detail from illustration in 13th c. manuscript, Petro da Eboli, Pozzuoli Baths.

A Short History of Bathing before 1601:

Washing, Baths, and Hygeine in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, with sidelights on other customs

"One of the most stupid calumnies on the manners of the Catholic Middle Ages that bathing was forbidden, that it was seldom practiced, and the like."
Thomas J. Shanan, The Middle Ages: Sketches and Fragments

Ancient Baths

Roman Baths

The Romans were famous for their baths, and they brought them even into Gaul and Britain. While Roman manors often had their own smaller private bath-houses, the Roman public generally frequented relatively inexpensive public baths. By the peak of their popularity, they included hot and cold rooms, and medium-temperature lounging rooms with a variety of extra services such as food, wine, exercise and/or personal training being offered.  At different points in the history of Rome, baths were gender segregated by place or time, while at other times the bathing was mixed. (Fagan, Bathing in Public in the Roman World)

Judaic Ritual Bathing

Ritual bathing is also part of ancient (and modern) Jewish culture. Ritual cleansing baths (mikvot) from the classical period have been found in archaeological digs at multiple sites, including Masada. Hanan Eshel summarized the rules for the construction of mikvot:

"A mikveh must hold at least 40 seahs of water (approximately 60 gallons). The whole body of the person or vessel to be purified must be totally immersed. And, most significant for our purposes, the water must be "living" water. That is, it must come directly from a river or a spring or from rainwater that flows into the pool; it may not be drawn. To meet this latter requirement, the rabbis permitted the use of an otter, a pool of living water that was connected by a plugged pipe to the main immersion pool. The main pool could be filled with drawn water (not qualified for use in ritual immersion), and when needed, the pipe between the otter and the main pool was unplugged, allowing the qualified, living water from the otter to come into contact with the water in the main pool, rendering it fit for immersions."(p. 43)

The distinctive nature of mikveh structures causes them to be regarded as archaeological markers of Jewish communities at classical and medieval sites. A mikveh dating from around 1150 has been uncovered by archaeologists in Bristol, England (Aldous, p. 27), and another in Cologne, Germany dates from around 1170 (

Early Christians

In the 4th and 5th centuries CE, 'fathers of the Christian Church' such as Clement and Jerome condemned excessive attendance at the public baths, and attendance for pleasure. Because bathhouses had mixed facilities, church authorities condemned women's attendance at mixed gender bathhouses. Jerome, more strict than most, felt that female virgins should not bathe with other women (due to his distaste for pregnancy), and that they should not bathe naked.  However, Shahan argues that bathing was not forbidden: "The 'Apostolic Constitutions,' an old episcopal manual originally compiled about the beginning of the third century of our era, look upon the use of the bath as quite a manner of course, and only provide against certain abuses... The early Fathers, in general, had no objection to baths being used for cleanliness or health . . ." (p. 287,289)

Eastern cultures

Roman-type baths were continued and/or re-established in Islamic countries through the medieval and Renaissance periods, and bathing was endorsed by Islamic writers. The hammam, referred to in modern times as the 'Turkish Bath,' was a major feature of Islamic culture, and preserved the Roman traditions of cleaning the body first, then soaking and socializing. Due to the Islamic religious requirements for frequent washing (when water was unavailable, dust or dirt could be used for ritual ablutions), baths and washing equipment remained popular. Some historians believe that the habit of the baths return to Western Europe from the Middle East with the Crusaders, but documentary evidence suggests that the resurgence of public baths in Western Europe may have been more a function of political and economic stability.

Japanese baths are of similar if not greater antiquity. Western writers claim that the soaking baths of Japan originate from the extensive use of Japanese hot springs.

"Situated between two volcanic belts, Japan offers countless natural thermal baths, furos. The tradition of public bathing dates back at least to A.D. 552 and to the dawn of Buddhism, which taught that such hygiene not only purified the body of sin but also brought luck." (von Furstenberg, p. 91)

According to an article in the Economist,

"Chinese historians commented in the third century on the cleanliness of the Japanese (though they made no mention of their nylon towels). So did European travellers when Japan first began to open up to them at around the turn of the 16th century. . . Until the emergence of public baths in the 17th century, nearly all the baths for the common folk were provided by Buddhist temples." (August 2, 1997, p. 66)

Attitudes toward Cleanliness and washing

Information and opinions about pre-seventeenth century attitudes toward washing and bathing are quite mixed in the historical community. The general consensus seems to be that bathing as a social ritual was quite popular; in fact, any church regulations on bathing were designed to combat excessive indulgence in the habit. The Roman baths were a daily social activity, in the same way that modern teenagers frequent the local swimming pool, and adults the exercise club. Deprived of sophisticated Roman plumbing, most medieval and renaissance people appear to have bathed less often, but with the same social enjoyment. Most modern authors suggest that bathing was more a matter of social mores than hygiene. Whether oft-repeated injunctions in the period manners books to wash hands and face every day and avoid having noisome breath, etc. support that allegation or not is a question for debate.

