In our modern age of universal connectivity and stressful social pressures, and it can be easy to yearn for the long-gone days of yore, days of gallant gentlemen and noble ladies farming away in some idyllic pasture. The middle ages can often seem romantic, especially when compared to the chaos of the contemporary age, but history shows us that the reality of Medieval Times was anything BUT pretty.
Contrary to popular conception, bathing is not a modern habit. Traditions of bathing date all the way back to the Egyptians and can be found in the disparate histories of the Roman, Jewish, and Muslim empires. Romans in particular loved their baths and in every territory they conquered they would erect fabulous new bathhouses that quickly became the social heart of every city. The bath was seen as a ritual purification and was considered sacred to many people.
However, during the middle ages bath houses became seen as dens of sexual immorality and were eventually torn down by the church because of it. This forced the local peasants to do their bathing in rivers and ponds, which were unfortunately hotbeds for bacteria and disease. Many people got sick from these bodies of water, leading to collective folk myths that saw ALL bathing as dangerous and unhealthy. Soon, peasants were actively discouraged from bathing at all.
In addition to the people, the world inhabited by those people was likely just as smelly. Don’t forget that everyone traveled by horse back then. The smell of horse manure was everywhere, from the streets on which they rode to the farms that were fertilized by the very same thing. Not only that, but there were no sanitation services to clean the streets off like there were during the Roman and Abbasid empires. Not only were there no sanitation services, there were also no sewers. It was a common habit for peasants to throw their “nightsoil” right out of their window and onto the street. Indoors or outdoors, the smell was unavoidable.
You Would Have Died
Worse than all of that by far was the ever-looming specter of death. Between plagues, a lack of sanitation, and forced military conscription, the middle ages had some of the lowest mortality rates ever recorded in history. Medicine was in its infancy and oftentimes a simple cold could turn deadly overnight. Animals walked right into town and caused chaos wherever they went. A highwayman could stab you and leave you for dead over only a couple pieces of silver.
Even when everything was going well, a deadly plague could wipe out entire cities in the course of a week. Sometimes people died so quickly that the undertakers didn’t have the time or resources to bury everyone, and bodies were left rotting in the open sun.
So the next time you get stressed out over the flood of emails in your inbox, you can always rest easy and remind yourself “At least it doesn’t smell like a rotting corpse!”