Disturbing Personal Hygiene Through History

personal hygieneWe take for granted certain things, today, when it comes to personal hygiene.  We wouldn’t consider doing certain things that people in the past considered normal behavior.  In fact, most things we do today that are considered “clean” personal hygiene are only a recent discovery.  Here are five things that you might find disturbing.  Not for those with a weak stomach!

Taking A Bath
Today, most of us take a bath or shower every day – or sometimes more than that if you are doing something particularly active or going out for the evening.  People in Europe, during the Middle Ages, didn’t think this was such a good idea.  In fact, depending where you were at on the social ladder, you might not bathe at all.  First, it was considered bad for your health to wash off the dirt and grime.  The stink was good.  Part of this came from the Church which was trying to distance themselves from the Romans who were always bathing – usually in groups of men and women – which they thought led to…well…sex.  Some early Church leaders were well-known for never washing anything but their fingertips before eating.  They claimed they hadn’t disrobed in years and probably (literally) stank to Holy Hell.  What is really astonishing is the fact that bathing on a daily schedule is a 20th century discovery – or rediscovery, considering the Romans used to do it centuries ago.

Table Manners
Today some of our biggest problems seem to be deciding which fork to use when you go out to a restaurant, but our ancestors had different challenges.  For one thing, they didn’t use forks.  At least not before the 1600s.  Prior to that, people used their fingers to rip, tear, and grab at food.  The fork, which has been around since before William the Conquerer took over England in 1066, was not used because some Church elders thought it was the Devil’s tool (i.e. his pitchfork).  The British thought it was effeminate and when the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, forks were not amongst their luggage.  Spoons were even a luxury.  While everyone at the table would have their own knife – which they brought with them to dinner – a spoon was typically used in a communal pot where everyone would dip the spoon in and take a taste of the soup.  Proper etiquette stated that you should wipe the utensil off with your napkin (or sleeve, or the tablecloth…) before you handed it to the next person to get a scoop.  Glasses and mugs were the same way.  While we usually think of a group of medieval men clanking their wooden tankards together at a local inn, this is not the case.  One pitcher was more commonly used and you shared the drink.  Glasses made of crystal were out of the question.

Picking Your Nose
It’s a disgusting habit that we usually associate with children in grade school, yet it was quite common in Europe.  There was even rules of etiquette for this type of behavior. For instance, you should never empty your nose with the same hand that you are eating with.  Someone had to write this down for people not to do it?  However, people didn’t have handkerchiefs (in fact, one king of France is written to only have owned five of them – and he was rich), so they used the next best thing…their fingers.  You really weren’t supposed to do it at dinner, but if you did, you should use your sleeve or at least get rid of the mucus without drawing attention to it.  Napoleon Bonaparte must have found the whole thing disgusting, because he made sure that his soldiers all had buttons on the sleeves of their uniforms to stop them from doing this.  Well, no one wants a crusty uniform…

Passing Gas
It’s locker room humor, but guys love a good fart joke.  The Romans were the same and even told stories of people dying from holding it in for too long.  India and China both had fart etiquette for when you should or shouldn’t pass gas, and, if you did, where was an acceptable place to do it.  Later, the Romans, obviously fearful of dying from built up gas pressure, stated that it was ok to let one rip whenever one needed to do so.  Europeans felt the same and there was no problems with doing it until the Renaissance was in full swing. They suggested if you have to do it, discreetly excuse yourself and do it in private. The topic still causes a rush of laughter from schoolboys throughout the centuries.

Going To The Bathroom
Do you like your bathroom toilet?  It is a modern marvel, as inventions go.  Our ancestors didn’t have toilets like we have today.  We’ve all seen the outhouses or Port-a-potties, but what did people do in ancient times?  As disgusting as it is, they went in a bucket (or a chamber pot, if you will). These were often seen around the dinner table and it was a status symbol to have a really good one. In these chamber pots, you could relieve yourself at dinner, which they commonly did.  In fact, there are writings of servants – the people who had to empty these chamber pots (great job, eh?) – who would hold the chamber pot for their lord or lady while at dinner.  Then – you threw the whole thing out the window into the street!  Not surprisingly, medieval cities really smelled.  When castles came about, you hung your back end out the side and went down a narrow opening in the wall into the moat.  People would come by at night and clean up the mess to use on their farms as fertilizer.  Still, this didn’t stop people from just going where they were standing in the street!  It was not uncommon for a man – or a woman – to just take a squat on the side of the road and do their business whenever nature called. If you really want to be skeeved out, toilet paper wasn’t invented until 1871.  Paper was too expensive.  They ended up using…ahem…whatever was at hand.  It isn’t surprising that Europe suffered the Black Plague, is it?