Like the nonsensical idea that spices were used to disguise the taste of rotten meat, the idea that bathing was forbidden and/or wiped out between the fall of Rome and the Enlightenment has been touted by many gullible writers, including Smithsonian magazine. However, even the Smithsonian in the person of Jay Stuller has to admit that "Gregory the Great, the first monk to become pope, allowed Sunday baths and even commended them, so long as they didn't become a 'time-wasting luxury' . . . medieval nobility routinely washed their hands before and after meals. Etiquette guides of the age insisted that teeth, face and hands be cleaned each morning. Shallow basins and water jugs for washing hair were found in most manor houses, as was the occasional communal tub..."

Bernard Rudofsky, in a speech reprinted in Interior Design, gives a more cheerful picture:

"In the Middle Ages, an epoch generally dismissed as dark and dirty, men and women bathed together and took their time about it. They often remained in the water for a meal, served on floating tables, and in time the bath became the favorite place for banquets, accompanied by song and music, with the musicians seated in the water. Men kept their hats on, women were impeccably groomed for the occasion--from the navel upwards, wearing chokers and necklaces, turbans and towering headdresses. A veil marked the status of a married woman. A part from the usual quota of zealots, the Church remained on the whole tolerant of these hedonistic pastimes. Some monastic orders made bathing in hot air and steam part of their regimen, while others forbade bathing except at Christmas and Easter. Moreover, instead of tearing down the thermae of old, the clergy converted them into chapels and churches. Many a marble tub was thus promoted to a baptismal font, bathing chairs were turned into pulpits, and the flow of pagan, springs was metamorphosed into holy water.

Bathing scenes woven into Gothic tapestries leave no doubt that bathing was indulged with equal gusto by prince and pauper. In the morning, the opening of the public baths was announced by the sound of trumpets and drums, whereupon the good burghers proceeded to them naked--a precaution against theft. For the stay-at-home a wooden tub was brought to the bed-chamber and filled with hot water. If the chronicles are to be believed, the wealthy had elaborate installations with pipes made of gold and silver, and one Heinrich von Veldecke, an epic poet, sang the praises of a golden tub. In the spring, bathing parties would move to outdoor pools and ornate basins, amid statuary and flowering trees. Dark ages indeed! "

Georges Duby, in an article in A History of Private Life, suggests:

"...Among the dominant classs at least, cleanliness was much prized. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Cluniac monasteries and houses of the lay nobility continued to set aside space for baths...No formal dinner (that is, no dinner given in the great hall with a large crowd of guests) could begin until ewers had been passed around to the guest for their preprandial abulutions. Water flowed abundantly in the literature of amusement -- over the body of the knight-errant, who was always rubbed down, combed, and groomed by his host's daughters whenever he stopped for the night, and over the nude bodies of fairies in fountains and steam-baths. A hot bath was an obligatory prelude to the amorous games described in the fabliaux. Washing one's own body and the bodies of others seems to have been a function specifically ascribed to women, mistresses of water both at home and in the wilderness.

Bathing and grooming were regarded with suspicion by moralists, however, because they unveiled the attractsions of the body. Bathing was said to be a prelude to sin, and in the penitential of Burchard of Worms we find a full catalog of the sins that ensued when men and women bathed together... Lambert of Ardres, the historian of the counts of Guines, describes the young wife of the ancestor of his hero swimming before the eyes of her household in a pond below the castle, but he is careful to indicate that she is wearing a modest white gown. ... [Public baths] were suspect because they were too public; it was better wash one's body in the privacy of one's own home. Scrupulous, highly restrictive precautions were taken in . . . monasteries. At Cluny the custom required the monks to take a full bath twice a year, at the holidays of renewal, Christmas and Easter; but they were exhorted not to uncover their pudenda." (p. 525)

While mixed bathing was discouraged by the Church, records exist that baths were used as social affairs, with banquets and wedding feasts being joined with the baths. Certainly, the depictions of couples using the baths suggests that it was a social as well as sexual activity. Durer's 1497 woodcut of men at a public bathhouse, contrasted with his drawing of 'Women's Bath' of the same year, shows sex-segregated bathing.

Another question is frequency of bathing. Shahan says,

"In the first volume of Janssen's History of the German People there are many details concerning the popular use of baths in Germany during the Middle Ages. Men bathed several times each day; some spent the whole day in or about their favorite springs. From the 20th of May to the 9th of June, 1511, Lucas Rem bathed one hundred and twenty-seven times, as we may see by his diary" (p. 291-292).

According to Magdalena z Wroclawia on the Slavic Interest Group list, "In my town there was a law (in XIII-XVc) which ordered every citizen to visit a public bath once a week. If someone didn't want to follow this ruled was condemned to 'tower,' or to pay some money" [sic]. On the other hand, other authors suggest that some people went weeks, months or years without bathing.

Certainly, some months were considered inauspicious for bathing, mostly in the winter. Those who have had to carry large quantities of water about during the colder months may suspect that parents and servants may have had some influence in the decision.

Douglas Biow suggests that attention to civic cleanliness in Italy may have grown during the Renaissance period, specifically in response to the outbreaks of the plague. This attention is demonstrated by the creation of boards of health and by the praises of Florence in particular as very clean. However, Biow points out, "though it was recommended to often wash one's hands with vinegar, bathing was ill-advised because it opened the pores to the disease."

