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The Biomedical Engineering blog is the place for conversation and discussion about topics related to engineering principles of the medical field. Here, you'll find everything from discussions about emerging medical technologies to advances in medical research. The blog's owner, Chelsey H, is a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) with a degree in Biomedical Engineering.

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Medieval Hygiene

Posted January 27, 2015 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

It's romantic to think about being a prince or princess in medieval times. The pageantry and chivalry seem almost idealistic…but once I start to really think about what it was like to live back then I realize that I'm much happier in a world with plumbing and deodorant. In case you were wondering, here are some down-right medieval hygiene practices.

Privies and garderobe - Tudor houses had toilets made from a bowl with a slab of wood and a hole carved at the top. Builders set the toilet into a recess of a cupboard-like area called a garderobe. In castles, the wood covers a hole in the floor that took the waste straight into the moat. Poor people relieved themselves wherever they could and just buried the waste in cesspits in their cellars or outside.

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Bathing in the same water - Public baths were popular in the 13th century. Since firewood (and therefore hot water) was a "hot commodity," bathing became expensive so whole families and friends would share a bath or just remain dirty.

Laundry - Since few were bathing they had to at least wash their clothes. Laundry detergent at the time consisted of a mixture of lye made of ashes and urine in order to remove stains and clean their clothes. Oh, and some people never bothered to change or clean their clothes anyway.

Make up - Ceruse was used as foundation for men and women because it gave them a smooth, pale look. It also contained a heavy amount of lead that seeped into the body and poisoned them. Also, even the wealthy had brown teeth. Many would chew herbs, rinse, and rub their teeth with cloth to try to clean and freshen their breath.

Lice - Nits and lice were so common that many wealthy people would shave their hair and wore periwigs instead. Unfortunately, even the wigs would be infested with nits, especially during plagues.

No forks - Some members of the church condemned using forks citing that God gave people fingers for a reason. Bread was used to wipe faces and fingers.

Nose-gays - A small bouquet of flowers or sachet of herbs was used to keep the smells (often from cesspits) at bay while walking through a crowd. It was usually held in the hand or pins on the wrist. This is also the inspiration for "pocket full of posies" in the loving (but pretty morbid) child's rhyme "Ring around the Rosie."

Infection from rushes - Rushes or straws were often used to cover up the natural dirt floor of a building. This was one of the biggest sources of infection since many people only changed the top layer of rushes.

Bird droppings on the bed - Without proper protective roofing it was common for bugs, pests, and even bird droppings to fall on to the clean bedding. The canopy bed was invented to keep everything from falling from the room on to the bed.

Chamber pots - Containers used to collect urine during the night. To top off the bathroom routine was the fact that toilet paper didn't exist yet. Poor people used leaves or moss, while the rich used lamb's wool.

So there you go - from morning to night, the life of a medieval person was tough and smelly. But they did develop some ingenious solutions to ease their troubles!

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#1

Re: Medieval Hygiene

01/27/2015 5:45 PM

One of the reasons that spices became so highly valued during the Renaissance was their use in hiding all the smells people were subjected to, including the smell of meat that had started to go bad. Just as an example, at one time, pound for pound, cloves were worth more than gold.

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#2
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Re: Medieval Hygiene

01/28/2015 10:41 AM

You beat me to it.

Bathing was not practiced very often, because the doctors at the time were saying that bathing was unhealthy, because it washes away all the humors.

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#7
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Re: Medieval Hygiene

01/31/2015 2:47 PM

I was told Chinese restaurants introduced "sweet and sour" dishes to cover meat or fish that was starting to go.

It has always been a mystery how the aristocracy during the medieval ages would relieve themselves at parties. I heard they would douse themselves with perfumes and powders to mask the smells. Of course those who didn't have to work for a living had the luxury of bathing daily or more.

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#3

Re: Medieval Hygiene

01/28/2015 11:21 AM

And all this time, I thought the spices were intended to help extend the useful shelf life of the meat.

Yes, I for one am thankful for the miracles of refrigeration technology, wonderful soap and water, and toilet paper.

Now if Big Pharma would just stop it with this diabolical game they are playing with all our health, and start actually releasing or selling the cures for the many diseases they claim they do not have the cure for, that would be exciting, and we could all move on to something more enjoyable with our lives. I really think the drug companies and the doctors are in bed with each other in more than one way.

Why cure disease when you can turn into a cyclic revenue stream? I do not trust the medical-governmental complex, any more than I ever trusted the military-industrial complex.

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#4
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Re: Medieval Hygiene

01/28/2015 3:55 PM

Wow... the ghost of kramarat is roaming the halls of CR4.

A political slant on taking a bath.

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Re: Medieval Hygiene

01/28/2015 4:15 PM

Now if I could turn taking a dump into something political. Hmmm.....let me see.

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#6

Re: Medieval Hygiene

01/28/2015 7:32 PM

This link works better: http://sociial.com/2014/12/03/20-reasons-why-you-would-not-have-kissed-shakespeare-or-anyone-else-in-the-middle-ages/

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