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Top 10 Myths about the Middle Ages

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Volgadon
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Post by Volgadon » Thu January 22nd, 2009, 6:12 pm

6. Smelly People
Myth: People didn’t bathe in the Middle Ages, therefore they smelled bad

Not only is this a total myth, it is so widely believed that it has given rise to a whole other series of myths, such as the false belief that Church incense was designed to hide the stink of so many people in one place. In fact, the incense was part of the Church’s rituals due to its history coming from the Jewish religion which also used incense in its sacrifices. This myth has also lead to the strange idea that people usually married in May or June because they didn’t stink so badly - having had their yearly bath. It is, of course, utter rubbish. People married in those months because marriage was not allowed during Lent (the season of penance). So, back to smelly people. In the Middle Ages, most towns had bathhouses - in fact, cleanliness and hygiene was very highly regarded - so much so that bathing was incorporated into various ceremonies such as those surrounding knighthood. Some people bathed daily, others less regularly - but most people bathed. Furthermore, they used hot water - they just had to heat it up themselves, unlike us with our modern plumbed hot water. The French put it best in the following Latin statement: Venari, ludere, lavari, bibere; Hoc est vivere! (To hunt, to play, to wash, to drink, - This is to live!)
I work at a baptismal site on the Jordan River. When people come out of the water, they smell. Heck if you shower without soap and shampoo you don't smell very delightful either. Skinny dipping is great for getting mud and manure off, but you will still smell afterwards. Not only that, but you wouldn't be able to bathe all year round. Winter is a given, but I think you couldn't bathe during the lents. Another factor is convenience. If you are up before dawn, work until it gets dark and have to get up early again, you are hardly likely to go down to the river or pond every day, especially if it isn't right next door. Then factor in drying time. Weigh that up against spending time with the wife, kids, helping your parents, chatting with your neighbours, maintainance work, fishing, hunting, hobbies and parties then tell me how frequently you would go bathing. And this is only men I am talking about. Who knows when women would find the time.
Bathing at home was just as difficult. Take a barrel, see how long it takes to fill by hand, then consider that you probably have to walk twenty minutes in each direction to draw water. Heating water was a lengthy process. It also uses up precious firewood. I have friends who live in a village in southern Russia. They have no running water, it has to come from a well. The village is barely electrified. The stove and oven are fuelled by firewood. I went to help them fetch more firewood and even figuring in my inexperience it was tiring and time consuming.
Ladelling water is not fun, it is also really cold! Up until a week ago our water heater was out of action, so I speak from experience.
I've recently lived in southern Russia, a really poor region. Deoderant is a bit more than what a large portion of the population can afford on a frequent basis. For the first ten years of my life (I was born and grew up in Israel) deoderant was a rarity, period. Few shops carried it. People stink without it.
The odour of sweat permeates everythig. For the medieval era you also have to factor in smoky stoves, cooking odours, the stench of detergents, animals and everything relating to your profession.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't most medieval soap not intended for personal hygiene?
So this, I submit, is why the middle ages really did stink. Not for neglect, but for other factors.

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Volgadon
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Post by Volgadon » Thu January 22nd, 2009, 6:14 pm

[quote=""donroc""]Spanish Christians from the 15th centuries onwards generally avoided the Jewish and Moorish practices of washing and bathing for fear of denunciation to the Inquisition.[/quote]

Another practice that would land you in trouble was changing your linen on a friday.

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Post by EC2 » Thu January 22nd, 2009, 7:16 pm

'The Senses in Late Medieval England' by C.M. Woolgar, Yale University Press is a fascinating book that looks at medieval attitudes to bathing in some detail. 'Late Medieval' is a misnomer as it takes in the early period too, even in some cases going as far back as Bede.
Thomas Becket was one of the 'Holy Dirt' brigade. When examined after death, his underwear was crawling with maggots. On another closed list to which I belong (probably to keep us all under lock and key :D ) he is affectionately known as 'Ole Wormy.'
Les proz e les vassals
Souvent entre piez de chevals
Kar ja li coard n’I chasront

'The Brave and the valiant
Are always to be found between the hooves of horses
For never will cowards fall down there.'

