Coming clean about Medieval bathing practices
August 2, 2019 6:54 AM   Subscribe

Historian Eleanor Janega sheds some enlightenment about bodily hygiene in the so-called Dark Ages.
posted by drlith (68 comments total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
 
Immediately reminded me of this article from 2017 by Dr Kate Lister (aka Whores of Yore)
posted by terrapin at 7:11 AM on August 2, 2019 [2 favorites]


I enjoy her judicious, balanced style of exposition.
posted by Segundus at 7:24 AM on August 2, 2019 [10 favorites]


This article was a delight! Favorite line, "Our girl Hildegard of Bingen even had a recipe for face cleanser because apparently she was a skin-care bitch."
posted by frecklefaerie at 7:34 AM on August 2, 2019 [10 favorites]


In fact soap is a motherfucking medieval invention. Yes. It is. The Romans – whomst I don’t see a bunch of basics going around accusing of being filthy – did not, in fact have soap, in contrast. They usually washed using oil. Medieval people? Oh you better believe that they had soap.

whomst calling whomst basic
posted by sio42 at 7:35 AM on August 2, 2019 [22 favorites]


This was a great read and I love this her writing style! Need more Twitter accounts like this.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 7:37 AM on August 2, 2019 [2 favorites]


Well you would probably wash daily at home. This usually involved filling an ewer with water, heating it and then poring it into a larger basin which allowed for ease of scrubbing, like so:

That was still how my dad and his family washed up as late as the 1930s in America. My grandmother heated up water on the coal stove in the kitchen and poured it into a copper tub for Saturday night baths. The house had no bathroom and no hot-water heater.
posted by octothorpe at 7:40 AM on August 2, 2019 [16 favorites]


All of her stuff is this delightful, FYI.
posted by dinty_moore at 7:46 AM on August 2, 2019 [5 favorites]


I enjoyed this very much even though - and I recognize that this makes me a bad person and an Old - I really wish that people would just lightly salt their expository writing with internet-speak instead of it all being #hashtag #GettingTheir[Thing]On, #hashtag. I also wish that we as a species could stop feeling that anything worth reading has to be written with humorous asides and a general air of nod-nod-wink-wink. It just gets fatiguing when I really want to enjoy the content itself - especially when the content is as interesting as this.

I had a general sense that medieval people were cleaner than popularly believed and that they had soap - as a child I was fascinated by medieval illustrations and had a bunch of books showing common medieval household goods, an aristocratic wedding of the 14th century compared to a peasant wedding, etc etc. But while I knew that the Romans did all that scraping stuff with oil, I did not know that this was because they had no soap! And I didn't know that having a bath and a snack was a common thing rather than a zany illustration.

When I was growing up, I had a vague sense that Rome....just sort of stopped around maybe 300AD and the Middle Ages started in the 10th century or so. I don't think I would have said this if pressed, but I certainly wouldn't have had any idea about the slow decline of Rome and the throughlines between Roman habits (like using bathhouses) and medieval ones (like using bathhouses). I was literally well into adulthood when it really struck me that when an imperial system ends, it doesn't vanish. So anyway, my sense of the Middle Ages was extremely vague and very much on the "the Middle Ages just sort of start de novo" side of things.
posted by Frowner at 7:47 AM on August 2, 2019 [56 favorites]


In the nordic/Viking world, it was apparently the custom to bathe on Saturdays; the word for Saturday is still “bath day” in Swedish (Lördag) and Icelandic (Laugardagur), and possibly other languages.

I've seen the claim that this made the Vikings the well-groomed metrosexuals of their time, with the typical European bathing once a year; presumably this is spurious.
posted by acb at 7:51 AM on August 2, 2019 [8 favorites]


That was still how my dad and his family washed up as late as the 1930s in America.

Until very recently, that's essentially how I (and presumably many others) washed for a month every summer when the city turned off all hot water for annual maintenance. You boil a kettle of water, pour it in a bucket, top the bucket up with cold water so you don't cook yourself, and then go at it with a sponge and soap while standing our crouching in the bath next to your bucket. To finish, you give your hair a quick shampoo and then pour the rest of the bucket over your head to rinse. If you had a lot of hair, you might want to do a two-kettle wash. It wasn't really a bother, though I'm glad we now we have our own water heater.

