Don’t hold your Breath: Sex and Smells in the Middle Ages

by Kate Lister

Academic and founder of the Whores of Yore blog, Kate Lister looks into the smell of sex in the medieval world. Perfume, history and just a little bit of naughtiness. 

In 1989 David Strachan proposed what became known as the ‘hygiene hypotheses’. Strachan suggested that we have sanitised our world to such an extreme that we’ve killed off bugs we need to develop a resistance to, and collectively weakened our immunity. Strachan’s work suggested we need muck to be at our best; or as a wise woman once sang, ‘if you ain’t dirty / You ain’t here to party.’ The hygiene hypotheses has been challenged over recent years, but one thing is true; despite Ms Aguilera’s protestations, we have never been less dirty, and more aware of cleanliness, hygiene and bacteria than we are today. From face wash for faces to special soaps for your ‘special places’, almost every part of our bodies has its own specialist cleaning product. Our homes are scrubbed, our clothes are washed, our streets are swept, our air is ‘freshened’, our odours are eaten, and our food and drink are manufactured within government specified guidelines.  A 2014 UK study conducted by researchers at the Universities of Manchester, Edinburgh, Lancaster and Southampton, showed that three-quarters of respondents had at least one shower or bath a day. Even if you are reading this sat in the same clothes you’ve worn for the last two days, with cornflakes in your hair and spaghetti stains on your tits; rest assured – as a society, we have never been so clean.

Which is why if I could transport you back to medieval Europe, the first thing that you would notice would be the smell. The middle ages have something of a reputation for being grubby, or ‘brown’ (a student of mine once explained; she’d always thought of the middle ages as being largely brown.) And this reputation is not without merit. Take almost any fourteenth-century city at random and you would have to sniff your way through an olfactory assault course of open sewers, animal waste, stagnate water, rotting food, refuse, unwashed bodies and collected filth. The Medieval world was far less sanitised than our own, but its people were not unaware of bad smells. Of course, they would have grown accustomed to niffs that would have your modern day germaphobe gargling with Toilet Duck, but as St Bernard wrote, ‘where all stink, no one smells’. Comparatively pungent they may have been, but medieval people were just as self-conscious of smelling bad as we are today. In his fourteenth-century Canterbury Tales, Chaucer gives us visceral portraits of his characters and smell is a key indicator of a pilgrim’s personality. Like many medieval authors, Chaucer links physical ugliness with spiritual ugliness, and he uses foul smells to signify a wrong ‘un. The morally bankrupt, Summoner’s breath smells of onions, garlic, and leeks; and his cook, a lazy, corrupt thief, is described as a ‘stynkyng swyn’ whose breath and festering sores are revolting. The hapless fop and forerunner of the metrosexual, Absolon, is heavily perfumed, ‘squeamish’ about farting, and chews cardamom and liquorice to keep his breath sweet. Absolon souses himself in the medieval equivalent of Linx Africa because smelling good was a sign of a higher social status. In Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (1485), the poor Sir Gareth is cruelly told to ‘stay out of the wind’ by the Lady Lynette because he smells of kitchens and ‘bawdy clothes’. However, being aware of smelling like the privy on a tuna boat is quite a different thing from being able to do something about it. Bathing requires, at the very least, a river; but, more often than not, it requires bathing facilities and the means to clean yourself and your clothes regularly.

The Romans were famous for bathing. They established lavish bathhouses across the empire, as well as the infrastructure to support them. Public bathing had remained popular across Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire (C.476 AD). But, the early Christian Church quickly pulled the plug on the communal soak. As the Christian faith clamped down on sexual freedoms, attitudes to bathing in the buff changed considerably. Not only did public bathing involve nudity, but heat was believed to inflame lustful senses. Theologians like St Jerome (ca 340-420) had anti-sex agendas that would make the Jonas Brothers look like Guns n’ Roses. Jerome advocated virginity as the supreme moral state, and urged women (in particular) to cultivate ‘deliberate squalor’ to ‘spoil her natural good looks’. Many monks, hermits, and saints saw washing as a sign of vanity and sexual corruption; filth was synonymous with piety and humility. Early Christian militants emphasized spiritual cleanliness over physical cleanliness, even viewing the two as inversely proportional; you could literally stink to high heaven. Saint Godric (1065-1170), for example, walked from England to Jerusalem without ever washing or changing his clothes. Ulrich, an abbot of Cluny, France and Regensburg, Germany (1029 – 1093) said: “As to our baths, … there is not much that we can say, for we only bath twice a year, before Christmas and before Easter.” Of course, just because a saintly squad of hardcore soap dodgers shunned the shower, does not mean that every medieval citizen felt the same; but whatever the early medieval washing rota was, by the ninth century, the Roman bath infrastructure had fallen to rack and ruin throughout Christendom.