Most authors suggest that the decline in bathing, baths, and general washing may date to the period of the later plagues. Simple principles of contagion did suggest to Renaissance people that bathing with others was a significant risk. Immersing in water or opening the pores with a steam bath might also make one more vulnerable to disease if it was spread via 'miasmas,' a common theory at the time.

Types of Bath

Vapor baths, Saunas & Steam Baths

It appears that bathing in bathhouses, specifically vapor baths (hot air or steam sweating, followed by washing or cold plunges) was the preferred method in Eastern and Central Europe.

The basic bath practices appear to have been the same in most of Northern/Eastern Europe: heat up rocks or a stove in an enclosed area, that is, the bathhouse. Apply water to the rocks to create steam. Sit on benches in the steam area, naked except for hats. When bathing in public or mixed groups, one might wear a light bathing costume (linen trunks for men, or a open-sided shift for women, as in described in 15th century Baden-Baden by Poggio Bracciolini). Beat oneself with bunches of leaves to encourage circulation. After or during sweating, cleanse the body with water from tubs or buckets, or plunge into a bath, river, or snow. German bathhouses included other amenities, such as soaking pools and areas for socializing, drinking and eating, which may have been inspired by Roman baths. I haven't found information about socializing areas being part of the Russian bathhouse.

Mentions of sweat baths go back Roman accounts of the Scythians' habit of taking sweat baths:

"These tents were made of thick felt, with all cracks carefully sealed up. Inside was placed a bowl full of red-hot stones, onto which cannabis seeds were thrown. According to Herodotus, the Scythians would howl with delight as they breathed in the fumes. Sitting in these tents was clearly one of their favorite pasttimes. " (P. James and N. Thorpe, Ancient Inventions; NY: Ballantine, 1994, p. 342.)

Steam baths in wooden bathhouses in Russia are mentioned in the Russian Primary Chronicle of 1113: " They warm them to extreme heat, then undress, and, after anointing themselves with tallow, take young reeds and lash their bodies. They lash themselves so violently that they barely escape alive. Then they drench themselves with cold water and thus are revived. They think nothing of doing this every day and actually inflict such torture upon themselves voluntarily." (quoted by Allen) Traditions in Russia of bathing before weddings are confirmed in the Domostroi, and the tradition of giving birth in the banya, or bathhouse, appears to originates before 1600 as well. In pre-Petrine Russia , according to Levin:

"The usual location chosen for the delivery, at least in Northern Russia , was the bathhouse. Archbishop II'ia of Novgorod in the twelfth century formulated specific instructions on how to purify it, citing the precedent of Bishop Nifont. . . The bathhouse was warm, clean, and private. It could be placed off limits of the delivery and cleansing without disrupting village routines. Furthermore, the bathhouse had a religious significance in Finno-Ugric paganism. It served as a center for gathering, worship, religious dance, and personal repurification. The custom of giving birth in a bathhouse was ingrained to the point that women in the seventeenth century who gave birth out of wedlock and killed the newborn still went to the bathhouse for the delivery." ("Childbirth in Pre-Petrine Russia ," p. 51)

Puskareva points out that women underwent purificatory baths at the end of the forty days following child birth (p. 39)

German vapor baths were obviously known in the 12th century, as Hildegarde of Bingen suggests herbs in mixtures to pour over the head in the sauna, to splash on the sauna rocks, to apply to the body and/or drink in the sauna, and to bathe in. While Throop translates the term used in the texts as 'sauna', the instructions do match a steam bath created with hot rocks, on which one pours water.

Public Bath-houses

In Bohemia, Poland and Germany, public steam baths seem to have been a fixture. In Gasawa, Poland, Duke Henryk the Bearded and Duke Leszek Bialy were attacked in the baths in 1227. In 1385, when Jadwiga of Poland was apparently concerned about the appearance of her prospective bridegroom, Jagiello of Lithuania, "she was only placated after a favorite young knight of hers, Zawisza of Olesnica, had been sent to inspect Iogaila in his bath-house and reported back favorably on the details of the barbarian's body" (Zamoyski, p. 43). According to Zamoyski, in the 1400s, "There were no less than twelve public baths in Krakow " (p. 58).

Gothic period Bohemian illuminations depict female bath-house keepers in sleeveless dresses cinched at the waist with what may be a towel, waiting on male bathhouse clients with bucket and scrub-brush.  The bathhouse attendants are also shown pouring water over clients and/or helping them wash. These bathhouses also may have offered soaking tubs.

Saunas were also popular in Finland; the Finnish use of sauna is well documented back to the beginning of their history. 

"The first examples of saunas were simple pits dug in the earth, with heated stones to generate the dry, hot atmosphere. Hot stones remain the hallmark of the sauna, radiating warmth into a small surrounding room, which today is typically built of wood. Dousing the stones with water creates a vapor called loyly by the Finns. Body brushes, called vihta or vahta, and birch branches, are used to stimulate the skin and a healthy sweat." (von Furstenberg, p. 93)

Some writers, such as de Bonneville, suggest that the Finns aquired the habit of the vapor bath from Central Asia via Russia, but the Finns disagree.