So I'm sure our medieval pals were able to keep themselves clean, though I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't wash daily. Not everybody washes daily now.
posted by pracowity at 8:03 AM on August 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


Frowner, I'm with you and I'm feeling super old now! In the article, I kept reading about ass people and ass poems and was feeling quite wtf about it (ass people?) until I realized ass was just a colorful modifier.

I think maybe I'm not the intended audience. But I loved the information!
posted by mochapickle at 8:06 AM on August 2, 2019 [10 favorites]


Why tweet storms suck 1/??? #threadaf
posted by tobascodagama at 8:11 AM on August 2, 2019 [10 favorites]


I liked the article and the information, without liking the writing style much.

I was surprised at the fact that Romans did not have soap -- I had thought soap was invented much further back and was, if not universally, at least widely made by then.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:12 AM on August 2, 2019 [5 favorites]


If you're interested in a fictional account of moderns meeting medieval people, Michael Crichton's Timeline is a fun read. In the book he addressed the clean/not clean misconception as well.
posted by Fukiyama at 8:17 AM on August 2, 2019


Frowner, I'm with you and I'm feeling super old now! In the article, I kept reading about ass people and ass poems and was feeling quite wtf about it (ass people?) until I realized ass was just a colorful modifier.

Relevant xkcd
posted by myotahapea at 8:21 AM on August 2, 2019 [8 favorites]


Why tweet storms suck 1/??? #threadaf

It's a blog post?

Eleanor Janega also did this really interesting (less than ten minute) talk on the function of city walls, the barbican and medieval sex work - you can see it here. Her speaking voice is essentially the same as her writing voice, but it might work better for some folks.
posted by dinty_moore at 8:21 AM on August 2, 2019 [5 favorites]


> "I've seen the claim that this made the Vikings the well-groomed metrosexuals of their time, with the typical European bathing once a year; presumably this is spurious."

You may be thinking of the 13th century Chronicle of John of Wallingford:

"The Danes made themselves too acceptable to English women by their elegant manners and their care of their person. They combed their hair daily, according to the custom of their country, and took a bath every Saturday, and even changed their clothes frequently, and improved the beauty of their bodies with many such trifles, by which means they undermined the chastity of wives."

This is often contrasted with Abassid traveler Ahmad Ibn Fadlan's 921 account of the Vikings:

"They are the filthiest race that God ever created. They do not wipe themselves after a stool, nor wash themselves thereafter ... Every morning a girl comes and brings a tub of water, and places it before her master. In this he proceeds to wash his face and hands, and then his hair, combing it out over the vessel. Thereupon he blows his nose, and spits into the tub, and leaving no dirt behind, conveys it all into this water. When he has finished, the girl carries the tub to the man next to him, who does the same. Thus she continues carrying the tub from one to another until each man has blown his nose and spit into the tub, and washed his face and hair."

In short, Viking hygiene is a land of contrasts.
posted by kyrademon at 8:24 AM on August 2, 2019 [20 favorites]


Even if you couldn’t get the good fancy soap, many people would scent the water that they bathed in, often with thyme or sage.

Cook me like a goose!
posted by sallybrown at 8:24 AM on August 2, 2019 [2 favorites]


I was curious about the image of the naked bathhouse party. The caption "Awwww yis" didn't tell me much, but I found more info here
An English stew. Luxuries: A Bathhouse in Valerius Maximus’ Facta et Dicta Memorabilia (fol. 244), c. 1470, tempera and gold leaf on parchment. Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin—Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Depot Breslau 2). There's a copy of the full page on Wikimedia which lists an author of "Antoine of Burgundy".
It's quite sexually explicit, I was surprised.

While searching around I also found this collection of links to photos of medieval bathing. Lots of images of couples dining while bathing together. Looks nice!
posted by Nelson at 8:26 AM on August 2, 2019 [4 favorites]


I remember thinking the Roman method (pour on olive oil, scrape off oil and dirt with a wooden scraper) would probably leave your skin smooth and smelling great, but soap probably does work better. Also if you are a hairy type, seems like there would be issues.
posted by emjaybee at 8:26 AM on August 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


> I was surprised at the fact that Romans did not have soap -- I had thought soap was invented much further back and was, if not universally, at least widely made by then.

