There's a lot about modern life we take for granted. When was the last time you gave thanks that your dentist doesn't think you have worms in your teeth? Or for being able to go to the bathroom indoors? These real-life medieval hygiene habits from yesteryear are many shades of "yech."
Before oral hygiene was well understood, physicians commonly believed that toothaches were caused by worms that lived inside the teeth.
• Thankfully, there are no actual tooth worms
If you complained of aching teeth in the 15th Century, a physician would fill your mouth with candle smoke to drive the nonexistent worms from within them.
The belief in tooth worms probably stemmed from physicians observing a tooth's exposed nerve after the tooth was pulled. To the uninitiated, it could look very much like a worm dangling from the bottom of the tooth.
People carried around little fragrant bouquets of flowers to mask the stench of everyday life.
• Nosegays were used when smell became unbearable
Because hygiene was so atrocious, people would carry small bouquets of flowers called "nosegays" to mask the stink when things got too pungent.
The term nosegay comes from an archaic meaning of "gay," meaning "ornament." Nosegays were often worn like a necklace.
• Most food was eaten barehanded
Forks and knives were not considered a necessity until recently. People commonly used to eat with their bare hands. A problem, when you consider how uncommon hand washing was.
During the Middle Ages, dentists, doctors and barbers were all the same person.
• Your barber also pulled teeth and drained your blood needlessly
And since there was no anesthetic and medical understanding was crude, you could expect a horrifying time. Or a great time, depending on what you're into. Nevertheless, these medieval hygiene practices were rough to say the least.
"Barber surgeons" were responsible for tending to the wounds of soldiers during and after combat. Obviously, there was a very high mortality rate due to blood loss and infection. Famously, barber surgeons loved to employ leeches and bloodletting as general cures.
Bedpans, also called chamber pots, were used in the home.
• Bedpans were kept under the bed and emptied in the morning
They were kept underneath the bed, to use during the night, when you had to go and didn't want to leave your castle and risk being eaten by wolves. Also called chamber pots, they are first found in the archaeological record in 6th Century BC, in ancient Greece.
Bedpans were gradually phased out in favor of indoor flush toilets starting in the 19th Century, but they were still used well into the 20th. They are also still used in underdeveloped parts of the world, and also in hospitals for patients who cannot get out of bed.
After crude surgical operations, a physician's implements were not washed or sanitized.
• Surgical tools were left unsanitized after procedures
Oftentimes, medical treatment created more suffering than the conditions it was meant to address. Unsanitary medical practices accounted for a huge amount of avoidable deaths. In the days before microorganisms were discovered and linked to disease, the causes of many viral and bacterial conditions remained a matter of incorrect speculation.
Medical hand washing did not become standard operating procedure until a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis recognized the link between frequent hand washing and lower incidence of infection in 1846.
During the not-often-enough occasion people washed their clothes, they often did so in a solution of urine and lye.
• Clothes were washed in urine, when washed at all
Combined with rare personal bathing, this must have made for a pungent aroma. Believe it or not, washing clothes in urine actually made sense, especially in pre-industrial times when cleaning agents were unavailable.
Urine contains ammonia, which is a primary ingredient in many cleaning products. Ancient Romans use to leave vessels on the street for people to pee into, then dilute the urine and use it to wash large batches of clothing.
Before private bathrooms were common, people used communal bathing facilities.
• Public baths are still in use but now have a sexual connotation
It's a fairly recent innovation to find a shower or tub inside of private homes. People used to fully bathe themselves only occasionally, and when they did so, it was in public baths that had been shared by hundreds of other people.
Although public baths were not strictly necessary after the popularization of private bathing facilities, their use never totally dwindled. Nowadays, you'd have to go to the outskirts of Las Vegas to find this medieval hygiene practice celebrated.
In medieval England, the man who attended to the king's personal hygiene was considered a man of high esteem.
• The King had a person whose sole job was to carry his toilet
If you got extremely lucky, the King of England would appoint you as "Groom of the King's Close Stool." Your job was to carry around his portable toilet box and clean him afterwards. It was a coveted position, believe it or not.