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Post by Kasthu » Thu January 22nd, 2009, 7:47 pm

[quote=""EC2""]'The Senses in Late Medieval England' by C.M. Woolgar, Yale University Press is a fascinating book that looks at medieval attitudes to bathing in some detail. 'Late Medieval' is a misnomer as it takes in the early period too, even in some cases going as far back as Bede.
Thomas Becket was one of the 'Holy Dirt' brigade. When examined after death, his underwear was crawling with maggots. On another closed list to which I belong (probably to keep us all under lock and key :D ) he is affectionately known as 'Ole Wormy.'[/quote]

Ew. Just, ew.

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Post by Margaret » Thu January 22nd, 2009, 7:48 pm

Rowan, you are to be commended for starting a truly fascinating discussion. I am learning so many things!

Scholars have used various cut-off points for the Middle Ages. In the recent past, I think the period from the fall of the Roman Empire (5th century) to the Norman Conquest (1066) was referred to as the Dark Ages (and still is by some), but I think the Dark Ages was generally considered to be a sub-category of the Middle Ages. Now, people are realizing that a lot was actually going on in the so-called Dark Ages and the term is falling out of use. Perhaps they were "dark" because they had not been well-studied and people didn't know much about the period. In any case, for purposes of my website, I include everything from the fall of the Roman Empire (except the Arthurian period in immediate post-Roman Britain, which I should probably reclassify) up to the Renaissance in the "Medieval" category.
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EC2
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Post by EC2 » Thu January 22nd, 2009, 8:02 pm

[quote=""Margaret""]Rowan, you are to be commended for starting a truly fascinating discussion. I am learning so many things!

Scholars have used various cut-off points for the Middle Ages. In the recent past, I think the period from the fall of the Roman Empire (5th century) to the Norman Conquest (1066) was referred to as the Dark Ages (and still is by some), but I think the Dark Ages was generally considered to be a sub-category of the Middle Ages. Now, people are realizing that a lot was actually going on in the so-called Dark Ages and the term is falling out of use. Perhaps they were "dark" because they had not been well-studied and people didn't know much about the period. In any case, for purposes of my website, I include everything from the fall of the Roman Empire (except the Arthurian period in immediate post-Roman Britain, which I should probably reclassify) up to the Renaissance in the "Medieval" category.[/quote]

On a scholarly list I'm on, 'The Dark Ages' as a title for an age is frowned upon and their medieval period does start from the the fall of the Roman Empire. It's what I tend to use these days as a rule of thumb, but not so far as to knot my knickers :)
Les proz e les vassals
Souvent entre piez de chevals
Kar ja li coard n’I chasront

'The Brave and the valiant
Are always to be found between the hooves of horses
For never will cowards fall down there.'

Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal

www.elizabethchadwick.com

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donroc
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Post by donroc » Thu January 22nd, 2009, 8:51 pm

And then there is Rochester's complaint -- and can you not hear Johnny Depp reciting it?

"Fair nasty nymph, be clean and kind
And all my joys restore
By using paper still behind
And sponges for before."
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Bodo the Apostate, a novel set during the reign of Louis the Pious and end of the Carolingian Empire.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXZthhY6 ... annel_page

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Post by red805 » Thu January 22nd, 2009, 10:36 pm

I am in the middle of listening to The High Middle Ages cd series from The Teaching Company. I absolutely recommend it, along with the companion Early Middle Ages and Late Middle Ages series. In these lectures, the Early Middle Ages are basically from the fall of the Roman Empire, or the very late Roman Empire to about 1000. The High Middle Ages are 1000 to 1300 or so. I haven't gotten to the Late Middle Ages yet, but I think the cds cover 1300 to middle to late-1400s, or maybe 1500. I'm certainly no expert, but some of the Top 10 Myths seem quite misleading, for instance citing the status, rights, or power of a few extraordinary women of those ages as if they weren't the exception. Is there an author of the Myths listed?

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Post by Madeleine » Fri January 23rd, 2009, 12:15 pm

Someone on TV the other day said that the Dark Ages period was only called that as not much happened art and literature wise.

I'm enjoying all the discussions about bathing - I guess a lot of it did come down to the sheer practicalities of a person's situation; mind you I know someone who apparently doesn't bathe...he just uses lots of deodorant! But it's well-known that the Romans certainly had bath-houses.

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Post by Volgadon » Fri January 23rd, 2009, 12:18 pm

Something I forgot to point out was that most people had few changes of clothing. Try wearing the same shirt for 5 years straight, day, day out.

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