Copying and pasting liberally from Wikipedia: "The earliest recorded evidence of the production of soap-like materials dates back to around 2800 BC in ancient Babylon. [...] The word sapo, Latin for soap, likely was borrowed from an early Germanic language and is cognate with Latin sebum, "tallow". It first appears in Pliny the Elder's account, Historia Naturalis, which discusses the manufacture of soap from tallow and ashes, but the only use he mentions for it is as a pomade for hair; he mentions rather disapprovingly that the men of the Gauls and Germans were more likely to use it than their female counterparts. [...] The Romans' preferred method of cleaning the body was to massage oil into the skin and then scrape away both the oil and any dirt with a strigil. The Gauls used soap made from animal fat. [...] Galen describes soap-making using lye and prescribes washing to carry away impurities from the body and clothes. The use of soap for personal cleanliness became increasingly common in the 2nd century A.D. According to Galen, the best soaps were Germanic, and soaps from Gaul were second best."

Basically, the Romans knew about soap, documented soap, and had soap recipes. Their word for soap is in use in various forms to this day. They imported soap, made soap, and even used soap (as shampoo). They just didn't bathe with soap.
posted by ardgedee at 8:26 AM on August 2, 2019 [13 favorites]


Medieval people were cleaner than most people think, but let's not go overboard. They still used the streets for plumbing, had dirt floors and lived in the same structure with their livestock.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 8:27 AM on August 2, 2019 [12 favorites]


Perhaps you might find interesting this post about sex work and the concept of rescue. Or at least, I found it interesting!

I personally would scent the water in which I bathe with thyme or sage, and may adopt this idea, possibly using a sort of cheesecloth teabag so that I don't emerge covered in leaves.
posted by Frowner at 8:28 AM on August 2, 2019 [5 favorites]


terrapin's article is really good and also has this amazing quote in it:
The medieval Arabian author of A Thousand and One Nights was one of many writers appalled at Christian hygiene; ‘They never wash, for, at their birth, ugly men in black garments pour water over their heads, and this ablution, accompanied by strange gestures, frees them from the obligation of washing for the rest of their lives.’
posted by tobascodagama at 8:32 AM on August 2, 2019 [29 favorites]


I love this! Will definitely be reading more of her blog.

This is the cymbal crash moment that made me go OH! out loud:

It’s true that we have medieval sources which warn against “excessive” bathing. But here’s the thing, that wasn’t really about being clean, it was about hanging out naked in bathhouses with the opposite sex. They didn’t want you to not be clean, they wanted you to not be going down the bath house and getting your fuck on.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:41 AM on August 2, 2019 [8 favorites]


Until very recently, that's essentially how I (and presumably many others) washed for a month every summer when the city turned off all hot water for annual maintenance. You boil a kettle of water, pour it in a bucket, top the bucket up with cold water so you don't cook yourself, and then go at it with a sponge and soap while standing our crouching in the bath next to your bucket. To finish, you give your hair a quick shampoo and then pour the rest of the bucket over your head to rinse. If you had a lot of hair, you might want to do a two-kettle wash. It wasn't really a bother, though I'm glad we now we have our own water heater.

This is how I bathed for an entire summer* whilst living in a summer cabin in the countryside. In most of these situations there's a water tank mounted atop the sauna oven; you fill the tank pre-sauna, then afterward dilute the hot water and wash, rinsing by ladling the water over yourself. (Though I often cheated by doing a final, thorough rinse via lake swimming.)
I had access to a regular shower, but vastly preferred this option. Works better than you might think, if you're not accustomed to it.

This method persists into modern times, in the form of the hammam. I found the hammams I visited in Morocco to be functionally identical, though in a group, vs, individual, setting. (I would imagine they have changed little since the times described in the article; if it ain't broke, etc., etc.) I met several people whilst there who had either no or sub-par shower-type facilities at home and made regular trips to their local hammam, bathing this way in a communal setup. In many ways I find it more pleasant than a regular shower, particularly if said facility is a tiny cubicle.