The bathhouses were apparently locations for socializing and social mixing, and even in Russia could involve interactions between bathers of the opposite sex despite church rules. Puskareva says,

"Contemporary observers reported that, in the tsar's household, the tsar and his retainers might meet in the bathhouse, which provided both bathing facilities and a sauna. However, it is unlikely that the women of the tsar's family, much less women of the lower classes, followed the same custom. Women did visit the bathhouse, but it was usually on holidays or on Saturday evenings. The tsaritsa and her daughters had their own section of the palace bathhouse. The Stoglav Church Council of 1551 prohibitedtmen and women, monks and nuns, from bathing together,' proclaiming those who did so as 'without shame.' But the common people did not observe this prohibition, and men and women bathed naked together. In the winter, they ran out of the bathhouse naked to roll in the snow in order to cool off, without regard for curious onlookers. It took more than a century before Russian bathhouses were divided into separate men's and women's baths." (p. 98)

When regular soaking tubs were used, the heavy curtains around them could be closed to produce a steam/vapor bath environment.

Single-person steam baths for health purposes were sometimes accomplished by placing steaming water or a small charcoal stove under a cover with the patient, or in the case of women, under the patient's skirts.

Regulations governing the Guild of Bathhouse Keepers

(In Paris, around 1270, taken from Etienne de Boileu, Livre des métiers)

  1. Whoever wishes to be a bathhouse-keeper in the city of Paris may freely do so, provided he works according to the usage and customs of the trade, made by agreement of the commune, as follow.
  2. Be it known that no man or woman may cry or have cried their baths until it is day, because of the dangers which can threaten those who rise at the cry to go to the baths.
  3. No man or woman of the aforesaid trade may maintain in their houses or baths either prostitutes of the day or night, or lepers, or vagabonds, or other infamous people of the night.
  4. No man or woman may heat up their baths on Sunday, or on a feast day which the commune of the city keeps.
    And every person should pay, for a steam-bath, two deniers; and if he bathes, he should pay four deniers.
    And because at some times wood and coal are more expensive than at others, if anyone suffers, a suitable price shall be set by the provost of Paris, through the discussion of the good people of the aforesaid trade, according to the situation of the times.
    The male and female bathhouse-keepers have sworn and promised before us to uphold these things firmly and consistently, and not to go against them.
  5. Anyone who infringes any of the above regulations of the aforesaid trade must make amends with ten Parisian sous, of which six go to the king, and the other four go to the masters who oversee the trade, for their pains.
  6. The aforesaid trade shall have three good men of the trade, elected by us unanimously or by a majority, who shall swear before the provost of Paris or his representative that they will oversee the trade well and truly, and that they will make known to the provost of Paris or his representative all the infringements that they know of or discover, and the provost shall remove and change them as often as he wishes.

-- Translated in Women's Lives in Medieval Europe, A Source Book.

Social Bathing

"A crier patrolled the streets of thirteenth-century Paris to summon people to the heated steam-baths and bath-houses. These establishments, already numbering twenty-six in 1292 [Riolan, Curieuses Recherches, p. 219], and with their guild, were a familiar feature of the town. They were commonplace enough for it not to be shocking to offer a session in a steam-bath as a tip to artisans, domestic servants, or day-labourers. 'To Jehan Petit, for him and his fellow valets of the bedchamber, which the queen gave him on New Year's Day to visit the steam-baths: 108s.' What they would find was a steam-bath, with in addition, according to price, a bath in a tub, wine, a meal, or a bed. Naked bodies sweated and were sponged down side by side in the steam from water heated by wood fires. Baths were taken in a room, often separate, crammed with heavy round iron-bound bathtubs. A steam-bath did not necessarily involve immersion, though a bath could be had. There were, for example, six bathtubs at Saint-Vivien in 1380, with three beds and sets of bedding. [C. de Beaurepaire, Noveaux Melanges historiques, Paris, 1904, p. 94] . . . The surroundings in the fifteenth-century minature of Valerius Maximus are plusher, with sumptuous table-covers, wall-hangings and a tiled floor.[Valerius Maxiumus, 'Faits et Dits memorables' fifteenth cneutry) Paris, BN,, 289; fol 414]... " -- Vigarello, Georges, Concepts of Cleanliness, p. 21-22

"The public steam-baths, with their bed linen and wall-hangings, their wooden bathtubs and their serving maids carrying pails on yokes across their shoulders, still illustrated in the illuminated manuscripts of the Decameron in 1430, or in the series of men and women bathing by Durer from the end of the fifteenth century..." Vigarello, p. 23

Tub Baths

The early Irish considered baths a major part of hospitality, and to not offer a guest the opportunity to bathe, or at least wash hands and feet, was an insult. Irish baths were filled with cold water and then heated by dropping rocks, heated in a fire, into the water. There are some suggestions that such heated rocks may have been used to heat saunas.

