In an iconic scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (and really, aren’t they all pretty iconic?), one character notices King Arthur making his way through the scene and pronounces that he must be a king. “Why?” asks another character. “Because he hasn’t got shit all over him,” the first man replies.
Seems fairly accurate for a historical fantasy world, right? People who don’t bathe, grubbing in mud constantly, smelling as ripe as the pigsty they’re grubbing in? After all, in a world without running water, without washing machines, without quad action showerheads, what else would they smell like? For heaven’s sake, they didn’t even have deodorant! And clickbait articles abound—Ten Disgusting Things About the Eighteenth Century. Gross Facts about the Middle Ages. Hygiene Horrors your Ancestors Thought Were Normal.
But were people really disgusting filthbags?
It’s an important question, on a few angles, especially for a writer or reader of fantasy based in a historical setting or non-modern secondworld. We’re almost accustomed to demanding filth. We begin, in fact, to associate the descriptive grit of a book with the authenticity—this is realism!
Frequently, however, we may be overselling (and too eager to buy) stories of hygiene horrors of yore. The eighteenth century is my historical research specialty, and more specifically, Anglo and Western European cultures—far enough back to be the subject of plenty of Gross Facts, but also modern enough that we have archives full of printed and pictorial material to work with. Many of the norms uncovered in the eighteenth century are true further back in time and forward through the nineteenth century. And it shows, overwhelmingly, that people weren’t complete filthbags.
They just went about hygiene a bit differently.
First, let’s tackle that whole “no bathing” thing. Yes, many people did not believe bathing was healthy and avoided it—though the numbers of baths depicted in artwork and bathing tubs showing up in inventories suggests that many people did enjoy the occasional bath. However, we need to define “bathing” here—it doesn’t mean washing. It means actually submerging oneself in water. Bathing is by all rights is a time consuming and labor intensive process when one is working without running water, or potentially dangerous, cold, or unsanitary if done out of doors. But one needn’t “bathe” to wash, and washing happened far more frequently. Historically, people seemed to focus on the areas that, shall we say, need it the most—feet, hands, underskirt regions. In fact, there’s a whole subset of artwork showing maids attending their ladies with washbasins, and saucy wink-wink French paintings of women, ahem, “freshening up” with special stands designed to make washing one’s nethers easier.
Body odor and cleanliness was also aided by changing one’s linens. Men wore long shirts, and women wore shifts, of hard-wearing plain linen that wicked up body oils and sweat. Those were then regularly washed. These garments are masterpieces of sewing, for what it’s worth—minute stitches and beautifully finished edges intended to stand up to hard, repeated washings. Outer garments were laundered infrequently if at all—you can’t dunk fine silk in a tub even today, and if you’ve ever shrunk a sweater in the wash you know the challenges of wool—but the linens underneath kept body odor from hanging on. Spot cleaning tackled stains, and brushing was done to clean debris, dirt, and let’s be honest, probably pet hair off of fabrics as well. In fact, this was a normal clothing cleaning practice through the beginning of the twentieth century—launder unders and brush outer clothing.
What about hair? They weren’t lather-rinse-repeating—but they were using hair care regimens. Men and women combed and brushed frequently to remove dead hair, dead skin, and dirt. They also used pomatum, a fat-based styling and conditioning balm, and powder in tandem. Books such as The Toilet of Flora (on Google Books!) provided recipes for at-home production. The pomatum conditions and protects hair, and the powder soaks up excess oil. Together, they make hair malleable and easy to style in those high, complicated fashions (or just a really easy bun for workaday women). I’ve maintained my hair using this method for up to two weeks before. The only downside is that my hair cleansed this way doesn’t work well in modern styles, though it’s excellent for updos—and there’s the rub, isn’t it? This “gross” hygiene practice is actually coming down to aesthetic preferences and norms, not cleanliness!
This isn’t to say there weren’t unpleasant cleanliness issues. No one can deny that sanitation was a frequent challenge to city dwellers, or that the lack of germ theory proved problematic on plenty of occasions. Some situations took people away from their creature comforts like soap and washbasins altogether; a soldier on the march or a farmer in the fields all day was likely to get dirty, and to notice that uncomfortable state. And of course, I’ll take my modern plumbing over an outhouse or chamber pot any day. But when we consider the daily life of most people living in the past, it can border on sensationalist to oversell the Gross Factor, assuming they weren’t even trying to keep clean. It may even cross into some self-flattery territory—where we’re enjoying, a wee bit too much, our “elevation” over those stupid rhubarbs who didn’t even have deodorant.
I found myself while writing The Unraveled Kingdom series, set in an eighteenth-century Europe-esque secondworld, aware of the tropes of Our Dirty Past and also of the dangers of overselling or sanitizing the filth of a non-modern world. Ultimately, I did my best to stick to what research leant me, and my characters are neither covered in muck nor complaining about one another’s funk. They use scents and hair products. Differences in cultural bathing norms even come up in Fray, book two of the series. Sometimes research leads us to what seems, at first glance, unrealistic—but when it tells us to ditch the crunchy pants and mudstained face, I say we listen.
About Rowenna Miller
Rowenna Miller lives in the Midwest with her husband and daughters, where she teaches English composition, trespasses while hiking, and spends too much time researching and recreating historical textiles.
Fray, the second book in her Unraveled Kingdom series, is out on the 4th of June 2019.