*and still do, whenever I visit a summer cabin, as most have no running water. Also frequently when living in Romania, when either a) rains would overwhelm my small town's water pump system and running water would get shut off for weeks until it could be repaired or b) the fire I built in my hot-water tank would fail to light properly and my post-run choices were to either have a cold shower, bucket-bathe or go to work stinky
posted by myotahapea at 8:45 AM on August 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


Metafilter: is a motherfucking medieval invention.

I also did bucket bathing after I broke my leg. There's nothing like the deliriously good feeling of getting clean by dumping a bowl of hot water over one's head, after not being able to bathe for ten days.
posted by happyroach at 8:51 AM on August 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


This is often contrasted with Abassid traveler Ahmad Ibn Fadlan's 921 account of the Vikings:

I am not familiar with Mr Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, but that quote has serious Clumsiest People in Europe energy.

The late 20th century United States must feature some of the most aggressively scrubbed persons in history. Americans had easy access to clean water, cheap soaps, and an entire advertising apparatus designed to convince us that we were filthy. It worked on me: I remember hiding the fact that I only washed my hair twice a week because I didn't want to be considered dirty. And maybe that still exists, and I just don't pick up on it anymore because I'm an adult? But it does feel like America has stepped away the need to conspicuously slather ourselves in bacteria killers and body spray... I wonder how much that very strict, specific postwar understanding of cleanliness shaped our cultural impression of the past.
posted by grandiloquiet at 9:00 AM on August 2, 2019 [4 favorites]


Mr K points out how the Japanese, famed for their bathhouses and tubs, actually bathe today. In a public bathhouse, you walk in naked, carrying soap, a sponge, a plastic basin, and a stool. There's a spigot on the wall; you sit next to it and soap and rinse yourself. Then you get in the larger tub of hot water and soak. He stayed with a friend in Japan, whose bathroom was the same, on a smaller scale (a one-person soaking tub).

Frowner, you come on over and sit next to me. This is a wonderful article, but I also got a bit tired of the "Look, Ma, I'm writing! And using Bad Words! Ha Ha!" tone.
posted by kestralwing at 9:06 AM on August 2, 2019 [11 favorites]


I have read that across the continent, in medieval Japan, the legendarily elegant and aesthetic courtiers of Heian Japan did not in fact bathe very much at all. The naked human form was considered repulsive by those with taste (that is, Sei Shonagon, an arbiter of these things). Apparently they also eliminated in covered sandboxes in the middle of their spare and classical rooms. Naturally, they had a highly developed art of mixing incenses and perfumes for their clothing and their living spaces.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:08 AM on August 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


I went about a month with no hot water in my apartment, and came up with this bathing method:

-Fill large stock pot to the top with water and boil it. This took around 25 minutes.
-Carry the boiling stock pot into the bathroom and set it on the bathmat.
-Get nekked and get into the tub.
-Put a wide, shallow plastic washtub under the tap and fill halfway with cold water.
-Pour in water from the stock pot until the water in the washtub is gently steaming.
-Wash body with wet washcloth and body wash, periodically adding more boiled water to the washtub if needed.
-After washing body, empty and refill washtub as above.
-Dunk my head in washtub, apply shampoo and scrub, and dunk my head in washtub again to rinse. Repeat if needed.
-Condition hair.
-Empty and refill washtub as above.
-Dunk once more to rinse conditioner out of hair.
-Pour out the washtub and dry off.

It worked - and the stock pot stayed hot enough and contained enough water to supply nicely warm water throughout the entire process - but BOY OH BOY was it a pain in the ass. And once the hot water finally came back on and I took my first shower in a month, I felt SO GODDAMN CLEAN.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:09 AM on August 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


The regular use of soap as a cleanser was one way that various diseases, vermin, and death via infection of wounds reduced mortality in the late Middle Ages and forward. Once germ theory was accepted, things got much better from a mortality standpoint.
As a former archaeologist friend of mine who spent lots of time in the field maintains that "Hot water coming out of the wall.." (aka a shower) is one of the wonders of the late 20th century.
posted by dbmcd at 9:14 AM on August 2, 2019 [4 favorites]


I couldn't get past the constant-ass use of "ass" as an intensifier. First, it is not an intensifier if you use it in every-ass sentence. Second, it jars me unless it is written with a hyphen (see above examples).