It was the crusaders that brought the habit of bathing back to medieval Europe. Whilst the Christians were busy working up a stench that could be weaponised, cleanliness remained essential throughout the Muslim world. Medieval Arab doctors were far more advanced than the west and understood the importance of cleanliness and hygiene. Medieval cities of Mecca, Marrakech, Cairo, and Istanbul all had their water and bathhouses supplied by well-maintained aqueducts. The Kitab at-Tasrif (C.1000) by Al-Zahrawi is a medical encyclopaedia that devotes entire chapters to cosmetics and cleanliness; Al-Zahrawi gives recipes for soap, deodorants, facial creams and hair dyes. Conversely, for all their ‘spiritual purity’, the crusaders stank. 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.’ Happily, the Muslim habit of regular bathing seemed to rub off on the marauding crusaders, and bathhouses began to become popular throughout medieval Europe once more, and bathing became a serious business.

Fourteenth-century Italian physician, Maino De Maineri, wrote extensively about the health benefits of bathing and had guidance for bathing in old age, pregnancy and even when travelling. If you had the money, you could pay for servants to heat water and fill a wooden tub for one, but most people used the public baths. By the thirteenth-century there were thirty-two bathhouses in Paris and eighteen in London; even the smaller towns had bathhouses. It wasn’t just the habit of social soaking and an arse whooping the crusaders brought back from the Holy Lands; they had also learnt about the art of perfume. The Medieval Europeans have always valued a nice smelling plant, but oils, soap, colognes and exotic bases, like civet and musk, for perfume, were wholly new.  Rosewater, in particular, was the Chanel No. 5 of the middle ages. A donner à laver was a bowl of rosewater rich guests would use to wash their hands before dinner. Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy owned a statue of a child that peed rosewater. John Russell’s fifteenth-century Book of Nurture has advice for preparing a good bath. He recommends ‘flowers and sweet green herbs’, breweswort, camomile, mallow, fennel and (of course) rosewater to scent the water. The first known perfume was created for Queen Elizabeth of Hungary around 1370. It was known as ‘Hungary Water’ and legend said it was created by a hermit who promised the queen it would allow her to live for ever; its ingredients included rosemary, grape oil, mint and lemon balm, and whilst the Queen may not have lived forever, she may have at least left a lovely smelling corpse.

So, medieval people smelled a lot nicer than you might have expected, and we all know it’s much more pleasant to get down and dirty if you and your lover are not dirty (if you follow); but, for all their rub-a-dub-dubbing, the medieval folk were a metaphorically mucky lot. Historically, wherever you have had public bathing, sex has been working up a lather at the soapy heart of it. Of course, this is still the case today and you must do your homework before arriving at an all-night city sauna with your swimming cap, nose plugs and loofah (just me?). So closely associated are sex and bathing, numerous slang phrases for sex and sex work are derived from bathing; ‘lather’, as in ‘to lather up’ was sixteenth-century slang for ejaculation. The word ‘bagnio’, meaning a brothel, derives from the Latin ‘balneum’, meaning ‘bath’. Likewise, a medieval word for a brothel was a ‘stew’, which also derives from the bathhouses, where you could literally stew yourself in the hot water and steam. Sex work and saunas were closely associated, the word ‘stew’ became synonymous with both. In the twelfth century, King Henry II officially recognised the Southwark area of London as a red-light district; it was no coincidence that this was also the area of the city with the highest concentration of bathhouses. So concerned with being thought of as a brothel, that one new bathhouse in Avignon, around 1446, felt it necessary to announce their opening with a clear statement defining themselves as an ‘honest’ establishment.

Let everyone of whatever rank be aware that Genin de Geline or de Helme, otherwise known as de la Cerveleria, has established behind his house at Helme good and honest stews for bathing by good and honest women and that these are quite separate from the men’s bath of de la Cerveleria.

