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Medieval Sanitation Affected Health, Fashion, and Life

Something as simple as toothbrushes, or maybe toilet paper, would have been a treasure to the people of The Middle Ages. However, because of the lack of sanitation and cleanliness, there were more jobs and ways of life. The sanitation of The Middle Ages definitely affected medieval health, fashion, and life. The Middle Ages was from about 500 AD to 1500 AD. Little was known about known about science and math except for a handful of ideas, which mostly revolved around the Church. This led to the varying ideas and methods of health that were practiced and the lack of protection from disease.


Medieval House, Medieval Life Housing,
Cute Rat, How To Smell A Rat,
Common Well, Toby Neal-An Endless Fascination with Stories,

Sickness spread very easily. There were three main spreads of disease: the floors of houses, water, and rodents. Floors were covered with rushes. The philosopher, Erasmus, once described "... floors are laid with white clay, and are covered with rushes, occasionally renewed, but so imperfectly that the bottom layer is left undisturbed, sometimes for twenty years, harboring expectoration, vomiting, the leakage of dogs and men, ale droppings, scraps of fish, and other abominations not fit to be mentioned..."(Alchin 2). The water was also very unsterile. Human waste would be thrown into rivers such as the Thames, which made it a breeding ground for rats (Alchin 3). On the upside, if the waste were dumped in a castle’s moat, it would certainly deter invaders (Stewart 4)!
However, before the waste was thrown into a river, it was dumped from chamber pots into the streets, despite the laws against it. The streets even dipped down into the earth so the waste fell down to the middle of the street (“Middle Ages” 393). As the waste came splashing down people yelled, “Gardy Loo.” It was a form of the French term “Gardez l’eau”(where we got the term “the loo”) which basically meant, “look out!”(Stewart 8).

Sadly, the diseases that spread were not easily treated. Doctors had no antibiotics, so all they could offer was a concoction of spices and fruits (Alchin 1). Or they might be able to treat a wound with boiling oil (Pendergast & Pendergast
5). Their methods were based on the teachings of the philosophers Hippocrates and Aristotle, including bleeding with leeches and the four Humours: Fire, Earth, Air, and Water (Alchin 1-2).


Along with the doctors’ attempts to heal and clean being bad, the people’s attempts to were just as nasty. The poor bathed very rarely, usually once or twice a year (Pendergast & Pendergast 2). A popular way for the rich to get clean was to go to a bathhouse. Despite its having what they thought of as cleaning supplies, it was pitiful contribution to getting clean. However, they were of the highest fashion (Pendergast & Pendergast 2). Anyone who was anyone went to a bathhouse. However, because of the disgustingness of the water, the public baths probably did nothing but contribute to sickness (Pendergast & Pendergast 2).

This scared the people from using water to cleanse themselves, so they began using different methods and wearing certain types of clothing. The rich wiped themselves with clean, dry, white linen cloths (Pendergast & Pendergast 3). They were believed to have healing powers. However the poor did not have servants to keep the cloths nice. They had to stay with the rarely bathing method. The rich were so lucky they would wear brand new linen everyday (Pendergast & Pendergast 3).
White Linen, Vogue Fabrics,
Although the rich always had clean, white linen, they began to smell. They did have deodorant, but it was just a mixture of strawberries and herbs, so it didn’t help much (Galloway 58). Since soap was extremely pricey, they began to wear lots and lots and LOTS of perfume (Pendergast & Pendergast 4)! Along with that, a must-have accessory was a scented handkerchief. Everyone, except for the poor-they just had to live with smelling bad-carried one everywhere.

For the rich’s public appearances, they had some other tools for not having to bear the unsterile environments-for example, pomanders. Pomanders were little, scented, jeweled balls that they held to their nose to distract
them from the horrible odors of the street( Pendergast &Pendergast 4).

Surprisingly, high heels also originated then. They were to protect the people's feet from the mucky streets (Galloway 58).
Who knew?!
High Heel, Shopping,


Anyways, there were jobs that were created based on the sanitation of the time. One of the jobs was a cesspool cleaner. A cesspool was an area where people dumped their waste if they didn’t live anywhere near street. Amazingly, the cesspool cleaners were paid two shillings a ton (Stewart 9). Along with that, they sometimes found treasure in the waste, such as a ring or a few coins (Galloway 58). Why the trinkets were there, is still unknown. Another job was to serve in a castle cleaning the garderobes- a small section with a hole at the bottom that stuck out over the moat. All day, except for when the garderobes were being used, they cleaned and cleaned with just a cloth and a bucket of water (Stewart 5).

People back then didn’t have the correct resources to clean their surroundings, let alone keep their self clean. Eventually this led to a worse disease than they had ever encountered, now known as the Black Plague. It eradicated practically one-third of the population (Alchin 1). One of the main sources of its rapid spreading was rats and fleas. All the waste in the rivers made a very fruitful area for the disgusting rodents.
Flea, How Fleas Work,

Example of Shaking Hands, Shaking-Hands,

Based on what is known about the cleanliness of the time, it seems the people then would have greatly valued a roll of toilet paper. All they had was a stick, or probably their left hand. That’s why we shake hands with our right hand, back then our left hand was nasty. That is just one example of how the sanitation affected life in The Middle Ages. Along with health and fashion, life was so heavily affected by the cleanliness; it’s astounding how different the lives of the people must have been because of the sanitation in the medieval era.

Works Cited

Alchin, Linda. The Middle Ages. 16 November 2008. 18 March 2011 <>.
Galloway, Priscilla. Archers, Alchemists, and 98 other Medieval Jobs You Might Have Loved or Loathed. New York: Annick Press, 2003.
“Middle Ages.” Compton’s Encyclopedia. 1996.
Pendergast, Sara, and Tom Pendergast(Ed.). “Hygiene.” Fashion, Costume, and Culture: Clothing, Headwear, Body Decorations, and Footwear through the Ages 7 March 2011: 494-495
Stewart, Colyne. Past the Tower Guard, Third Hole on Your Right: Medieval Toilets. November 2002. 18 March 2011 <
LeahH-CMS will research this topic

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This page has been revised 23 times.
The last revision was Apr 15, 2011 10:59 am by LeahH-CMS.