Janega Claims That Europeans in Middle Ages Washed Themselves Daily

If the claims in the book quoted below turn out to be well-documented, then I may need to modify a few sentences in my Openness book, if a new edition ever appears.

(p. A15) A longstanding myth holds that people in medieval Christian Europe didn’t bathe. In fact, the Middle Ages subscribed heartily to the adage “cleanliness is next to godliness.” Thinkers of the period considered physical beauty to represent spiritual purity, and they looked at hygiene in the same way: If one’s body was impure, it would by definition be unattractive and out of harmony. If it had any imperfections, one would best address them through cleansing. For women, in particular, cleanliness was one of the very highest virtues.

The daily wash usually involved collecting water in a ewer, heating it, then pouring it into a large basin to be used for scrubbing. Baths in a wooden tub would happen less often, given it was a world without plumbing. Water is heavy, and collecting it, heating it, and then getting it from the kettle into the bathtub was difficult. Baths also required space, which was at a premium in most households.

Luckily, there were a few ways to bathe outside the home. In warmer months, you could simply find a pond or a lake, and you were good to go. But in January this could be a problem, and that was where bathhouses came in. Bathhouses took the laborious and difficult work of drawing and heating water and monetized it. Most towns boasted at least one professional bathhouse, while cities played host to a number of competing establishments.

For the full essay, see:

Eleanor Janega. “The Middle Ages Were Cleaner Than We Think.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023): A15.

(Note: the online version of the essay has the date January 12, 2023, and has the same title as the print version.)

The essay quoted above is based on the author’s book:

Janega, Eleanor. The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society. New York: W.W. Norton, 2023.

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