Also, if the person in the second illustration--ostensibly a peasant--is a peasant ... well, I was going to write "something-ass," but it's already a tired expression and I only used it twice. Anyway, no one wearing a dress like that one just came in from weeding the turnips. I get that it is supposed to be humorous, but it is way more humorous if it's accurate.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 9:17 AM on August 2, 2019 [9 favorites]


This relevant Kate Beaton comic is one of my faves.
posted by compartment at 9:20 AM on August 2, 2019 [8 favorites]


The second picture illustrates the use of a basin for cleaning (in this case, post-nativity), it doesn't imply that the woman in it is a peasant. She is a servant, though, as you can see from the full picture.
posted by muddgirl at 9:31 AM on August 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


The Gauls had soap. They used it for bathing and as a hair dressing. It was made from different types of fat and lye.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 9:43 AM on August 2, 2019


I remember thinking the Roman method (pour on olive oil, scrape off oil and dirt with a wooden scraper) would probably leave your skin smooth and smelling great, but soap probably does work better. Also if you are a hairy type, seems like there would be issues.

I can't speak to the antibacterial properties of the Oil-Cleansing Method compared to soap, but it really does get your skin clean. In fact, one of the recommendations is to try different oil combinations, because certain ones can actually be too effective and dry your skin out.
posted by Autumnheart at 9:44 AM on August 2, 2019 [5 favorites]


If you're interested in a fictional account of moderns meeting medieval people, Michael Crichton's Timeline is a fun read.

See also Harry Turtledove and Judith Tarr's collaboration, _Household Gods_.
posted by hanov3r at 9:51 AM on August 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


I personally would scent the water in which I bathe with thyme or sage, and may adopt this idea

We can call this throwback trend “savory bathing”
posted by sallybrown at 9:53 AM on August 2, 2019 [7 favorites]


We can call this throwback trend “savory bathing”

You know, if you could build a little thing that attached between the shower head and outlet that infused the shower water with nice herbal scents, you might be onto something. Like potpourri for your shower.
posted by Chrischris at 10:25 AM on August 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


Until very recently, that's essentially how I (and presumably many others) washed for a month every summer when the city turned off all hot water for annual maintenance. You boil a kettle of water, pour it in a bucket, top the bucket up with cold water so you don't cook yourself, and then go at it with a sponge and soap while standing our crouching in the bath next to your bucket. To finish, you give your hair a quick shampoo and then pour the rest of the bucket over your head to rinse. If you had a lot of hair, you might want to do a two-kettle wash. It wasn't really a bother, though I'm glad we now we have our own water heater.

What city was this? I've never heard of municipal hot water systems.
posted by octothorpe at 10:38 AM on August 2, 2019 [4 favorites]


In the newly built house where we lived in a farm village in Germany in the early 1960s, there was no shower, the water heater was wood fired and sat next to the tub. The tub must have been big, because there were three of us in it at once. The rooms were heated with freestanding oil burning stoves.
posted by Bee'sWing at 11:03 AM on August 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


We can call this throwback trend “savory bathing”

Meanwhile, on a private subreddit for cannibals: "We did it, guys! We got them to do it!"
posted by tobascodagama at 11:09 AM on August 2, 2019 [16 favorites]


Tbh, 26 bathhouses for 80,000 people really doesn't leave me with much confidence in the general non-smelliness of the population.
posted by betweenthebars at 11:10 AM on August 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


My dad was a wildlife biologist, so we lived in the middle of the Serengeti for a couple of years in the mid-1970s, alongside several other researcher families. Our houses, though mostly cinder block, did have plumbing and water heaters and such although electricity was on for only 2 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the evening, so you had to time things well if you wanted hot water. Laundry was accomplished by either a large sink on the back porch, which chapped your hands, or by partly filling the tub and convincing your children, Tom Sawyer-style, that it was Great Fun to stomp around on wet clothes and sheets. (And by tie-dying everything that was white to disguise the dinginess).

