Have you ever heard the statement that people in the Middle Ages were always dirty and never bathed? While that is a pretty common stereotype about the Middle Ages, it is still not true. In reality, knights, peasants, and the citizens of medieval cities had a very pronounced bathing culture. And both private bathrooms and bathhouses as well as public bathhouses were extremely common in the Middle Ages.
So I would like to dedicate this article to the medieval bathing culture and the private and public bathrooms and bathhouses.
Every medieval city had public bathhouses (Paris had 26, one for every 2600 inhabitants). They were usually open 3 days per week and visits cost 1 Heller, which was the smallest coin available. So public bathhouses were affordable and people in the Middle Ages probably visited them once a week. Most castles, monasteries, and houses of the urban elites had private bathhouses or bathrooms. Peasants outside the cities swam and bathed in rivers, lakes, and millponds, and used heated water to wash themselves in the winter.
Let`s take a closer look!
However, first one small disclaimer: Many computer games depict the idea that every bathhouse in the Middle Ages was basically a brothel. That is not true at all! Yes, there were bathhouses that also functioned as brothels. But they were not the norm and will not be the topic of this article!
Instead, I would like to present the private bathrooms and public bathhouses that people in the Middle Ages used to clean themselves. And I would like to start with the privately owned bathrooms and bathhouses.
Private Bathhouses & Bathrooms in the Middle Ages
When it comes to bathing and baths in the Middle Ages, then we have quite an interesting situation. The main sources for the Early and High Middle Ages talk about the nobility, while most sources from the Late Middle Ages talk about baths and bathing in the cities.
In the following, I will mostly talk about bathing in medieval castles or cities since taking a bath when living on the land was not really a problem. Medieval peasants bathed and swam in millponds, lakes, and rivers, not only to clean themselves but also just for fun. In the winter, peasants used heated water to wash themselves.
By the way, swimming was not the only leisure activity of medieval peasants. Here you can find out more about how much free time medieval peasants had and what they liked to do in their free time.
Bathhouses in medieval castles
Taking a hot bath is not only good for hygiene, but it`s also fun. That is true today and it was just as true in the Middle Ages.
One reason why Emperor Charlemagne chose Aachen as his capital was the presence of natural hot springs in which he liked to bathe. To be able to really use these natural hot springs, Charlemagne had an ancient Roman thermae restored in which he regularly bathed either alone, together with friends, or with guests.
But not only the residences of kings and emperors had bath houses.
Many medieval castles had their own bathhouses, some of these bathhouses even had underfloor heating (something that the Romans had also had).
Bathing in general was quite important in the knightly culture of the Middle Ages. Not only were guests offered a bath, but taking a bath was also an important step before a man was knighted. The idea was that the bath would clean the outside of the future knight while the night of prayer in the chapel would clean his inside.
But private bathhouses and bathrooms did not only exist in castles. Especially during the Late Middle Ages, it was pretty common for the houses of wealthy citizens (like successful merchants or master craftsmen) to have their own, private bathrooms.
Bathrooms in medieval city homes
Having a private bathroom in the Middle Ages was expensive and because of that most common in the upper classes. But not only knights in their castles, but also the wealthy urban elites (like wealthy merchants and successful master craftsmen) had their own private bathrooms in their houses.
It seems like whoever could afford it in the Middle Ages had a private bathroom in his house. There was usually an oven for heating water and a lined wooden tub in the medieval bathroom. The tubs were lined with linen to prevent splinters.
Aside from that, there was also soap or at least some alternative to soap available in the bathroom.
By the way.
We know about these private bathrooms in the houses of the wealthy urban elites because of medieval bills in which the materials and the labor for building these bathrooms are listed. And since some of the listed materials are explicitly named decorative tiles, we can assume that these private bathrooms were quite nice.
However, private bathrooms were only available to a small, wealthy elite. The majority of people in the Middle Ages had to rely on public bathhouses.
Public bathhouses in the Middle Ages
As already stated in the introduction, most medieval bathhouses were not brothels. There are actually reports of travelers who visited a medieval bathhouse and were quite disappointed because of the proper behavior within the bathhouse.
Public bath houses existed in the Middle Ages since the 12th century. The right to run a medieval bathhouse was granted by the city or the ruler and was tied to the building (not the operator). The public bathhouses were used by the majority of the population and the price for a visit was set by the city.
So let`s now take a look at the opening hours and the price of visiting a medieval bathhouse before then looking at how people bathed in the Middle Ages.
Opening hours & Prices of public bathhouses in the Middle Ages
The price for visiting a medieval bathhouse, as well as the opening hour and the number of personnel, was set by the city. Public bathhouses usually opened 3 days per week in the Middle Ages. Saturday was the most popular day, while on Sunday the bathhouse was usually closed.
It seems likely that the other 4 days in the week were used for cleaning the bathhouse, getting enough wood for the fires, and producing soap. Here you can find out more about the use of soap and its alternatives in the Middle Ages.
Thanks to a source from the city of Bamberg (Holy Roman Empire) we even know how much a visit to a medieval bathhouse costs.
