There are many myths about medieval times. Few of the most popular ones seem to concerne the hygiene or lack of it in medieval times. You would sopose, that when the cartoon character Hågar the Horrible takes his yearly bath, it is a commonly unterstood joke, about the impossibility of the popular image. Alas no. For I have actually met in a museum (I will not say wich one, because in my mind this is too embarrasing to them) a guide, who was perfectly happy to claim that medieval people did not wash themselves more often than once a year. In the same museum other guides have told me, that medieval people did not change their clothes more often than once a year and that they were lice infested and wore furs, because they actually believed that vermin would jump from their hair to the animal furs in their clothing. When asked of sources for such outrageous claims, they usually bring up the story about church being wery intolerant towards bathing.
Let us look upon these stories. First the idea of medieval people having more lice than the modern people. Lice were a common thing in the western world until after the WWII when they developed the DDT. Nice substance. It got us rid of the lice and wery nearly all the birds of pray, since it is a poison that is cumulating to the reprpductive organs of animals at the top of the food chain. Who knows what it did to us humans. Even though there have been lice in men for thousands of years, they have usually been wery well dealt with by good hygiene. Sometimes, because of a war or a natural catastrophy the conditions get so terrible for people, that hygiene gets wery difficult to maintain. Those are the times all sorts of vermin and disease multiply in numbers. The usual historical solution to lice, when they have become an epidemic has been cutting hair short. Nobody wants to live with lice and never has, so the solutions are either good hygiene, that is washing your self often enough and combing your hair with a tight comb. The former methods were used in medieval times and judging from the picture sources of the time since short hair was never in fashion they worked fine. You see, when catastrophy struck like during the Napoleonic wars and the both world wars it became fashionable to have short hair. Even the roman legionaries had short hair. The reason was obvious, when you have thousands of men camped in poor hygienic conditions for years lice are bound to become a problem. Easiest way to deal with it is short hair. Even at the end of medieval era, when the landsknecht infantryman was replacing the mounted knights on battle fields, the size of the armies grew in such multitudes that the bald or wery short hair was their fashion.
I allready claimed that in medieval times people would wash themselves more often than once a year. I am willing to go as far as to say medieval people had good hygiene. It was definetly different from how we see it today, but good never the less. We finns are proud of our “sauna” culture, and there are even people who would claim that the whole concept of “sauna” was a finnish invention. This could be, but now we are talking of such an old invention that nationalities had not been born as such. In light of historical evidence the sauna was a well known phenomenon around the medieval Europe. It was only after medieval times that it was banned in many parts of Europe, and survived only in remote areas like in Northern Scandinavia, Finland and Russia. Even the roman and turkish baths are just extensions of the same concept, wich has been around the world since wery early stone age. In medieval times the area wich was once a part of Roman empire had sustained its bathing culture in the more sophisticated manner inhereted from the romans. There were large baths in many old cities and these were often enough originally built by the romans. North of the Alps there were of course also public baths, where a weary traveller, a tired labourer or a pleasure seeking noble might take a bath. The church was indeed against these installations often enough, because there were many brothels among them, but this was not a wery strong opposition. The baths were regulated by both the chruch and the bourgeois of towns to provide satisfactory service and not to bring too embarrasing immoral fame on the town. So the prostitutes costumes and manner how they conducted their busines was often strictly defined even if they worked in a bathhouse. Baths were not only places to wash and get laid, they were places where it was common for people to enjoy themselves in various relaxing activities. For example from Stockholm in the excavations of several of these baths (they were lined by the shoreline of the city on an island) they have found numerous dice, chesspieces and other utensils of games. And of course beer was often served in these establishments too.
The church was not against people washing themselves. On the contrary, it was seen as a bit of an embarresment if people would come to mass dirty or in their “working clothes”. Even the monasteries had regulations that said monks and nuns should wash themselves at least once in every two weeks and once a week if they were engaged in heavy work. These regulations may well be the result of the ideal of selibacy. It affected the way the clergy saw nakedness. When you are denying your sexuality, it is not a surprice, that it tries to surface itself in everyway, so that in the end you are unable to look upon naked people without thinking of sex. In a culture affected strongly by such religious ideals the nakedness itself becomes a symbol for sexuality. Also the fact that a lot of the venerable diceases were “trafficked” in the public bath houses was an obvious reason for those who see everything enjoyable as a sin, to seek to close these kind of premises. However church was rather ambiguous in medieval times. Priests were not all known for their piety and many high clergymen were even known to have expensive curtisans of their own. Their bastard sons were often born in brothels and still they might reach high positions in their later years in the organisation of church. It was more about whom your father was, as it was the case of the rest of the society, then as it is today. This may have been seen as notorious by some of the clergy, but commonly accepted by the commoner and nobleman alike.
