That the Middle Ages was a morass of stinking towns and villages filled with people whose body odours would have made a skunk weep is one of those history myths that gets peddled at school and repeated incessantly until it ends up on QI. Scrape under the mucky surface and things are rather different.
At the height of the Middle Ages, bathing was a serious business. For the wealthy this would take place in tented wooden tubs lined with cloth; the better-off town-dwellers had communal bathhouses; the peasants made do with rivers in the summer and fire-warmed water in the winter. Whatever rank you were, de-lousing with salty water would probably feature somewhere in your life. Health manuals such as the Regimen Sanitatis (c.1308) contained dozens of rules for bathing at specific times such as pregnanacy and noted the importance of bathing for getting rid of dirt and grime beyond that which was visible: “if any of the waste products of third digestion are left under the skin that were not resolved by exercise and massage, these will be resolved by the bath.” As with medicine, herbs and plants were central to the process of sweetening the body for those who had access to them. Thyme and rose petals were widely used to perfume bath water, the body could be dried using sheets sprinkled with rosewater and then dusted (men and women) with a powder made from ground rice, ground orris root (a violet smell favoured by King Edward IV) and fragranced with cloves or lavender. Bay leaves, hyssop and sage were used to make deodorants and sachets of lemon balm and dried rose petals could be slipped into clothes already boiled in water scented with orris root and stored in chests containing 'sweet bags' which held a mix of ingredients such as musk, citrus peel and marjoram. Finally a 'pomme d'ambre' (an apple of ambergris) filled with a fragrant paste could be attached to a waist belt and, once Arabic gums and essential oil distillation methods could be combined with the discovery of alcohol distillation in the early 1300s, a perfume with notes of mint and rosemary could be added to the mix. The notion of a court filled with walking pot-pourri bowls is rather hard to escape.
|Fes Medieval Tanneries|
Awareness of the links between filth and disease can be seen in the regulations that were constantly passed in medieval towns. Fines were imposed for throwing waste from high windows and dumping it in clean water sources and on butchers for failing to clear waste which attracted dogs and wild pigs. But, as town populations continued to rise, the battle became increasingly hard and raw sewage continued to flow into the Thames until the nineteenth century. The towns smelled bad and, by the end of the Middle Ages, it is likely that the majority of people smelled pretty bad too. The public bath houses had long been associated with sexual activity, the Stews in Southwark for example were largely regarded as a front for brothels. The Church railed against them in vain but attitudes to communal bathing began to change after successive outbreaks of plague and the new disease syphillis, which began to make its presence felt in the late 1400s. Taking a bath became a rather risky adventure.
So back to the balancing act. No one wants to read a seduction scene where the protagonists' body odour acts like extra characters but drowning everything in herbs seems like a recipe for a cliched dish. I'm off to Glasgow's West End streets to breathe in petrol fumes and ponder.