Sanitation was patchy, and Beyoncé’s Heat may have been a few centuries off, but the middle ages were quite discerning about a sexy smell. In the fourteenth-century Decameron, for example, Boccaccio clearly links sex and smell together.

Without permitting anyone else to lay a hand on him, the lady herself washed Salabaetto all over with soap scented with musk and cloves. She then had herself washed and rubbed down by the slaves. This done, the slaves brought two fine and very white sheets, so scented with roses that they seemed like roses; the slaves wrapped Salabaetto in one and the lady in the other and then carried them both on their shoulders to the bed . . . They then took from the basket silver vases of great beauty, some of which were filled with rose water, some with orange water, some with jasmine water, and some with lemon water, which they sprinkled upon them.

Le Ménagier de Paris (1393) is full of helpful advice on smelling attractive; Sage water is recommended, along with ‘chamomile, marjoram, or rosemary boiled with orange peel’. William Langham’s Garden of Health (1579) recommends adding Rosemary to a bath:  ‘Seethe much Rosemary, and bathe therein to make thee lusty, lively, joyfull, likeing and youngly.'” Delights for Ladies (1609) suggests distilling water with cloves, orris powder, nutmeg and cinnamon (because you’re worth it). And in a medieval forerunner of the lynx effect, the civet effect meant musk harvested from the glands of the civet cat became highly desirable; along with castor from the anal glands of a beaver, and whale vomit (ambergris); but, these were luxury items. If you really want to know the smell of medieval illicit sex, it’s lavender.

The word lavender comes from the latin word lavare, which means to wash. It has been used for thousands of years for its sweet smell. Unlike the more exotic and expensive perfumes, lavender grows all over Europe and is both cheap and readily available. Lavender was widely used in washing clothes, and washerwoman became known as ‘lavenders’; in fact, the word ‘launder’ derives from lavender. As historian Ruth Mazo Carras identified, one medieval profession that was especially connected to sex work was the washerwoman. Medieval laundresses were very poor, and had a reputation for making ends meet by dollymopping (subsidising their income with sex work).  Dante calls ‘meretrices’ (sex workers) ‘lavenders’ in his Inferno. Chaucer writes that ‘envy is lavender of the court’ in his The Legend of the Good Woman (C.1380), metaphorically drawing on the double meaning of being at once both dirty and clean. Walter of Hemingburgh tells a story of King John who thought he was seducing a married noble woman, but instead had been sent “a horrid whore and laundress.” The sixteenth-century poem “Ship of Fools” includes the following lines: “Thou shalt be my lavender Laundress / To wash and keep clean all my gear, / Our two beds together shall be set / Without any let.” Given lavender’s rather conservative and somewhat old fashioned reputation today, I personally take great delight in knowing that elderly women and aromatherapists the world over actually smell like a medieval strumpet.

But, the fun was not to last. Public bathhouses went into steep decline across Europe in the sixteenth-century. New medical advice suggested bathing weakened the body, and that cleaning the skin left it open to infection. Periodic outbreaks of plague and the arrival of syphilis in the fifteenth century certainly burst the bubble bath. As people became cautious about bathing, washing the body was replaced with wearing linen shirts; linen was thought to draw out and absorb sweat. Louis XIV changed his shirt several times a day and French mansions were designed without bathrooms, as changing linen was so popular. Bathing would not come back into vogue until the eighteenth century with the rise of the spa.

When Monty Python sent up preconceptions about the Middle Ages in Holy Grail (1975), the dead collector correctly identifies Arthur as the King, because he is the one who ‘hasn’t got shit all over him’. In 2014, beloved Python Terry Jones published his Medieval Lives where he sets about redeeming the Middle Ages from unjust stigmas; such as smelling of shit. Far from living in a ditch, eating twigs and rubbing themselves with sewage, the citizens of the Middle Ages actually smelt quite good; certainly better than the people of the Renaissance who believed bathing would make them ill. Medieval lovers valued clean bodies, sweet breath, regular scrubbing and an array of perfumes. They also knew the aphrodisiacal qualities of various scents, oils and plants. They enjoyed mixed sex communal bathing and invested in bathing infrastructure. Sex was very much a part of the culture of communal bathing; at worst it was tolerated, at best it was fully embraced and enjoyed. The medieval period was undeniably grubbier than our own; but, they embraced cleanliness as fully as they could, and their sex workers smelt of lavender.