One common association with the Middle Ages is that everybody was always dirty. And while that is a cliche that is commonly projected in movies, it is still not true. Instead, people in the Middle Ages believed that bad smells transmitted diseases. As a result personal hygiene and even bathing was much more common than movies and tv-series portray it. But that bears one question. Did medieval people use soap to clean themselves? Or were there alternatives to soap?
Soap had already been used by Sumerians in 2000 BC and was also used in the Middle Ages. The best medieval soaps were imported from Aleppo (Syria) or the Iberian Peninsula but were too expensive for the majority of the population. They either used only water, cheaper homemade soaps or improvised by creating saponification by rubbing some ash between their wet hands.
Let`s take a closer look and start out with the use of soap in the Middle Ages.
Soap in the Middle Ages
Soap has been used for a very long time, which is shown by a recipe for soap that was written down by the Sumerians in 2000 BC. However, the Romans did not really use soap. Instead of using soap, the Romans had olive oil rubbed onto them which was then scratched off with a Strigilis.
Soap was then used again in the Middle Ages.
Making soap was not that complicated, only two ingredients were needed for a basic medieval soap. One was a type of fat, either olive oil or animal fat, and the other one was alkali. And while the highly sought-after white, but more expensive, soaps that were imported from Aleppo in Syria or the Iberian Peninsula used olive oil as fat, the homemade soaps used animal fat. That, by the way, also explains why medieval soap factories were usually built downwind from settlements. Their smell must have been quite bad.
So getting fat for making soaps was not a problem. But where did medieval people get alkali for their soaps?
Well, ash has a small amount of alkali in it. And since wooden fires were the main source of heat (but not the only source of light) there was quite a lot of ash available. But even though so much ash was produced as a by-product of cooking and heating, that was not enough to satisfy the demand for ash (and alkali).
There was an entire medieval industry that specialized in burning wood for the single purpose of producing ash which was then further processed so that in the end a small amount of alkali was left. Over time so much wood was needed for the production of alkali that measures for the protection of the last existing forests had to be taken!
The alkali together with the fat was then made into soap.
So yes, soap did exist in the Middle Ages and was somewhat affordable for most.
But what did people in the Middle Ages do when they did not have soap?
Alternatives to soap in the Middle Ages
While soap did exist in the Middle Ages, not everybody did always have access to it. But there were several alternatives to soap.
Sometimes it might just have been enough to wash the hands with water, especially if they were not too dirty. Washing the hands of guests was actually an important part of a medieval meal. Here soap was not needed since it was quite common that the guests took a bath before the feast and the washing of the hands was more of a ceremonial gesture.
Do you want to learn more about medieval baths & how often people in the Middle Ages bathed? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
But what if water alone did not do the trick? Let`s say that a peasant had just spent a day in the fields with his animals and needed to clean his hands from the grease that came from working with the farm animals.
In the case, that water alone was not enough and soap was too expensive, medieval peasants might have used pure ash to clean their hands. By rubbing a little bit of ash between their wet hands the alkali in the ash and the natural grease of the hands causes saponification. However, that was probably only rarely done since the alkali can be quite aggressive and can result in burns on the skin. So please don`t try this at home!
It seems after all that most people in the Middle Ages did not use soap (even though soap existed in the Middle Ages). I think that pure water was probably the most common way for people in the Middle Ages to clean themselves outside of the bathes which medieval people visited regularly.
But the question of how & how often people in the Middle Ages bathed is a story for another time.
I hope you enjoyed our trip into the not-so-dirty Middle Ages. Speaking of not-so-dirty Middle Ages. Have you ever wondered if and how people in the Middle Ages cleaned their teeth? Then I would like to recommend you my article here with everything you have to know about medieval dental hygiene.
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).