The Truth About Medieval Hygiene: Debunking Myths and Unveiling Realities

In popular imagination, the phrase “medieval hygiene” often creates images of unhygienic commoners, crowded streets teeming with waste, and a general disregard for cleanliness. 

However, these stereotypes only scratch the surface of the complex realities of hygiene practices during the medieval period. Here we seek to peel back the layers of misconception and explore the truth about hygiene in medieval times.

So, let’s get started!

Historical Context

During the medieval period, spanning roughly from the 5th to the 15th century, cleanliness was viewed through a different lens than today. With limited understanding of germ theory, hygiene practices were influenced by cultural norms, religious beliefs, and practical considerations. 

While cleanliness was indeed valued, it was often understood in a broader sense than simply physical cleanliness, encompassing spiritual purity and social status as well. Access to clean water and sanitation facilities varied widely depending on factors such as social class and geographic location, with rural areas often facing greater challenges than urban centers.

Hygiene Practices

Contrary to popular belief, medieval people did value cleanliness to some extent. While communal bathing was less common due to practical constraints and cultural taboos, individuals employed various methods to maintain personal hygiene. 

Bathing rituals often involved the use of basins, sponges, and aromatic oils, and while bathing frequency was lower compared to modern standards, people did strive to keep themselves clean. Grooming practices included hair care, dental hygiene, and the use of cosmetics made from natural ingredients. 

However, there were significant disparities between the hygiene practices of the wealthy elite and the common folk, with the former enjoying access to more elaborate bathing facilities and luxury hygiene products.

Health and Disease in Medieval Times

Poor hygiene contributed to the spread of diseases such as dysentery, cholera, and the bubonic plague, which ravaged medieval Europe. Inadequate waste disposal systems, limited access to clean water, and crowded living conditions created ideal breeding grounds for pathogens. 

Medical treatments often involved herbal remedies, bloodletting, and prayers to ward off illness, reflecting a blend of folk medicine, superstition, and religious beliefs. 

However, advancements in medical knowledge were limited during this time, and the understanding of disease transmission remained rudimentary.

Medical Theories and Treatments

During this period, hygiene-related issues were addressed through a combination of herbal remedies, charms, and superstitions. Herbal medicine played a significant role, with plants like lavender and thyme used for their antiseptic properties. Charms and rituals were also common, believed to ward off illness and evil spirits.

Regardless of this, there were advancements, such as the construction of public baths inspired by Roman traditions. Additionally, medical practitioners like Avicenna and Hildegard of Bingen contributed to the understanding and treatment of hygiene-related ailments, blending empirical observations with emerging scientific knowledge.

Challenges and Realities

Medieval communities faced numerous challenges in maintaining hygiene, including inadequate waste disposal systems, limited access to clean water, and overcrowded living conditions. Waste was often disposed of in open pits or rivers, leading to unsanitary conditions and the contamination of water sources. Public latrines and sewage systems were limited, particularly in rural areas, exacerbating the spread of disease. 

Despite these challenges, there were instances of innovative hygiene practices emerging, particularly within certain institutions like monasteries and public baths, where cleanliness was often seen as a reflection of spiritual purity.

Bathing Habits and Personal Hygiene:

During medieval times, bathing frequency varied, with individuals typically bathing weekly or on special occasions. Methods included using wooden tubs, public baths, or natural water sources. Grooming practices were essential, involving hair care, dental hygiene, and the use of natural cosmetics like herbal oils and soaps.

Sanitation Practices:

In towns, during this period, waste disposal was rudimentary, relying on open pits or rivers. Public latrines existed but were limited, leading to health risks. Challenges in densely populated areas included overcrowding and inadequate sewage systems, contributing to hygiene-related illnesses.

Hygiene Across Social Classes:

There were stark differences in hygiene practices among different social classes. Nobility and clergy generally had better access to clean water and sanitation facilities compared to commoners, resulting in disparities in health outcomes. 

Wealthy households often had dedicated bathing chambers and access to luxury hygiene products, while peasants made do with simpler bathing arrangements, such as communal baths or washing in streams. These disparities in hygiene contributed to differences in disease prevalence and mortality rates between social classes.

Debunking Myths

Contrary to popular belief, medieval people did bathe, albeit less frequently than modern standards. While it is true that some individuals believed in the health benefits of certain types of filth, such as the therapeutic properties of mud baths, this was not a widespread practice. 

Additionally, while hygiene standards may have varied between social classes and regions, the notion of medieval people universally being dirty or unclean is a myth perpetuated by oversimplified portrayals in popular culture.

Legacy and Modern Relevance

The legacy of medieval hygiene practices continues to influence modern perceptions of cleanliness and sanitation. Studying these historical practices provides valuable insights into the evolution of public health measures and their impact on contemporary global health issues. 

The lessons learned from the successes and failures of medieval hygiene practices can inform efforts to improve hygiene and sanitation worldwide, particularly in regions facing similar challenges today.


By debunking myths and unveiling the realities of medieval hygiene, we gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of cleanliness in the past. 

Recognizing the challenges faced by medieval communities sheds light on the importance of ongoing efforts to improve hygiene and sanitation worldwide. By learning from the experiences of the past, we can better address the health challenges of the present and build a healthier future for all.

If you enjoyed reading about the truth behind medieval hygiene practices and beliefs, check out “Medieval City” “Medieval Diseases: A Historical Perspective”.

He is a versatile E-Learning Support Officer and former Academic Officer at the University of York, United Kingdom. Not just an expert in education and technology, Debayan also has a deep love for castles and mountains. With a passion for travel, having explored 168+ cities worldwide, and a keen eye for photography, He brings a unique blend of experiences to the table. Specializing in E-learning content, IT support, AR development, and software engineering, Debayan has made a significant impact, educating over 200,000 students on Udemy.

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