What I'm getting around to is that while we technically had plumbing, during the dry season we often did not have plumbing because elephants would dig up the water pipes and break them to have a drink. So we were reliant on the rainwater-collection tank next to the house until the pipes were fixed, days to weeks later, and adopted water-saving routines.

I mostly remember what we called spit baths -- a basin of water and a washcloth. One of the nearby researchers who had done a lot of time in the bush had a wife who claimed she could wash all of herself and her hair with just a teacup of water, but never explained how.
posted by telophase at 11:45 AM on August 2, 2019 [4 favorites]


telophase, perhaps this will go some way toward explaining...
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:55 AM on August 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


Until very recently, that's essentially how I (and presumably many others) washed for a month every summer when the city turned off all hot water for annual maintenance.

I too am very curious about this...what the hell? How does that work? Doesn't it get cold in the pipes? Are there hydrothermal vents or volcanoes nearby? Is it hot or just warm-ish?
posted by sexyrobot at 12:05 PM on August 2, 2019


What city was this? I've never heard of municipal hot water systems.

It's sometimes part of district heating and is used in lots of places including New York City where it is also used to power air conditioning amongst other things.
posted by Mitheral at 12:06 PM on August 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


I have read that across the continent, in medieval Japan, the legendarily elegant and aesthetic courtiers of Heian Japan did not in fact bathe very much at all. The naked human form was considered repulsive by those with taste (that is, Sei Shonagon, an arbiter of these things). Apparently they also eliminated in covered sandboxes in the middle of their spare and classical rooms. Naturally, they had a highly developed art of mixing incenses and perfumes for their clothing and their living spaces.

Not to call you out personally, Countess Elena, but isn't this sort of thing exactly what the article above is about? I'm not a scholar or anything, but it beggars belief, imo, that any people lived happily in rooms filled with boxes of human waste, and almost never bathed. Do we really think that because there's no mention of eating or bathing in Genji that this means that people didn't do either?

I only have Sei Shonagon's book (which is a book of mostly poetic conventions and stories that make Shonagon look clever) close to hand, and I don't think she is like a super awesome reference for "what real Heian people did" given that she was keen to show how refined and aesthetic everyone is, but even she mentions things like people washing their hands to attain ritual cleanliness, which I think you could assume meant they they also understood physical cleanliness, and cared about it. Shonagon certainly makes nasty comments about dirty looking poor people, and also screws up her nose at things she thinks are dirty or revolting, like children with snotty noses. (And on the further topic of eating in Heian Japan, I dispute the idea they ate rubbishy half cooked/milled rice and hardly anything else: even Shonagon mentions on separate occasions people eating cooked beans, vegetables and soup [those famous carpenters], rice pressed into the form of cakes which would I think require the rice be pretty nice, seaweed, and I think stuff like ice sweetened with liana syrup.)

Speaking about Genji specifically: most modern novels don't talk about their characters having showers or using toilets, or what they ate, except in a foody sort of way (that I think is very specific to our particular historical era).

(Actually that whole page has a bunch of weird assertions that I think aren't super accurate. Even in just the Pillow Book there's scads of people living into their 60s and beyond (?). So I don't know how reliable it is.)(Although yeah, it's pretty weird and sad how young a lot of people died.)
posted by glitter at 12:37 PM on August 2, 2019 [2 favorites]


> Apparently they also eliminated in covered sandboxes in the middle of their spare and classical rooms.

These were basically human-scale litterboxes. And like cats, they had servants emptying and cleaning the litterboxes on their behalf. It probably wasn't much stinkier than a modern bathroom, modulo local diet and room ventilation.
posted by ardgedee at 12:43 PM on August 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


That was still how my dad and his family washed up as late as the 1930s in America. My grandmother heated up water on the coal stove in the kitchen and poured it into a copper tub for Saturday night baths.

