Middle Ages in Portugal Exploring Hygiene Practices »
Hygiene in the Middle Ages in Portugal

Hygiene in the Middle Ages in Portugal

Hygiene is a set of practices that aim to preserve people's health and well-being. Hygiene involves aspects ranging from the cleanliness of the body, clothes, bathrooms, the spaces where one lives and works, as well as the quality of water, food and health. In the Middle Ages in Portugal, hygiene was very different from what exists today, not only among the general population, but also among royalty.

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The National Palace of Sintra, for example, was inhabited by practically all the kings and queens of Portugal, for more or less long periods until the 19th century. What is known today is that, despite its grandeur, it did not have toilets.

National Palace of Sintra; Credit: Diego Delso via Wikimedia Commons
National Palace of Sintra; Credit: Diego Delso via Wikimedia Commons

Hygiene in the Middle Ages

In fact, in the Middle Ages in Portugal there were no toothbrushes, perfumes, deodorants and much less toilet paper.

Toilets were rare and rudimentary. In the poorest homes, people used a bucket or a pan to do “their needs”, which they then dumped on the street or in a vacant lot.

In the richest houses there was a latrine, which consisted of a hole in the floor with a wooden lid and a seat. The latrine could be inside or outside the house, but was generally far from the bedrooms and kitchen. The latrine was emptied periodically by a servant who took the waste out of the city.

On festive days, the palace kitchen was able to prepare banquets for hundreds of people, but hygiene rules did not exist.

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There was no intimate hygiene, so the odor given off by people was smelly.

The ladies wore huge skirts precisely to contain the odor of their private parts and used fans to fan themselves.

European fashion history, Middle Ages, 1400-1500; Credit: HiSoUR Art Culture Exhibition
European fashion history, Middle Ages, 1400-1500; Credit: HiSoUR Art Culture Exhibition

Bathing in the Middle Ages

There was also no custom of bathing due to the cold and the almost non-existence of running water.

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Bathing was taken on special occasions, such as parties or religious holidays.

The wealthier could have bathtubs or tubs in their homes. These were filled with water heated in cauldrons and flavored with herbs or flowers.

Bathing consisted of washing the most exposed parts of the body, such as hands, face and feet, with a basin of warm water and soap. The soap was made from animal fat and vegetable ash, and therefore had a strong and unpleasant smell.

Bathing was taken individually or as a family, following a hierarchical order, first the head of the family, then the men, women and children. The babies were the last to bathe in the same water, which was already very dirty.

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The frequency of bathing depended on the availability of resources, the climate and the seasons.

In general, people bathed less often in winter, when the cold discouraged contact with water.

Middle Ages in Portugal, Marquesa de Pombal, Credit: Unidentified painter via Wikimedia Commons
Middle Ages in Portugal, Marquesa de Pombal, Credit: Unidentified painter via Wikimedia Commons

The bad smell was dispelled by the fan. Only the nobles had lackeys to fan them, to dispel the bad smell that their body and mouth exuded, in addition to scaring away the insects.

Anyone who has ever been to Sintra greatly admired the beautiful gardens which, at the time, were not only contemplative, but “used” to meet needs.

Jardins da Preta, National Palace of Sintra
Jardins da Preta, National Palace of Sintra

For most people, some months were more suitable for bathing, such as May, which preceded the wedding season in June.

In fact, in the Middle Ages in Portugal most weddings took place in the month of June. In fact, the first bath of the year was taken in May and so in June, people's smell was still tolerable.

Even so, as some odors were already starting to bother them, the brides carried “bouquets” of flowers next to their bodies. Here is the reason why “May” is the “month of brides” and the origin of the bridal bouquet.

Royalty was considered an example of hygiene in the Middle Ages, as they took a bath once a month, “whether they needed it or not”.

Typical dress Middle Ages; Credit Vertugadin via Wikimedia Commons
Typical dress Middle Ages; Credit: Vertugadin via Wikimedia Commons

Food in the Middle Ages

Those who had more wealth had tin objects to serve food and drink. Some types of food oxidized tin, causing many people to die from poisoning. It was not known that tin was toxic.

Pewter cups were used to drink alcoholic beverages such as wine. This combination sometimes left the individual senseless (in a kind of narcolepsy induced by mixing the alcoholic beverage with tin oxide).

Someone passing by on the street and seeing a person lying on the ground might think he was dead and would therefore collect the body and prepare the burial. The body was placed on the kitchen table for a few days and the family stayed around, keeping vigil, eating, drinking and waiting to see whether the dead person woke up or not.

This is the origin of the wake, which is the vigil at the coffin.

Health in the Middle Ages

The lack of toilets and running water had a major negative impact on people's health. Therefore, in the Middle Ages in Portugal, diseases such as cholera, dysentery, typhoid fever or plague were common.

These diseases were caused by bacteria or viruses that were transmitted through contaminated water, contact with infected animals or insect bites.

Epidemics were frequent and deadly, killing thousands of people in a few months. Medicine at the time was ineffective in combating these diseases, as it was based on incorrect theories about the functioning of the human body and the agents that caused illnesses.

Doctors resorted to treatments such as bloodletting, purging, emetics and enemas, which often only worsened the patient's condition.

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