Thursday, March 05, 2009

Question from Mindy - Bathing frequency and cleaning clothes

The strange questions that come to my mind ealy in the morning!

Elizabeth has a reputation of bathing quite frequently. Frequently compared to other people of the times at any rate. From what I understand, most people were not fastidious in keeping themselves clean.

So my question is, does anyone have a rough estimation of, from reading the letters and official papers, where everything Elizabeth did was noted, actually what WAS frequent for bathing? Once a day, once a week, or more to what I am thinking once a month or so?

And how did they clean their clothing? I know washerwomen were kept, but some materials were impossible to be washed in tradional boiling and scrubbing.

We romantasize the Tudor's but really it must have been extremely oderous, with the lack of knowledge of sanitation and cleanliness!!


  1. This question bears a certain similarity to the recent questions about Henry VIII being "psychotic" in that it is based on a culturally-relative and anachronistic premise.

    "Clean" was defined very differently in Tudor England than it is today in western Europe and the US.

    Yes, most modern Westerners, if transported to Tudor England, would probably be overcome by the abundance of odors and the lack of modern-style "cleanliness," both in terms of personal hygiene and environmental "cleanliness." But on the other hand, I am certain that modern Westerners would likewise smell very strange, even unpleasant, to those of the Tudor period. As one who personally detests all artificial fragrances, I would have to sympathize with the Tudor-era folk.

    For a fascinating study on the cultural relativity of notions of "cleanliness" and how those notions change, see Timothy J Burke's Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption, and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe (1996).

  2. I can only imagine how bad the women smelled with all those big dresses and petticoats and large oversized coats that the men wore. And I can imagine how the men smelled after a day of jousting and/or playing tennis. The mere thought of women not bathing or shampooing their hair and the smells that they omit during menses has to have been repulsive. I can't imagine getting close to or having a sexual relationship with anyone in Tudor time. And time or distance wouldn't change that for me. Stinky is stinky no matter where, when or why, but I too would love to hear of some documentation of how oftened they bathed in Tudorland.

  3. Antonia Fraser, in her biography of Mary Queen of Scots, mentions that her mother, Marie de Guise, was advised by her mother, Antoinette of Bourbon, not to wash her hair more than once a month during pregnancy. The reason as that it was believed the drsft one could catch would be detrimental to the baby. Once a month!!!! I could fuel a car with all the oil from my hair if I let it go that long!!!

  4. OK this is a bit of bugbear of mine! I hate the whole "everyone in the past smelt" idea. grr. I should probably put a disclaimer that this answer applies more to Henry's reign than Elizabeth specifically and that it centres on Courtiers , rather than "normal" people! Lol.

    Right, so here's what we know. Henry was obsessed with his health and the health of those around him. He was justified in being paranoid about this because of not having a male heir or the risk of leaving his kingdom to a tiny baby. He laid out rules and regulations ensuring everyone at court must be healthy. Even a sniffle wouldn't be tolerated. People would retire from court at the slightest possibility of anything unhealthy. Combine this with the believe that disease was carried through the smells and miasmas of the air, and you need to keep things clean and healthy. Now, we're not talking hospital sterility here but still...The rooms at court would be kept as sweet smelling as possible and so would the people. There's common sense in a lot of it actually, because if you smell bad, the chances are you're carrying bacteria somewhere..

    many of the wives were meticulous about their cleanliness (Kateryn Parr is interesting, using cinnamon lozenges and all sorts to stay smellling sweet) but also there are the laundresses.

    To understand Tudor cleanliness you have to understand the clothes. Alison Sim has written a great book called the Tudor Housewife which is brilliant on the ways of cleaning, if anyone is interested.

    The important layer, no matter what class you are, was the linen. This sat next to the skin and that's where all the bacteria would sit. It would be changed daily, if not two or three times a day if needed. It could be sanitised very easily by boiling lye (water run through ashes normally). The outer garments would be regularly changed for activities like riding and dancing (which would raise a sweat), aired, brushed down and have sweetsmelling herbs burnt around them to air them out properly.Stains would be carefully treated individually, depending on what they were from.

    The old myth of Elizabeth taking one bath a year is actually a misunderstanding. To bathe in this way (full emersion etc) was often something a doctor would recommend as part of treatment. That doesn't mean they didn't wash - do you take a full bath everyday?Not many people do, they shower or thoroughly wash. There is no reason to doubt (and many reasons to believe) that the Tudor Courtiers at least, washed everyday. They had to! Their careers depending on keeping the king happy. Smelly courtier = unhappy king!

    Anyway, hope some of this is vaguely interesting and sorry about the long answer. It's just something that really bugs me ;)

  5. It is very interesting! I knew they could boil the linens,, but what has mystified me was how to clean velvets, brocades, cloth of silver, cloth of gold, etc. Those of course cannot be cleaned the boiling in lye method. oh,, and we can't forget how to clean furs either.

  6. Thank you for clarification of an issue I've wondered about often. Of course, if the undergarments (linens) could be washed and changed frequently, the lovely tapestries and velvets were more like "coats" and how often do you need to wash your coat? As long as the sweat and body fluids are not in contact with the lovely dresses and tunics, these can be worn over and over without needing a full cleaning.
    My only remaining question has to do with the sweeping dresses that dragged along the muddy and filthy ground? Is this a reality or an exaggeration? If real, what a yuck that must have created! How did the English in Tudor days clean the muck off their flowing finery?


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