Shit that's how I washed up in 1980s America, although my upbringing was a little unusual I suppose.
posted by aspersioncast at 1:30 PM on August 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


I too am very curious about this...what the hell? How does that work? Doesn't it get cold in the pipes? Are there hydrothermal vents or volcanoes nearby? Is it hot or just warm-ish?

Depends on the city. Most of Iceland has hot running water that comes out of geothermal boreholes. Being on a fault line certainly makes it easier to access warmth at a reasonable cost. Iceland's hot water is so cheap about 1% of their energy goes to under-pavement heating.
posted by biffa at 1:55 PM on August 2, 2019 [2 favorites]


Interesting that Michael Crichton's Timeline book and real C10th author Ahmad ibn Fadlan both come up in this thread. Ahmad ibn Fadlan is the main character in another of Crichton's books, 'Eaters of the Dead', filmed as 'The Thirteenth Warrior' and which actually has a scene dramatising the description of the Vikings passing round a shared platter of water for washing which they would spit in and pass on, as kyrademon describes above.
posted by biffa at 2:03 PM on August 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


What I'm getting around to is that while we technically had plumbing, during the dry season we often did not have plumbing because elephants would dig up the water pipes and break them to have a drink.

I imagine I'd feel differently if I'd been living there, but this story just makes me love elephants more.
posted by straight at 5:17 PM on August 2, 2019 [2 favorites]


Neat stuff. I wish she had more detail about peasants, though. The illo she has for bathing is pretty obviously an urban dwelling; and the bathhouses are urban too.
posted by zompist at 6:37 PM on August 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


Pfft, the whole project is suspect. She doesn't know how to pronounce "ewer."
posted by bricoleur at 6:45 PM on August 2, 2019


also wish that we as a species could stop feeling that anything worth reading has to be written with humorous asides and a general air of nod-nod-wink-wink.

I've found that, apart from its obvious other use as a white supremacist megaphone, Extremely Online versions of what would in other media be just a plain old essay is sort of what Twitter is for. BUT luckily, it seems like all of our various media outlets tend to cover the same material, such that I can almost guarantee there exists:

* A This American Life featuring 3 poignant tales of people, all featuring soap. David Sedaris has a spot in which he tells the story of buying some 300$ soap in a Japanese boutique, which also includes him meeting some Europeans on the bullet train who tell him how they think of soap in the US.

* A Freakonomics podcast detailing how soap was used in trade through the ages. They erroneously claim that despite the word salary coming from salt, cleaning oils were more highly regarded as indicators of necessity and status.

* A 99 Percent Invisible episode, in which the hidden nuances, but also environmentally destructive dark side of soap is revealed. A guest is an academic long form writer, discussing their new pop sci book...

* Soap, and how it actually underpins all of modern civilisation.

* Everything Is Alive, from the POV of an anthropomorphic soap.

* Cleaning House...a serialized true crime podcast about financial skulduggery, institutional cover ups, and soap.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 7:22 PM on August 2, 2019 [6 favorites]


* A Thomas Friedman op-ed in The New York Times consisting entirely of half-remembered statements from a taxi driver he met in an Applebee's who has strong opinions about soap.
posted by tobascodagama at 7:31 PM on August 2, 2019 [2 favorites]


Don't forget "A major pop-culture site's 'Oral History of the Making of Soap' fluff piece". I'm honestly surprised it hasn't happened already.
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:54 PM on August 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


I enjoy MeFites’ tales of low-tech bathing. Almost exactly ten years ago I stayed in a hostel in the Yukon with no electricity and no running water. If you wanted a shower in the morning you had to go chop some wood, build a fire in the bathhouse to heat the 55-gallon drum of water, mix that hot water with tepid waster from a second drum, ladling appropriate portions into a bucket (provided), and then pour it over your head.

The owner still told the tale of how a colleague of mine had visited more than a decade earlier with his wife. The wife took one look at the plumbing arrangements and decided to stay in a hotel; my colleague opted the same for several reasons (continued domestic bliss among them). So, twelve years on, the owner still chortled about this wearing from the south who was afraid to do manual work. I thought about mentioning that the entire history of civilization has been moving away from having to fell trees before breakfast.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:28 PM on August 2, 2019 [2 favorites]


Doesn't it get cold in the pipes?

Just to follow up on this question re district heating. The pipes from the Nesjavellir geothermal power station sends heated water 27km across the mountains and into Reykjavik. This is the only cross section I could find of the pipes, showing the insulation, I reckon the current ones are a bit fancier than this but can't find my own photo. The company reckons they lose about 1C of temperature across the 27km.
posted by biffa at 7:38 AM on August 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


Adventures in low-tech bathing:
I lived for 18 months in a working-class neighborhood in Cochabamba, Bolivia, that did not yet have household running water or sewers when I arrived 10 years after the neighborhood's founding. We fetched water from the single neighborhood tap when it was available, and during periods of drought when there was no water it was possible to buy water off the cistern truck. Water scarcity was a huge problem, and water is just fuckin' heavy yo so you definitely learned to be super conservative with water for all purposes; your bath water got reused for washing clothes, for example. I had a large plastic washtub--I'm not sure the total capacity but 5 gallons was about enough water for bathing, and you only need to heat up about a gallon of water to boiling on the stove to make that nice and warm. Baby and toddler for scale. That level of bathing was a once-a-week deal but a quick hair cold hair wash happened every 3 days or so. I couldn't wash all my hair with a teacup of water, esp. during the first half of my stay when it was long, but a quart was definitely plenty if you use the right technique.

It's fortunate that I was in a low-humidity area, though. Honestly, especially if your sweat evaporates quickly there is not much of a body odor problem even if you're not scrubbing your pits that often.
posted by drlith at 9:16 AM on August 3, 2019


I personally would scent the water in which I bathe with thyme or sage, and may adopt this idea, possibly using a sort of cheesecloth teabag so that I don't emerge covered in leaves.


Don't forget the parsley, peppercorns, or vodka.
posted by sebastienbailard at 3:28 AM on August 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


Just wanted to drop in and say, the "Unattributed MS." mentioned in the article is from the collection of the Nationale biblioteek van Nederland, Book of Hours (use of Paris), c. 1400-1410, fol. 15r.

You can see the full image here.

The cropped image shown in the article (and found in various places around the internet) is not only cropped but also, oddly, has a bunch of the background detail erased. Just for example, there is a fireplace in the background showing a kettle--which, one presumes, is full of water heating for the bath.
posted by flug at 4:10 PM on August 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


The second picture illustrates the use of a basin for cleaning (in this case, post-nativity), it doesn't imply that the woman in it is a peasant.
This is the paragraph the immediately preceeds the illustration. Seems like a pretty strong implication that she was a peasant to me (especially the colon), but I maybe I am just not an internet-ass person.
So, say you are an average-ass medieval person. That means you are a peasant, because 85% of the population or so were peasants. This meant that you were working very hard doing manual labour in a field. How would you stay clean? Well you would probably wash daily at home. This usually involved filling an ewer with water, heating it and then poring it into a larger basin which allowed for ease of scrubbing, like so:
As for not knowing the pronunciation of "ewer," I am trying to come up with a pronunciation that would fit with using "an" instead of "a," but without success. Maybe just a typo.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 4:45 PM on August 4, 2019


Yes, the ewer and the larger basin would be as shown in the picture. There are more paintings of rich people than poor people so it's probably hard to find pictures of peasants bathing but there's no reason that anyone couldn't use the same technique. We see basically the same technique used all over the world now - in the peace corp they call it a bucket bath.

I should also amend that the woman in the picture may be a midwife, I'm no expert.
posted by muddgirl at 6:09 PM on August 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


Greg_Ace: "Don't forget "A major pop-culture site's 'Oral History of the Making of Soap' fluff piece". I'm honestly surprised it hasn't happened already."

Probably too late for that, sadly - a lot of the principal cast members have passed away.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:51 AM on August 5, 2019 [2 favorites]


In fact soap is a motherfucking medieval invention. Yes. It is....

It was first introduced from the East, like most good stuff was at the time, but it took off rather quickly.


So was it an invention or did they in fact import the idea from Asia/the Middle East?
posted by Margalo Epps at 9:50 PM on August 31, 2019


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