Bathing Dos and Don’ts
My darlings, after you read my last column, many of you sent your servants and children to ask about a topic important to all. So, instead of the promised article on eyebrows and making vs buying your beauty products, today we shall focus on bathing.
There are so many opinions and theories by respected scholars about both the benefits and dangers of bathing, it’s almost impossible to know who’s right. But fear not, for your own Lady Matilda has done the research and asked the tough questions so that you don’t have to. (Note: if you send your children with messages for me, my dears, please ensure they’re clean, or at least freshened with lavender).
Valerius Maximus’ Facta et Dicta Memorabilia (fol. 244), c. 1470. Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin–Preussischer Kulturbesitz
While many of you enjoy personal basins and water jugs for your ablutions, there may still exist a hesitation about using a bath. And who has time to read all 1500 words written by Magninius Mediolanesis on bathing (nor his 57 bathing prescriptions. 57!) So here are some Dos and Don’ts, selected from only the wisest of scholars, for those of you prepared to give public bathing a try.
DO BATHE! As our learned teacher, Magninius, reminds us: “The bath cleans the external body parts of dirt left behind from exercise on the outside of the body.” Or, if not exercise, then strenuous socialising.
DO bathe in the Spring and in the Winter.
DO listen to our Italian cousin, Pietro de Tussignano, and bathe every day for 15 days, for an hour each day. The benefits will last for months! Just imagine the envious looks you’ll get from Lady Stanburh at your next banquet.
For my more discerning and discrete readers, your very own bath is the height of luxury and class. Follow these rules:
Regime dei Corpi by Aldobrandino da Siena, 14th century.
DO hang clean sheets around the tub, each one festooned with fresh flowers and herbs.
DO ensure your servants have provided a large sponge for you to sit upon, as well as 5 or 6 smaller sponges for additional comfort and general leaning.
Detail fromValerius Maximus’ Facta et Dicta Memorabilia
DO remember to close the door! You never know WHO is peeking in or listening. You don’t want to experience a similar incident as Lady Agatha did, involving her son’s dog, their pet cat, and her husband’s falcon.
DO have a basin on hand with hot water and fresh herbs with which to wash. Rinsing with rose-water will leave you feeling refreshed and your skin glowing.
DO have your servants add boiled herbs like chamomile, breweswort, mallow, and brown fennel to the bath for any aches and pains you or your lord may have.
DON’T engage in conjugal relations TOO much before bathing. But don’t abstain either! For a more help it would be best to seek the advice of your parish priest. Or Lady Agatha.
Romance of Alexander, Bruges, 1338-44 (Bodleian Library)
DON’T eat before bathing. If you absolutely must nibble something, a little wine with no more than two spoons of raisins should be your limit. (Our Italian cousin, de Tussignano, does NOT say, however, how large those two spoons should be – in this case, you are your own best judge).
DON’T pour water over your head if unless you are clean-shaven. The hairs may impede the beneficial effects of the water.
DON’T bathe in the summer, or bathe as little as possible. While full immersion is frowned upon during the summer months, continued bathing at your wash basin is positively encouraged.
DON’T linger too long in a bath. Overlong baths can lead to fatness and feebleness.
Dear reader, if you’re still worried about who runs these baths and what rules they must follow, here are a few to set your mind at ease:
Great Roll of the Pipe, National Archives
DON’T advertise your bath house at night. These are dangerous times and it is irresponsible to coax fine folk from their beds and out into the streets at such an hour.
Biblioteca Nacional de España, Cod. Vitr. 24-3, f. 10v.Libro de horas de Carlos V. Paris
DON’T have any prostitutes in your bath house. Not a one. Nor any lepers, vagabonds, or other infamous persons of the night.
DON’T even think about heating up your baths on Sundays or other feast days. Just don’t. If you thought the Bishop was angry when he discovered his private wine had been used for communion, just try to open your bath on a saint’s day!
British Library, Add. 17987, folio 111v
My darlings, I hope you found this information useful and that my efforts to educate have not been in vain. Next time we’ll be back to beauty!
By the thirteenth century, there were over 32 bathhouses in Paris alone. In Southwark there were 18 a person could choose from. Smaller towns also had their own bathhouses, often attached to the local bakery so the bathhouse could use the heat coming from the ovens to heat their water.
- Newman, Paul B., Daily Life in the Middle Ages(McFarland and Co., 2001)
- Smith, Virginia, Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity(Oxford University Press, 2007)
- The Trotula
- Livre des Métiers, Etienne de Boileu
- Twelve rules for bathing by Pietro de Tussignano
- Regimen Sanitatis, Magninius Mediolanesis
- Secreta Secretorum