Horrifying Hygiene In The Middle Ages

July 4, 2024 | Sarah Ng

Horrifying Hygiene In The Middle Ages

Keeping Clean Wasn't Always Easy

From dangerous remedies to waste disposal, the hygiene standards during the Middle Ages might just send a chill down your spine.


It Was Someone's Job To Clean The King's Bottom

The "Groom of the King's Close Stool" might sound like one of the nastiest jobs in history, but it was actually a highly sought-after position. These groomsmen hailed from noble families and were often extremely close to the king.

The Groom of the Stool was responsible for cleaning up after the king did his business. 

Close stool (Commode)Lobsterthermidor, Wikimedia Commons

A Stinky Cure For Baldness

It seems that baldness hasn't been a desirable trait for centuries. One piece of advice from a medical handbook written in 1654 instructs bald men to rub their heads with a putrid mixture of chicken droppings and potassium.

farm chickensCompassion in World Farming

Toothaches Were Remedied Via Extraction

Though many of us despise visiting the dentist, dealing with one's teeth in the Middle Ages was a downright nightmare. As there weren't any dentists, people would go to their barber to have their teeth extracted. And that wasn't all the barber did.

In addition to cutting hair, barbers were also known to perform bloodletting and minor operations.

A wizened old barberWellcome Images, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

People Stored Their Chamber Pots Below Their Beds

Going to the bathroom during the Middle Ages might have been even more convenient than today. It was a common practice for people to store their chamber pots underneath their beds. 

In the middle of the night, one simply had to pull out their pot to do their business.

Chamber potPeter Reed, Flickr

Leaves Were Used As Toilet Paper

Peasants had to clean their own bottoms using dried leaves.

Close up of Green, Big LeavesCarmen T, Pexels

People Wore The Same Clothes Over And Over Again

Multiple sources say that people almost never changed their outfits—even royals. Reportedly, King James VI of Scotland slept in his clothes and didn't change them for months.

King James I of England and VI of ScotlandNational Portrait Gallery London, Picryl

Leeches Were Used To Treat Illnesses

If someone was feeling under the weather, they might have leeches laid upon them for bloodletting. This could also be performed with a blade instead of a leech.

Bush leechDoug Beckers, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Wigs Were A Breeding Ground For Lice

From the 1500s to the 1800s, those towering wigs may have seemed extravagant, but the horrifying reality is that the majority of them were filled with lice and nits.

Woman with lice and nitsNew Africa, Shutterstock

Eagle Dung Instead Of Epidurals

As one can only imagine, giving birth in the Middle Ages was a terrifying occasion. According to the author Rosalie Gilbert, there were some strange remedies given to the mother throughout the birthing process. 

Not only did the laboring mother consume vinegar and oil, but poultices made of eagle dung were also made for her.

An Eagle Flying in the SkyFrank Cone, Pexels

Menstruation... And Moss

Moss was extremely absorbent, and therefore women often used this plant during their periods. By wrapping the moss in cloth, women made their own versions of today's tampons and pads.

Mosselycefeliz, Flickr

People Used Urine As A Cleanser

Noble women had a questionable way of washing their faces. Due to its antiseptic properties, many people used urine as a cleaning agent.

Woman Washing Her FaceB-D-S Piotr Marcinski, Shutterstock

The Makeup Was Downright Dangerous

The Elizabethan era took its beauty practices seriously, but tragically, the makeup of the time contained ceruse lead powder. Though this improved the overall appearance of one's complexion, the lead was extremely poisonous and detrimental to one's health.

Make-up boxKerameikos Archaeological Museum, Wikimedia Commons

Reusing Bath Water

Taking baths wasn't a common practice. Therefore, if one did happen to take one, it was most likely a communal washing area where people used the same bath water over and over again.

A clean bathtub with hot wateryu_photo, Shutterstock

Tudor House Toilets Were Almost Never Emptied

Bacteria and disease ran rampant in Tudor house toilets, as they were almost never properly cleaned.

Commode in Bedchamber at Hampton Court PalaceIon Mes, Shutterstock

Hot Pokers Cauterized Wounds

Without the medical advancements of today, wounded people had to face the daunting treatment of a hot poker applied to their open flesh. Though extremely painful, this helped stop bleeding and prevent infection.

Red Hot Pokers - January flowersBennilover, Flickr

Wigs Were Smelly Fire Hazards

If you've ever seen portraits of Marie Antoinette, you might've thought that her wigs were quite elegant. However, in reality, they probably smelled awful. Animal fat helped give these wigs their distinctive shapes, but also transformed them into fire hazards.

