesh.
“They always strive to add improvements by their industry to get from men what they want.”
Cosmetic implements, mirrors and false tresses (hair extensions) were some of the items ordered to be placed on the bonfires of vanities by the fanatical preacher, Savonarola, in late 15th century Florence, who later ended on a bonfire himself.
So did they bathe or not?
The church did not see bathing as being in itself sinful, but it did tend to regard anything to do with the worldly flesh as potentially sinful, and their recording of secular fashions and adornment does reflect this. Public bathing on the Roman scale was pretty much unknown in medieval Europe, though from some descriptions of the dubious cleanliness of some Roman baths this may not have been a totally bad thing. The culture of bathing had survived along the Mediterranean basin especially in Jewish and later Islamic cultures where ritualized washing was a religious obligation as well as a dictate for ‘civilised’ living.
The church saw itself as the custodian of the Roman tradition, which strongly featured bathing, and monasteries built in the Cluniac tradition featured large lavatory blocks for bodily evacuations as well as cleansing and were supplied with fresh water and basins (and in answer to your unspoken lavatory question it was with cabbage leaves). Whilst few clergy subscribed to St Francis of Assi’s reputed boast that ‘lice were the pearls of poverty’, as it reflected an extreme, and physically uncomfortable view in favour of the mortification of the (temporary) flesh in order to beautify the (eternal) spirit.
Much of the blame for this ‘no pain, no gain’ school of thought in Christianity can be laid at the dirty feet of St John the Baptist; but even though he dressed in skins and ate insects, he at least he did get a through soaking in the river Jordan on occasion.
This example proved to be quite inspirational among a group of “wouldn’t it be great if Lent went for all year” minded clergy and pretty soon the early Christian world was crowded, but certainly not awash in pious anchorites fasting in deserts (St Hilarion) , squatting on deserted windswept islands ( St Guthlac), living in caves (St Anthony), or even perched on top of columns for decades at a time (St Simon).
Needless to say the bathroom facilities in all of these locations were one star or less. As extreme as they were these holy men had a profound impact on medieval Christian thought on the body and its needs.