In 1480 AD, a peasant had to pay 1 Heller (the smallest coin available) to take a steam bath in one of the public bathhouses in the city of Bamberg. Wealthy citizens paid double (1 Pfennig). Taking a bath in a tub cost 6 Pfennige. 1 Heller or 1 Pfennig for a bath was a common tip in the Middle Ages.
Here you can find out more about the pay of medieval soldiers to put that into perspective. And here you can find out more about the price of salt in the Middle Ages.
Ok, so taking a bath in a public bathhouse was quite affordable as long as you took a steam bath. That tells us that there was a clear distinction between a steam bath and a bath in a tub!
And that brings us to the question of how people in the Middle Ages bathed.
How did people in the Middle Ages bathe?
The majority of the population of medieval cities used steam baths in public bathhouses to clean themselves. There was also the opportunity to bathe in a tub similar to the ones in the private bathrooms of the urban elites. But these tub baths were much more expensive.
Visiting the bath house to take a steam bath was widely common in the Middle Ages. According to some medieval sources, craftsmen finished work early on Saturday to still be able to visit the public bathhouse. And in some cities, there were agreements between the city and the operator of the bathhouse in place. These agreements allowed the urban poor to visit the bathhouse for free one day per week. In exchange, the operator of the bathhouse got free firewood and was exempt from certain duties.
There were usually a lot of public bathhouses in a medieval city. Just to give you a rough idea, medieval Paris had 26 bathhouses at one point in time. That meant that there was one bath house for every 2600 inhabitants!
Ok, so there were a lot of opportunities to visit a public bath in the Middle Ages. But what was the procedure like?
The opening of the public bathhouse was usually announced by a horn.
But before you visited a medieval steam bath you would first wash with water and soap. Then you would enter the steam bath. Most people who visited a bathhouse in the Middle Ages used the cheaper steam bath (kind of like a Turkish steam bath) instead of the much more expensive bath in a wooden tub. Other services offered in public bathhouses were haircuts, cupping, beard shaving, massages, phlebotomies, and pulling teeth.
Speaking of pulling teeth. Have you ever wondered how people in the Middle Ages cleaned their teeth? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
But it was also somewhat common that food was served to people in a public bathhouse when they were sitting in a tub. Here you can find out more about the surprisingly good diets of medieval peasants. And here you can find out more about the diets of medieval knights.
But back to taking baths in the Middle Ages.
Did men and women bathe together in the Middle Ages?
There are indeed medieval sources that state that men and women bathed together. However, it seems like that was not the standard. In most public bathhouses, men and women either bathed at different times of the week/day or in separate parts of the bathhouse.
Allowing immoral behavior could be punished quite harshly and could cost the operator of the bathhouse his license. One French source from the city of Avignon even states that men who tried to force their way into the women`s area of the public bathhouses were punished with death.
So the idea that every medieval bathhouse was a brothel is definitely not true. There were however separate businesses in which the bathhouse was indeed combined with a brothel. But these are not the bathhouses debated in this article.
Did the church prohibit bathing in the Middle Ages?
Another very popular idea is that the medieval church prohibited bathing. But that was definitely not the case.
The church did not prohibit taking baths, quite the opposite. Every monastery had at least one bath house and monks were obliged to wash their hands regularly. Not taking baths was seen as equal to fasting and was seen as an act of asceticism. As mentioned, bathhouses were common in cities, castles, and monasteries. The famous monastery of St. Gallen even had four bathhouses!
So that brings us to the final question: How often did people in the Middle Ages bathe?
How often did people in the Middle Ages bathe?
The question of how often people in the Middle Ages would bathe is impossible to answer since it depended on the social status, the wealth, but also the time of the year. I think it is self-explanatory why a wealthy merchant with a private bath room would bathe more often than a medieval peasant during winter.
Peasants would regularly swim and bathe in ponds, lakes, and rivers for fun during summer. In winter, bathing was more limited since it meant that enough water had to be heated in the houses. In the cities, visits to the steam bath in the local public bathhouse were quite cheap and as such probably occurred about once per week. Wealthy individuals with their own bathrooms or bathhouses might have bathed more often.
I think it has become pretty clear that unlike common belief the Middle Ages were not a dirty, smelly time. Instead, it was a time when people took care of themselves and washed themselves regularly.
But not only the stereotype of the dirty Middle Ages is deeply engraved into our minds, but so are several misconceptions about sleep.
One of the two most widespread is, that people in the Middle Ages either slept on benches since they did not have beds (they did!) or slept sitting upright with their backs leaned against the headboard.
Here you can find out more about beds and mattresses in the Middle Ages. And here you can find my article debunking the myth of medieval people sleeping upright as well as an explanation of where that myth comes from.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Daniela Rösing: Von der Badestube zum Badekabinett. Badekultur im Mittelalter und in der frühen Neuzeit (Zülpich 2014).
Harry Kühnel: Alltag im Spätmittelalter (1984 Graz).
Maike Vogt-Lüerssen: Der Alltag im Mittelalter (2001 Mainz-Kostheim).