Bathing in tubs was done in private homes, in monasteries, and in communal bath-houses, which were very common in cities. In the late 13th century, bathhouses in Paris employed criers to announce when the water was hot. In Gasawa Poland, Duke Henryk the Bearded and Duke Leszek Bialy were attacked in the baths in 1227. By the 15th and 16th centuries, bath-houses in Western Europe had mixed clientele, and by the end of our period of study, the 'stews' had the unsavory reputation as houses of ill-repute we remember.

"It was the seigneurs, who, in the mid-fifteenth century Cent Nouvelles nouvelles, had baths prepared for them [Anon., Cent Nouvelles nouvelles (1450), in Conteurs francais du XVIe siecle (Paris, 1979), p. 33], as if water was a sign of wealth. A demonstration of status, it became the occasion for display; a bath enhanced celebrations and receptions. The accounts of Philip the Good, which record the duke's activities as well as his expenditures, enable us to trace 'the baths taken in his house'. [L.-P. Gachard, "Les comptes de Philippe le Bon, duc du Bourgogne," Collections des voyages des souverains des Pays-Bas (Brussels, 1876), vol. 1, p. 89] Food was always provided, meat in particular. They were the occasion for invitations and festivities, for animated gatherings of people and things. 'On 30 December 1462, the Duke regaled himself at the baths in his residence, in the company of Mgr de Rovestaing, Mgr Jacques de Bourbon, the son of the Comte de Russye and many other great lords, knights and squires.' [ibid, p. 87] The practice, clearly, was prestigious. . . 'The Duke invited to dine with him the ambassadors of the of the wealthy Duke of Bavaria and the Count of Wurtemberg, and had a total of five meat dishes prepared to regale himself at the baths.' [ibid, p. 91] . . . The reception offered on 10 September 1476 by J. Dauvet, first president of Parlement to Queen Charlotte of Savoy and 'many other women of her company' resembled in every detail those described in the accounts of the Duke of Burgundy. 'They were recieved and regaled most nobly and lavishly, and four beautiful and richly adorned baths had been prepared.' [J. de Troyes, Histoire de Louis unzieme (1483), published by J. Michaud and J. Poujelat in Nouvelle collection des memoires pour servir a l'histore de France (Paris, 1837), vol. 4, p. 280]..." Vigarello, p. 23-24.

The use of couple bathing as a romantic prelude to coition is demonstrated in 14th through 16th century illustrations. Legal history suggests that ordinary public bath-houses were often segregated by gender, or different times or days were restricted for each gender. Private bath-rooms in castles, such as the one at Leeds, could often accommodate multiple bathers as well.

Bathing in a Fountain There are many illustrations depicting groups or individuals (such as Bathsheba or Judith) bathing in fountains or spring-pools. It is hard to tell whether these are artistic fantasies, or interpretations of a common practice. [Similar illustrations show such water sources being used to wash clothes and cool wine, among other domestic chores.] Examples of such illustrations can be found in Frank Crisp's Medieval Gardens ( New York, Hacker Art Books, 1966).

However, a note in Francis Bacon's essay on gardens suggests that there really were bathing pools:

"As for the other kind of Fountain, which we may call a bathing-pool, it may admit much curiosity and beauty, wherewith we will not trouble ourselves: as, that the bottom be finely paved, and with images; the sides likewise; and withal embellished with coloured glass, and such things of lustre; encompassed also with fine rails of low statues: but the main point is the same which we mentioned in the former kind of Fountain; which is, that the water be in perpetual motion, fed by a water higher than the pool, and delivered into it by fair spouts, and then discharged away underground, by some equality of bores, that it stay little; and for fine devices, of arching water without spilling, and making it rise in several forms (of feathers, drinking-glasses, canopies, and the like), they be pretty things to look on, but nothing to health and sweetness."

Certainly, Durer's 1497 woodcut of a public bathhouse shows an outdoor, covered bath area, but whether that area is outside a steam bath or is the actual bath are we don't know:

One notable illustration depicts mixed bathers in a sort of pool, some of them in amorous dalliance, while others appear to be minding their own business-- one sedate young woman is reading a book!
Big Bath or is it a Pool?
(Illustration "The baths at Louèche," by Hans Bock the Elder 1597)

Outdoor bathing during the appropriate season would be simpler for the servants (no hauling water up stairs; easy to empty out the tub). Because of the extreme draftiness of medieval and Renaissance houses, winter bathing may have been kept to a minimum to avoid catching a chill.

Sometimes the bathers are naked; in many cases they are unclothed except for hats or head-coverings, though sometimes loin-cloths are worn. At the thermal spas/public baths, different standards of attire held in different places. Poggio Bracciolini, in 1416, says of bathers at the mostly gender-segregated baths Baden, "The men wear nothing but a leather apron, and the women put on linen shirts down to the knees, so cut on either side that they leave uncovered neck, bosom, arms and shoulders." Uglino da Montecatini wrote that at the Pisan resort of the Bagno a Acqua (circa 1400), "the women during the cure are decently robed and also many men are covered with delicate and light garments." Illustrations show that even in private baths, both men and women tended to wear head-coverings for health reasons, and women wear all their jewels: "decked out in her best in gold, silver and jewels to the limit of her ability; you would say that they were going not to the baths but to a most fashionable wedding" (Pognio, quoted by Mack)

As depicted in period pictures, tubs generally were the size of Japanese soaking tubs or modern hot tubs, holding two or more persons. They are often depicted with canopies and/or drapes. Boards were sometimes placed across the width of the tub to form tables for serving food or playing games while soaking.

