Historical research

A short Facebook “discussion” between me and Mesmered on Tuesday  prompted me to do this post. Here was the exchange (my comment to her posting of Mark Williams piece about her):

# (me) I see I’m really NOT the only one writing about Richard and John Plantagenet’s times! 😉

# (Mesmered) Medieval era highly popular, Barb. It’s all that ‘no washing’ that does it!

# (me) Funny I’ve just reminded people that they DID wash in the 12th century… 😉

(which is something I mentioned in my comeback post, of course). So here goes the evidence! 🙂

p.s. I know she was joking, but many other people were very serious in their objections, hence this post…

Bathing evidence from the Chanson de Gestes by Chretien de Troyes (translations available at Project Guttenberg)

Erec & Enide

She had laid embroidered cushions and spreads upon the couches, where they all three sat down Erec with his host beside him, and the maiden opposite. Before them, the fire burns brightly. He brought them water for washing in two basins. The table was soon set, cloths, bread, and wine set out, and they sat down to supper.


The time for the meal had come, and those whose duty it was hastened to set the tables. The tables in the hall were quickly spread, then while some took the towels, and others held the basins, they offered water to all who came. When all had washed, they took their seats. And the King, taking Cliges by the hand,

made him sit down in front of him, for he wished to learn this very day, if possible, who he was. Of the meal I need not further speak, for the courses were as well supplied as if beef were selling at a penny.

You must know that baths are not lacking here, nor anything else which a lady needs, and which I can think of or recall.

These quarters are good enough for such a guest; for there are bedrooms, and bathrooms with hot water in the tubs, which comes through pipes under the ground.


Every day the has him bathed, and washed, and groomed. And besides this she prepares for him a robe of red scarlet stuff, brand new and lined with spotted fur. A Golden buckle for his neck, ornamented with precious stones which make people look well, a girdle, and a wallet made of rich gold brocade.

Then they say no more about the box, but minister in every way they can to the comfort of my lord Yvain, bathing him and washing his hair, having him shaved and clipped, for one could have taken up a fist full of hair upon his face. His every want is satisfied: if he asks for arms, they are furnished him: if he wants a horse, they provide him with one that is large and handsome, strong and spirited.

She relieves him of all his arms, nor was it the least attention she bestowed on him when she herself washed his neck and face. The lord wishes that all honour should be shown him, as indeed they do. She gets out from her wardrobe a folded shirt, white drawers, needle and thread for his sleeves, which she sews on, thus clothing him.


Standing beside the table, at the end of a bench, they found two basins of warm water in which to wash their hands, with a richly embroidered towel, all white and clean, with which to dry their hands.

Then the knight and his two sons extend a glad welcome to their guests. The rest of the household were not backward, for even the least among them prepared to perform his special task. While some run to prepare the meal, others light the candles in profusion; still others get a towel and basins, and offer water for the hands: they are not niggardly in all this. When all had washed, they take their seats.

Forget Sir Walter Scott! Let’s rewrite the history books! 😀

(and no, they’re not constantly bathing in my novel, but they DO bathe after a journey or stuff like that… they’re well-mannered knights and ladies, after all! ;-))

UPDATE that has nothing to do with the previous post: I’ve had my first interview! Read it at wonderful Chrystalla Thoma’s blog, she was very kind in having me! Check it out, especially if you’re new to this blog! 😀


  1. I knew they bathed, Barb. I said it as a joke because the expression ‘The great unwashed’ came from somewhere. I’ve found information on bathing and the history of soaps and hair rinses in my research which puts the lie to all those movies with medieval settings. Mind you, the peasants weren’t quite so lucky!
    There is not a great deal of evidence that I can find that shows that peasants/villeins did more than bathe in a river occasionally. Only the nobles had the option of bathing. Interestingly there are a number of castles and monasteries with what we could consider baths today.


    • I know YOU know, but I keep hearing that thing from everywhere, including people who said they have studied the middle ages – which drives me totally nuts! 😀
      That’s why I thought I’d put the evidence out there, you were only the inspiration to write it, I wasn’t implying you didn’t know…
      Besides, let’s not forget it’s 10 centuries we’re talking about and maybe not all those centuries were clean… but after an “expert” told me “they didn’t bathe in the 12th century”… maybe they didn’t in the 10th or 14th, I don’t know, but I DO know what they did at the time of my novel setting! Heck, noble ladies washed their hair with camomille to be all blondes (except my protagonist, haha)! 😀 This modern obsession to be blonde comes from far far away… 😉


  2. Anna Lowenstein

     /  23/05/2011

    Very interesting! They were obviously good about washing their faces and hands, but I wonder how often they took full baths?

    The really bad time for washing, I think, came later, i.e. the 16th and 17th centuries, when personal habits were apparently pretty disgusting. I once heard (sorry I can’t give a reference) that Queen Elizabeth I bathed once a month “whether she needed it or no”. And being so fanatical about personal cleanliness, she even made a law that her subjects had to bathe at least once a year.


    • They had the Roman baths still working fine in towns and the “etuves” like it’s mentioned in that castle that the slave prepares for Cliges (bathrooms with hot water in the tubs, which comes through pipes under the ground)…


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