Marie-AntoinetteYann Caradec, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

The Water Wasn't Safe

Clean drinking water was hard to come by, and even the available water was far from ideal as it was usually kept in tanks lined with lead. This dangerous practice often caused lead poisoning.

Fluid Pouring in Pint GlassPixabay, Pexels

Rush Floors Were A Breeding Ground For Disease

A Medieval Catholic scholar named Erasmus made a disturbing account of rush floors: "Rushes [are] occasionally renewed, but so imperfectly that the bottom layer is left undisturbed, sometimes for twenty years, harbouring expectoration, vomiting, the leakage of dogs and men, ale droppings, scraps of fish, and other abominations not fit to be mentioned."


Burnt Herbs Were Used For Dental Care

There was no such thing as proper dental care during the Middle Ages. Most people were extremely lucky if they managed to hold on to all of their teeth.

Burned herbs, such as mint and rosemary, were often used to make toothpaste.

Toothpaste by activated charcoal powder on marble tableMomentum studio, Shutterstock

A Poor Substitute For Deodorant

Due to the state of personal hygiene, most folks in the Middle Ages definitely smelled. After all, they didn't have the deodorant we enjoy today. The best they could do was carry nosegays—small bouquets of flowers—to balance out their natural musk.

Beautiful redhead women with bouquetMasson, Shutterstock

Mercury Was A Remedy For Disease

According to the Journal of Military and Veterans' Health, mercury was used to treat diseases like syphilis before the discovery of penicillin. Unfortunately, they didn't know that mercury was actually very toxic.

Pouring liquid mercuryBionerd, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Beds Were Filthy And Infested With Pests

Not only were the floors disgusting, but so were the beds. Thatched roofs often had birds dwelling in them, and their droppings ended up dirtying the beds. It's no wonder that canopy beds became so popular in the Middle Ages.

Bed bug Cimex lectularius at night in the moonlightAkos Nagy, Shutterstock

Disposing Of Waste In Cesspits

The waste disposal system back then caused some serious problems. When chamber pots had to be emptied, they were simply dumped into a cesspit or body of water. 

A simple circular septic tank made of red bricks and cementMunif Rifai, Shutterstock

Using Lye And Urine To Do Laundry

As revolting as it sounds, folks in medieval Europe used something known as chamber-lye to clean their clothes. One of its main ingredients was urine.

Woman Washing LaundryJ. Paul Getty Museum, Picryl

Erasing Freckles With Sulphur

Like baldness, freckles were an abhorrent trait. During the Elizabethan era, people used special concoctions to fade their freckles. Unfortunately, these were usually made with unsafe ingredients like turpentine, sulphur, and mercury.

Freckles Over Asian Woman FaceToeizuza Thailand, Shutterstock

More from Factinate

Featured Article

My mom never told me how her best friend died. Years later, I was using her phone when I made an utterly chilling discovery.

Dark Family Secrets

Dark Family Secrets Exposed

Nothing stays hidden forever—and these dark family secrets are proof that when the truth comes out, it can range from devastating to utterly chilling.
April 8, 2020 Samantha Henman

Featured Article

Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.

Madame de Pompadour Facts

Entrancing Facts About Madame de Pompadour, France's Most Powerful Mistress

Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
December 7, 2018 Kyle Climans

More from Factinate

Featured Article

I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.

These People Got Genius Revenges

When someone really pushes our buttons, we'd like to think that we'd hold our head high and turn the other cheek, but revenge is so, so sweet.
April 22, 2020 Scott Mazza

Featured Article

Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.

Catherine of Aragon Facts

Tragic Facts About Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s First Wife

Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but very few people know her even darker history.
June 7, 2018 Christine Tran

Dear reader,

Want to tell us to write facts on a topic? We’re always looking for your input! Please reach out to us to let us know what you’re interested in reading. Your suggestions can be as general or specific as you like, from “Life” to “Compact Cars and Trucks” to “A Subspecies of Capybara Called Hydrochoerus Isthmius.” We’ll get our writers on it because we want to create articles on the topics you’re interested in. Please submit feedback to contribute@factinate.com. Thanks for your time!

Do you question the accuracy of a fact you just read? At Factinate, we’re dedicated to getting things right. Our credibility is the turbo-charged engine of our success. We want our readers to trust us. Our editors are instructed to fact check thoroughly, including finding at least three references for each fact. However, despite our best efforts, we sometimes miss the mark. When we do, we depend on our loyal, helpful readers to point out how we can do better. Please let us know if a fact we’ve published is inaccurate (or even if you just suspect it’s inaccurate) by reaching out to us at contribute@factinate.com. Thanks for your help!

Warmest regards,

The Factinate team

Want to learn something new every day?

Join thousands of others and start your morning with our Fact Of The Day newsletter.

Thank you!

Error, please try again.