A bath with food
Above: Woodcut from Brunschwig, Buch zu Distillieren (1500)

An image from the Manesse codex suggests that the bathwater was pre-heated and/or replenished from a kettle over the fire.

Bath-rooms in monasteries often had separate compartments for individual bathers, who were generally expected to bathe in cold water, sometimes wearing some kind of undershift, and/or no more than once a week. This was to avoid the sensual pleasures of bathing that the Fathers of the Church worried about. According to Gilliat, "At Canterbury in England, complete water service was installed in the monastery in 1150."

However, as in Japanese bathing, illustrations suggest that the soaking was preceded by washing the body, as in Durer's 1497 sketch of the Women's Bath:

Thermal Spas

Hot springs, where one could 'take the waters' both internally and by bathing, were tourist attractions by the late Renaissance. Though the use of thermal baths was a medical one, many people seemed to be using the thermal spas as a vacation resort. Poggio, speacking of the German spas at Baden, said:

"There is a vast multitude of nobility and common people who come two hundred miles . . . not for health but for pleasure. . . They often have picnics by subscription in the water, with the table set floating on the water, and men are usually present at these . . . They go to the pools three or four times a day, spending the greater part of the day there, sometimes singing, sometimes dancing for they play instruments while squatting in the water . . . They all have only one purpose: to flee from gloom, to seek amusement, and to think of nothing except how to live happily and enjoy their pleasures." (Quoted by Mack)

Other kinds of washing

Washing the hands before eating is emphasized in manners manuals of the 15th and 16th century. One is also expected to wash hands and face in the morning upon arising, and wash out the mouth with cold water.

Babies were bathed in tubs (many depictions of the Birth of the Virgin show the infant Mary being bathed or swaddled after the bath, as shown in Thornton). Smaller basins were used for partial washing, such as those being presented to St. Anne for washing after childbirth in the Birth of Virgin paintings and the Italian 'childbirth' commemorative trays (see Musacchio). Renaissance paintings and sketches from Italy show niches set into the wall, holding a basin (with a drain, or in some cases removable) and a shelf with a ewer (water jug) or an urn with a spigot for washing (see Thornton).

Some monasteries had handwashing fountains (sometimes called 'lavabos') whose water flowed out of multiple outlets into a circular basin, much like the semi-circular handwashing stations briefly popular in modern school cafeterias.
Washing in a Trough

Ceremonial washing at the beginning of meals was ritualized, but at the end of the meals was necessary and usual; at formal tables, basins, ewers and towels were brought to the table by underlings, servants, or children, though in some cases a separate handwashing area may have been set up for diners to visit.

Washing before praying or before going to bed was not as common. In fact, according to A Drizzle of Honey, washing before praying or at night before bed could mark a Spanish converso as a recrusant Jew during the time of the Inquisition, as these were Jewish (and Islamic) requirements.

In depictions of hospitals and sickrooms, nurses are sometimes shown washing patients in a sort of sponge-bath or bed-bath, with cloth and basin.

Hildegarde of Bingen gives a face-wash recipe in her Physica:

But one whose face has hard and rough skin, made harsh from the wind, should cook barley in water and, having strained that water through a cloth, should bathe his face gently with the moderately warm water. The skin will become soft and smooth, and will have a beautiful color. If a person's head has an ailment, it should be washed frequently in this water and it will be healed." (p. 12)

Bath Additives


"If your lord wishes to bathe and wash his body clean, hang sheets round the roof, every one full of flowers and sweet green herbs, and have five or six sponges to sit or lean upon, and see that you have one big sponge to sit upon, and a sheet over so that he may bathe there for a while, and have a sponge also for his feet, if there be any to spare, and always be careful that the door is shut. Have a basin full of hot fresh herbs and wash his body with a soft sponge, rinse him with fair warm rose-water, and throw it over him; then let him go to bed; but see that the bed be sweet and nice; and first put on his socks and slippers that he may go near the fire and stand on his foot-sheet, wipe him dry with a clean cloth, and take him to bed to cure his troubles."

How the Wise Man Taught His Son
Lambeth 853, fol. 186

The Lambeth manuscript suggests hollyhock, mallow, wall pellitory, brown fennel, danewort, St. John's wort, centaury, ribwort (plantain?), camomile, heyhove, heyriff, herb-benet, bresewort, smallage (wild celery), water speedwell, scabious, bugloss, wild flax, withy leaves and green oats in a bath.

