Floors in the Middle Ages were devoid of the plush comforts of carpeting and instead were layered with wall-to-wall rushes. So, on what was essentially a dirt floor, a layer of grasses like hay covered the clay surface. Sometimes they would be woven into mats. The rushes were replaced from time to time, which might have been a good thing, but the old trodden layer beneath harbored all kinds of contagions.
Measures were taken to keep floors fresh by adding flowers or pleasant-smelling herbs to the rushes. But, lurking beneath, fleas, lice, and vermin thrived. We all know now fleas on rats passed the Black Death to humans.
Medieval Dental Plans
In the Middle Ages, dental insurance did not exist. Toothaches caused by tooth decay were handled by the local barber who used his tools to pry the rotted tooth out the person’s head without the use of Novocain or any other anesthetic. But medieval commoners were not bereft of dental hygiene practices.
To keep teeth white and clean and to stay away from the dreaded barber, the common practice was to wipe down teeth with a rough woolen cloth. And, there is evidence that toothpaste and mouthwashes were used. As it turns out, people in the Middle Ages cared about white teeth and fresh breath too! Chewing on mint or cloves was common for this purpose.
Another tool we take for granted in the 21st century is the lowly fork. In the Middle Ages, forks were disdained. European peasants used their hands, while royalty was aided by spoons and knives made of precious metals. Yet, hands were used. At a wedding for a Byzantine Emperor’s niece in 1004, the bride was excoriated for using a fork.
Despite stereotypes like “the filthy peasantry,” these people followed codes of etiquette that included washing in the mornings and before and after meals. Royalty also followed etiquette guidelines, like, not picking one’s teeth with the point of their knife.
Taking a Bath in the Middle Ages
Some monks were only allowed one bath per year, while kings bathed often in personal tubs filled with hot water and aromas of flowers and fresh herbs like chamomile, mallow or brown fellow. The common peasant would have loved such luxury, but they were relegated to public bathhouses that some church leaders prohibited, thinking group nakedness leads to illicit sex. They had a point; some bathhouses were mere fronts for brothels. But Medieval bathhouses were popular, some offering a meal with a warm wash.
People liked to bathe at least once a week. After the Black Death, bathhouses went into decline. Erasmus explained in 1526, “Twenty-five years ago, nothing was more fashionable in Brabant than the public baths. Today there are none, the new plague has taught us to avoid them.”
Medieval Surgery Was Often Fatal
Hospitals in the Dark Ages were reserved for the sick or dying. More like hospice care than modern hospitals, the blind, the desperate, and those with spiritual needs stayed in hospitals. If surgery was required, people went under the knife at the barbershop, where a barber (or a butcher!) would try to allay ailments like ulcers, kidney stones, and eye cataracts.
As an interesting tidbit, the signature striped poles outside of barbershops represent the color of blood and the white of bandages characteristic of medieval surgery. Again, anesthetics were not used, and instruments were not sterilized. Unsterilized tools would cause fatal infections.