The Groom of the Stool was privy to the king's confidence and would often learn many court secrets. The Groom of the Stool eventually rose to a position of considerable influence, participating in policymaking at the highest levels. There was no stigma associated with his menial duties.
• Baldness was thought to be remedied by rubbing a chicken poop mixture on the skin
According to a medical handbook written by Peter Levens in the 17th Century, chicken dung could be used to treat male baldness. "Take the ashes of Culver-dung in Lye, and wash the head therewith," Levens prescribes.
"Culver" is an archaic term for pigeon, but Levens was likely referring to chickens. Strangely, the regimen does not appear to have its desired effect.
The extremely dangerous heavy metal mercury used to be commonly used in many medicines.
• Mercury was often used to treat STD's
Liquid mercury is extremely toxic. Before that was common knowledge, it was used as a medicine for a number of diseases, including sexually transmitted diseases. Yes, medieval hygiene was like playing Russian roulette in your life.
Medical use of mercury has been enormously curtailed. Some countries have banned its medicinal use altogether. Mercury thermometers are also being phased out.
The popularity of periwigs was due to the prevalence of head lice.
• Hair lice were unavoidable
For many centuries, wigs were not in style, their use having disappeared almost entirely along with the Roman Empire. Their popularity surged again in the 16th century as a solution for the problem of hair louse infection.
The now iconic periwig became popular because men would shave their heads bald in order to rid themselves of hair parasites. It was much easier to keep the artificial wig hygienic than it was to maintain their own hair.
In ancient times, many vessels meant to hold water were lined with toxic lead.
• Lead seeped into the water supply
When clean water was available, it was often stored in chambers that were lined with toxic lead. Lead poisoning is very serious and causes insanity, among other conditions.
The fall of the Roman Empire has been partially accredited to their prolific use of lead in water pipes and baths.
Sulphur was used to "treat" freckles, which were seen as something that needed to be treated.
• Sulfur was rubbed on skin to treat freckles
Hard to imagine, but freckles used to be considered a horrible disfigurement. Some people rubbed sulphur on their skin every day to diminish their visibility.
Obviously it did not work. Sulfur isn't particularly toxic but does definitely irritate the eyes.
Much like how people used to use urine to clean fabrics, they also used it to clean their faces.
• Women used urine to beautify their faces
It was common for people, especially noblewomen, to apply daily washes of urine to their faces. It was believed that it was antiseptic and led to a clear complexion.
As gross as it is, it's not without merit. As stated before, urine contains ammonia, a cleaning agent. And urine is sterile, so no harm no foul, we suppose.
In the era before medical sanitation, wounds were closed by burning them shut.
• Wounds were sealed by cauterizing the flesh
If you came to a physician with a serious wound, chances are they would cauterize it shut with a burning hot poker.
There was a very fine line between medical practices and torture methods back in those days. If you had an open wound, it was likely to be badly infected unless a physician cauterized it shut with a fire-heated poker or brand.
• People wore the same outfit for an entire season
Oftentimes, people would go for many days without changing their clothes. King James VI of Scotland, pictured above, wore the same clothes for months at a stretch.
• Waste was just dumped in a hole
Human waste tended to just be thrown into open holes in the ground and left to fester, which led to the spread of infectious diseases.
• Wigs smelled bad and were very flammable
Wigs were shaped with animal fats, making them both disgusting and very likely to catch fire if exposed to candle flame.
• When post-elimination hygiene was practiced at all, leaves were applied
Unless you were part of the nobility, chances are you used dried leaves as toilet paper. Some hikers still employ this technique.
• Indoor toilets and outhouses were never changed
This Tudor-era toilet was almost never cleaned or emptied, leading to the spread of disease and a generally horrible smell.
• Wine and urine were used in place of antiseptics during surgery
During the Victorian era, physicians used two main fluids as antiseptic during surgical procedures - wine and urine. Ironic, perhaps, that one produces the other in large quantities.
• Flaps of mouse skin were stuck to the brow to make it more attractive
If a woman felt she had an unattractive brow, she would supplement it by plastering mouse skin on her face until it was more shapely.