Hildegarde of Bingen suggests herbs in mixtures to pour over the head in the sauna, to splash on the sauna rock, to apply to the body and/or drink in the sauna, and to bathe in :

"One who is virgichtiget, and from it as been made a bit mad, with a  divided mind and crazy thoughts, should take a sauna bath. He should pour the water in which oats have been cooked over the hot rocks. If he does this often, he will become himself and regain his health." (p. 12)

"One who is in pain from a stone should take parsley and and add a third part saxifrage. He should cook this in wine, strain it through a cloth, and drink it in a sauna. Also he should cook parsley and a third part saxifrage in water, and pour it, with the water, over the hot stones in the same sauna bath." (p. 42)

"Wild lettuce ... extinguishes lust in a human. A man who has an overabundance in his loins should cook wild lettuce in water and pour that water over himself in a sauna bath. He should also place the warm, cooked lettuce around his loins, while still in the sauna... If a woman's womb is swelling with uncontrollable lust, she should make a sauna bath with the wild lettuce. Sitting in the sauna, she should pour the water in which wild lettuce was cooked over the hot stones. She should place the warm, cooked lettuce over her belly..." (p. 49)

"A woman who is in pain from obstructed menses should take tansy and an equal weight of feverfew and a bit more mullein than either of the others. She should cook these in water from a freely flowing stream, which is tempered by the sun and air. Then she should put tiles in a fire, and make a sauna bath with the foresaid water and herbs. When she enters this bath, she should place the warm herbs on the bench and sit on top of them. If they become cold, she should warm them again in the same water. She should do this as long as she sits in the sauna so her skin and flesh, as well as her womb, may be softened by the humors of these herbs, and the veins which were closed might be opened." (p. 58)

"One should take the thyme and some of the earth around its root and make it boil in a fire. He should prepare a steam bath for himself. He should also cook the thyme, with the earth sticking to it, in a caldron with water. He should use it often in the sauna." (p. 95)

"One who is virgichtiget should take fern, when it is green, and cook it in water. She should frequently bath in that water, and the gicht will cease." (p.30)

Lavender may have been used in Roman baths, as well as being used in laundries. Greek dandies supposedly rubbed each part of the body with a different herb after bathing.
Banckes' herbal (1525) suggested origanum (majoram/oregano) in a bath for skin conditions, "ye prurigo and ye Psorae".
Parkinson (early 17th century) suggests thyme as well as mint and balm 'in baths with other herbs," while Culpeper (mid 17th century) recommends sage and 'other hot and comforting herbs' in summer baths.
William Langham's Garden of Health (1579) suggests Rosemary:  'Seethe much Rosemary, and bathe therein to make thee lusty, lively, joyfull, likeing and youngly.'"

Adamus Olearius, in his Persian Travel Tales of the early 1600s, says " The Germans who dwell in Muscovy and Livonia are very nice in their Stoves; they strew Pine Leaves powder'd, and all sorts of Herbs and Flowers upon the Floor; which, together with the Lye make a very agreeable Scent."

Le Menagier de Paris (as edited & translated by Tania Bayard), says:

To make water for washing hands at table: Boil sage, then strain the water and cool it until it is a little more than lukewarm. Or use chamomile, marjoram, or rosemary boiled with orange peel. Bay leaves are also good.

Special water

While people seldom filled their normal baths with mineral or holy water, bathing or washing affected portions of the body in water from mineral or hot springs, or holy wells and springs, was practiced; drinking water from mineral springs was also known. The mineral spring industry was by no means as active as it was in the 18th and early 19th centuries, but places such as Bath in England did get their share of spa tourists. 16th century publications in England offer guidebooks to a number of mineral water spas.

Hugh Plat, in Delights for Ladies suggests distillation of water with lavender, cloves, orris powder and benzoin for handwashing, or the hydrosol from distilling oil of nutmeg, cloves, mace, or cinnamon. He also suggests mixing a small amount of the essential oils (or the oil of spike, probably Lavandula Stoechas) with your water for handwashing.


Oils to be added to the bath or applied after bathing are mentioned (often with a lack of specificity) in many texts, including the Trotula.
Oiling oneself before and sometimes after the bath was a standard practice in Roman times, and it's not unreasonable to think the practice persisted into the middle ages.

Francis Bacon's prescription for a bath:

"First, before bathing, rub and anoint the Body with Oyle, and Salves, that the Bath's moistening heate and virtue may penetrate into the Body, and not the liquor's watery part: then sit 2 houres in the Bath; after Bathing wrap the Body in a seare-cloth made of Masticke, Myrrh, Pomander and Saffron, for staying the perspiration or breathing of the pores, until the softening of the Body, having layne thus in seare-cloth 24 hours, bee growne solid and hard. Lastly, with an oynment of Oyle, Salt and Saffron, the seare-cloth being taken off, anoint the Body." (cited by Classen, Howes & Synnott)


It's unclear when soap came into wide use.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica,

"Soap has been known for at least 2,300 years. According to Pliny the Elder, the Phoenicians prepared it from goat's tallow and wood ashes in 600 BC and sometimes used it as an article of barter with the Gauls. Soap was widely known in the Roman Empire; whether the Romans learned its use and manufacture from ancient Mediterranean peoples or from the Celts, inhabitants of Britannia, is not known. The Celts, who produced their soap from animal fats and plant ashes, named the product saipo, from which the word soap is derived. The importance of soap for washing and cleaning was apparently not recognized until the 2nd century after Christ; the Greek physician Galen mentions it as a medicament and as a means of cleansing the body. Previously soap had been used as medicine. The writings attributed to the 8th-century Arab savant Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber) repeatedly mention soap as a cleansing agent.