What of the sauna then? First of all there are historical, and archeological evidence that in many of the Nordic towns there were numerous public bath houses. In medieval pictures one often runs into depictions of nakedness in a natural way. Naked people are not presented in any pornographic way, but just in a natural way. One typical group of these pictures is the so called “bath house baebes”. These are women working as bathers in a bath house. Typically they have a long underdress of sorts on them. Transparent because the linnen is totally soaked. In their hands they carry a bucket and a “vihta”. The latter is an item, wery hard to recognise for other people than those that are familiar with sauna culture, but to us it is obvious and could not be anything else. Just as a sword is a sword to anyone who recognizes it. The “vihta” is a bundle of birch branches, that has only one purpose and it is possible to use it in only particular conditions of a sauna or in other words a steam room. The use of a “vihta” is simple. It is softened with hot water, and after that it is used to “whip” oneself or a nother person in the hot steamy air of sauna. This not only removes dirty layers of skin, but also relaxes the muscles in a soothing way. So a picture of a bohemian girl from the 13th century clearly is an evidence for them having, what a finn would call a “sauna”. Traditional sauna culture in Finland is wery old and at least from the medieval times it has been customary to go to sauna on saturday, so that you are clean on sunday for the mass. During the hardest working days of agricultural living in a year it was customary to go to sauna every day after work, much like today people are having a shower.
It seems hardly worth the effort after what I have allready said to comment on the people changing their clothes, but lets address it also as the topic demands. The medieval people mostly wore linnen, hemp and wool. Only rich people could afford furs to their clothing, but even they did not see those as single use items. So the furs were there to keep warm and to show of wealth. Certainly they were not worn to get rid of lice. Or what were they soposed to do with the furclothes into wich the lice had jumped to? The whole concept is such utter rubbish, it deserves no more attention. The wool was usually the topmost layer of clothing. It was perfect. It is warm, but it also breaths, so moisture does not form inside the clothes. It does not get easily wet, so woollen clothes keep you warm and dry in most conditions. When it eventually gets wet it is still warm. It is easy to dye almost any colours imaginable. It is possible to weave cloth that streches and sits on your body perfectly of wool. The outer clothing was not often washed, but certainly more often than the woollen winter jacket of our day. The linnen and hemp underclothes were washed frequently. Those were most often bleached in the sun, so any dirt would show on them easily and natural body odours would get just as stuck to them as in the modern cotton underwear. They had to be washed as often as the people themselves washed. Nobody liked to wear dirty clothes then, no more than today.
In popular culture, the medieval commoner is often set apart from the noblesse by the grey and brown colours. This is an artistic choise made by the directors of the movies and such. Of course the natural greys and browns of sheepswool, could have been more common colour of the clothes of the poor people, though all the pictorial evidence we have from the many centuries of medieval times does not imply that the poor would not have worn brightly coloured clothes. In fact the impression is rather the opposite. The fact that medieval poor people are also depicted in popular culture as dirty, having mud and ash all over their faces, is a stereotype, with little or no evidence to back it up. No doubt, there has allways been people whose lives are catastrophies. who are so poor that they have nowhere to sleep or wash themselves. But a beggar is something totally else than a peasant, even in medieval times.
As we know medieval people ate with their bare hands. In popular culture this is often depicted as a way of unhygienic behaviour. The drunken knights throwing bones over their shoulders to dogs on the floor, or such images. You might think that the medieval way of eating porrige from a common bowl, when only the spoon is your own, might seem unhygienic. Even the fact that the spoon is not washed but only liked clean sounds terrible to many modern ears. Medieval people were not however unhygienic in comparrison to modern people about their table manners. Throughout Europe in medieval times (and long beyond) it was customary to wash hands before eating and after it. Things like napkins are traditions from those days. Today it is typical for western people to go to a hamburger bar and eat fast food with their hands they have not washed after handling dozens of doors and who knows what during the day. The common porrige bowl did spread bacteria, but sometimes even this was for the good. They did not know it, but many diseases like say syfilis was not a common problem, because most people had its weaker form as children from their common food, so they had developed immunity to the nastier effects of the venerable form of the disease.
Clenliness is also a matter of perspective. When the european crusaders came to the Holy land, the local muslims saw them as dirty barbarians, wich they of course were in comparrison. The european knight was an illiterate person, wearing heavy fighting gear fit for his own climate. When the muslim mamluk was engaged in arts and read from his holy scriptures the ritual like rules for hygiene and constant washing and care for clenliness. We can say a lot of ill things that resulted of the crusades, but the link between European nations and Islamic areas of the world was there before those days and after, and some cultural things were learned on both groups of people, even if you can not call either wery homogenous. The turks have their baths, as a result of inheretance from the roman baths. The europeans learned many things from arabs, like the sewing of wounds. Medical hygiene is of course a complete subject of its own, and rather infamous during medieval times. But it is a more complex question to be addressed here. If a person thinks people who do not shower twice a day are dirty, he/she might see medieval people down right filthy. Hygiene is about health, so it should be good to remember, it is not healthy for your skin to wash it too often either.
Hygiene is a matter of culture. The fact that people like to bring out the terrible unhygienic conditions of medieval life wether imagined or real, is a way to separate “us” from “them”. We like to see ourselves as better and more clever people than any other group. For this ego trip we may even look down on our own ancestors. In that case the imagined superiority is based too often on fairytales and twisted facts. It is also typical that people see the good in the modern world as their own accomplishment, when it is all handed down to us. It is often also a result of intermixing of cultures. Rarely a singular culture on its own has developed to anything but a bitter end.