1. Chamber Pots and Privies
Widespread use of indoor plumbing wasn’t all that common until recently. If you were unlucky enough to be poor in the Middle Ages, you were basically forced to clear your system where you could, and if you were dealing with anything solid, you were tasked with burying it after you were finished. If you were wealthy in some fashion, your situation got a little bit better, though not by much.
In many Tudor houses you’d find something called a privy, otherwise known as an outhouse. In the best-case scenario, a privy would be a small shack that would afford you some privacy, though it’d still consist of a slab of wood over a hole in the ground. The waste would immediately plunge into a moat where it would be carried away for you to never see again.
If your privy happened to be outside of your home, there’s a slim chance that you’d want to trek outside in the middle of the night just for a quick bathroom break. In this situation, you’d use something called a chamber pot, which was essentially a decorative bowl that served as your toilet during the night. While not exactly a bad idea, the thought of our own waste sitting in a room with us the entire night is definitely foreign to all of us today.
What happens after a chamber pot has been filled is even worse. The waste would eventually be tossed straight out of a window, down onto the streets below. Those who were in charge of that task for the day often yelled out “garde loo” which was the warning for anyone down below to get out of the way.
With the presence of human waste in the streets, you can imagine that those living in the Middle Ages probably got used to a certain stench in the air, meaning they likely couldn’t tell if they were smelling particularly ripe themselves. Indoor toilets weren’t even a common occurrence, so you can probably guess that showers were non-existent, and baths weren’t too common, either. Couple that with the fact that deodorant wasn’t even a thought yet and…well, we’re sure you can imagine what an entire town of extremely dirty people might smell like, though you probably won’t want to.
They had to keep the odour at bay somehow, but with their limited resources, there weren’t a lot of ways to do it. Enter the nosegay. A nosegay was typically a small bunch of flowers or herbs, whether fresh or dried, that was either held in someone’s hand, tied around their wrist, or pinned to their clothing.
While we’re assuming that they actually did very little to combat the strong and constant stench of body odor, they essentially served as a personal air freshener for people as they went about their days. A nosegay was especially helpful when walking through a dense crowd of people, as you could pull the bouquet to your nose for a whiff of flowers while you were in a sea of smelly bodies.
There’s even a mention of nosegays in a nursery rhyme that’s apparently far more sinister than you might think. Though its origins have been disputed, “Ring Around the Rosie” is said to be about the Black Death, a plague that killed millions of people. The line “pocket full of posies” is said to reference people who carried flowers in their pockets to combat the constant smell of death in their cities.
3. Laundry Detergent
Just like those in the Middle Ages didn’t bathe as often as we do now, they definitely didn’t wash their clothes as frequently, either. Unlike today, clothing had to be made by hand and couldn’t be mass produced in any way, meaning that people typically had fewer items of clothing to their names. They often wore specific items for weeks or even months until they decided they couldn’t go without a wash any longer.
When did they wash them? Well, you might be surprised to hear that they did have something that resembled laundry detergent back then, though it was far from any Tide or Downy products we have now. If you were just doing a general load of laundry, you’d probably use something called soapwort, a flowery herb that’s like nature’s own little bar of soap—add some water and it actually lathers.
Anyone who’s into eco-friendly solutions will be pleased to know it’s something that you can still grow today to work into your own laundry routine. Stain removal was a different story, though, and it typically involved some unsavory substances that most of us would probably never even want to touch, let alone work into our clothes. They might include ashes mixed with lye, crushed green grapes, chicken feathers, or—worst of all—urine.
We can guess that, even when doing laundry, large amounts of water probably weren’t too readily available, meaning that anything you put on your clothes to “clean” them didn’t get rinsed out very well. Couple that with the fact that most people didn’t change their clothes very often, and you have just another reason why no one smelled that pleasant back then.
For some, makeup is an essential part of their daily lives that they don’t even consider leaving the house without. Today, there are many formulas available—from tinted moisturisers to full-coverage foundations—but we can guarantee that all of them are free from at least one nasty ingredient: lead.
In the Middle Ages, lead was a common ingredient in a type of makeup called Venetian ceruse, a substance that was essentially a combination of makeup and skin whitener. For those who were born as upper class citizens, extremely pale skin was considered to be beautiful and high fashion, most likely because it helped distinguish them from laborers, who would have tanned skin from their time spent outside in the sun.
However, what many believed made them beautiful also made them incredibly sick, as the lead within their makeup absorbed into their skin and caused lead poisoning, something they apparently weren’t aware of at the time. The constant use of white lead in face makeup would cause drastic symptoms such as hair loss and severe skin damage, and even death when worn long enough.
Things like eyeshadow and eyeliner were often used during this period, along with lip products like lipstick and lip balms. Most lip products were made with either oil or beeswax combined with natural dyes made from wine or plant matter, like flower petals. Eyebrows were also just as big of a deal then as they are now, though there wasn’t really a quick solution like an eyebrow pencil available. Instead, those who were looking for a little more fullness used mouse hair to fill in areas of their brows that weren’t looking so hot.
It should come as no surprise that sewer systems were basically non-existent in the Middle Ages, so the people who lived in that time had to make things work with what they had available. Those who had privies had to empty them at some point, though the process essentially consisted of putting the waste into a larger hole called a cesspit.
Cesspits were often found in cellars or out in gardens, though many people placed them further away from their homes, for obvious reasons. However, most people didn’t empty their cesspits nearly as often as they should, which left quite a job for the person who was hired for the task. These men were often called “gongs” or “jakes” and, thankfully, they were paid very well for the job given to them.
When it came to water, only the richest people of the time could afford to pay privately owned companies for the water they needed, whether for drinking or otherwise. Peasants, however, weren’t as lucky, as their main source of water often came out of a pipe system that was lined with lead.
Though no water source back then would be considered high quality, peasants had it the worse, as the water within these lead tanks and pipes often became stagnant, making it a breeding ground for bacteria at times. As this was not a time of great scientific innovation, little was done to filter water the water people used. There were even numerous rumors that people in the Middle Ages didn’t drink water at all, though they have been disproven at this point.
Kiss the modern medicine cabinet goodbye, because everything you know about taking care of cuts, scrapes, and sickness would be pretty much unheard of in the Middle Ages. Though medical practitioners did believe that diet could play a role in restoring health, they also believed in using the resources around them to the fullest extent possible, sometimes in some pretty weird ways.
One of the best-known treatments from the Middle Ages was the use of leeches for a process called bloodletting, a way to remove a person’s blood to help cure them of an illness. The doctor would attach a leech to the patient’s skin in the area that seemed to be most affected by whatever was ailing them, and then the leech would feed on their blood until it eventually fell off. Cupping is another type of therapy they used that has actually made a comeback recently—the technique involves placing heated cups over certain areas of the skin to increase blood flow and reduce inflammation in the body.
For things like scrapes and burns, plants and herbs were often used to create salves and ointments that could be applied much like Neosporin is today. Certain herbs and barks were often brewed into teas that could be taken internally to help with things like fever or headache.
Many of the plants and herbs used during this time can still be found today and are typically used for cooking or as essential oils. The next time you chop up some basil in the kitchen or rub some myrrh essential oil on a paper cut, think about how it’s almost like taking a quick step back in time—just without the actual Middle Ages part, fortunately.