In Europe, soap production in the Middle Ages centred first at Marseilles, later at Genoa, then at Venice. Although some soap manufacture developed in Germany, the substance was so little used in central Europe that a box of soap presented to the Duchess of Juelich in 1549 caused a sensation.... The first English soapmakers appeared at the end of the 12th century in Bristol. In the 13th and 14th centuries, a small community of them grew up in the neighbourhood of Cheapside in London."

Soap in period would have been produced by the mixture of  fats and ashes; modern 'glycerin' soaps seem to only appear after 1823. Olive oil or animal fats were used. Soaps are one of those products that were made by guilds whose recipes were restricted.

Scented soaps for face and hand-washing, made by the 'rebatching' process where cut-up soap is mixed with scenting agents appear in 16th and early 17th century housewifery texts.

The 16th century Spanish Manual de Mugeres (trans. by Karen Larsdatter) suggests some soap recipes:

Soap for the face
Two ounces of white soap scalded in water boiling within a cloth and strained through the cloth; and a cuarto of mastic, and a half cuarto of southernwood resin, and a cuarto of borax and one ounce of white sugar. Grind all these things, and pass them through a sieve, mix them into a paste with the soap and put it in little boat-shaped lumps, and put in each lump a drop of ros de bota .

Soap for the hands
One ounce of gourd seeds, and another one (ounce) of cleaned melon seeds, and another ounce of radish seeds. Mix everything together with two ounces of soap from Cyprus and mash it with honey and make it into balls.

Soap for the hands
Take a pound of grated Valencian soap and put it bind in a thick cloth. And put it in a pot of boiling water, and cook it there until it's turned blue. And while it is cooking, take an escudilla of it, and another of honey, and another of cow's bile, and half the juice of a lily, and an escudilla of vinegar. And put it all together in a cook-pot, and cook it until it is thick, always stirring it. And if you want to make them into little balls, let it cook until it is hard.

Soap for the hands
Take a pound of grated Valencian soap and put it bind in a thick cloth. And put it in a pot of boiling water, and cook it there until it's turned blue. And while it is cooking, take an escudilla of it, and another of honey, and another of cow's bile, and half the juice of a lily, and an escudilla of vinegar. And put it all together in a cook-pot, and cook it until it is thick, always stirring it. And if you want to make them into little balls, let it cook until it is hard.

Hugh Plat's Delights for Ladies includes the following:
"A delicate washing ball
Take three ounces of Orace, half an ounce of Cypres, two ounces of Calamus Aromaticus, one ounce of Rose leaves, two ounces of Lavender flowres: beat all these together in a mortar, searching them thorow a fine Searce, then scrape some castill sope, and dissolve it with some Rose-water, then incorporate all your powders therewith, by labouring of them well in a mortar."

There is a scented lye-based soap recipe in The treasurie of commodious conceits, & hidden secrets by John Partridge (Imprinted at London : By Richarde Iones, 1573).

"To Make Muske Soape Take stronge lye made of chalk, and six pounde of stone chalk: iiii, pounde of Deere Suet, and put them in the lye; in an earthen potte, and mingle it well, and kepe it the space of forty daies, and mingle and [styr? fyr?] it, iii, or, iiii times a daye, tyll it be consumed, and that, that remayneth, vii, or, viii, dayes after, then you muste put a quarter of an ounce of Muske, and when you have done so, you must [sty?re] it, and it wyll smell of Musk."

Bath tools

The Romans were in the habit of scraping themselves with an curved scraper known as a strigil (usually after applying oil to the skin).

The bundles of birch-twigs employed as massage-instruments in the Russian banyas have been mentioned before; the Bohemian Bathhouse keepers employed scrubbers of some kind which seem to be made of green branches tied to a stick (in a rather suggestive bundle, as shown in period pictures). Wooden buckets with bails were also depicted in the Bohemian illustrations. A thirteenth-century manuscript of Sachsenspiegel shows bathers massaging themselves with leaves (Lyons and Petrucelli, p. 364)

bathhouse keeper

Above: Bathers in the sauna scrub and/or beat themselves with bunches of leaves. (Sachsenspiegel, 15th c., Universitatbibliothek, Heidelberg)

Left: Bathkeeper from a Bohemian manuscript, with bucket and scrubber.

Natural sponges, consisting of the dried, cleaned sea-sponges, were used.

Inventories from the late 1500s in Prague mention bathtubs being stored in the courtyards of several middle-class homes.


Apologies for the incompleteness of this bibliography; please check back periodically to see what sources I have re-located and added from which I got my information).

Copyright: 2007 Last updated: July 26, 2023

Copyright Jennifer A. Heise. Contact me via email for permission to reprint:
Permission is explicitly granted for limited reproduction as a printed handout for classes in schools, herb society meetings, or classes or guild meetings in the Society for Creative Anachronism  long as I am notified and credited and the entire handout is used.
Jadwiga's homepage: