Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the nastiest of them all?
Most modern Americans are aghast if someone fails to wash their hands after using the toilet, and they would never consider engaging in hygiene habits such as relieving themselves in public or washing clothes with urine. But, of course, not everyone has the luxury of today’s modern conveniences that make keeping good hygiene as simple as turning on a faucet. In fact, people around the world today and in the past have had to resort to some pretty strange and rather disgusting practices in the name of cleanliness and health. Considering the common use of cesspits, lack of baths and frequent lice infestations, it’s no wonder that the life expectancy in medieval times was a mere 30 years. Even the upper-crust of past societies were known for their royal stench.
If you think rural port-a-potties are gross, just wait until you check out these shocking and disgusting hygiene habits, past and present, from around the world.
10. Royal Butt Wiping
Considering toilet paper largely consisted of leaves, it’s no wonder royalty of the Middle Ages tried to get out of the mundane task of wiping their own butts. What is a surprise, however, is that the royal butt wiper, fondly referred to as the “Groom of the Stool” was a highly coveted position of great honor and trust. It’s hard to imagine that a parent might dream of their child growing up to clean the king’s anus, but that was precisely the case through the early 20th century. Because of the intimate nature of the position, the groom of the stool was entrusted with many of the king’s most personal secrets, leading to him becoming a feared, respected and powerful aid within the royal court.
9. Public Pooping
Considering how many people still refuse to poop in a public bathroom, impatiently waiting until all other occupants have left the restroom before squeezing a deuce or two out before anyone else enters, it’s hard to believe people once pooped in public and tossed their waste right into the streets. But that’s exactly what occurred more often than not in medieval times. While the ancient world placed hygiene at a high priority and constructed toilets from which waste could be flushed away from the populace, relieving oneself was actually considered a social activity, as people would relieve themselves in public toilet areas, often carrying on conversations as they did their business. Once the Roman Empire fell the Western world reverted to defecating into a hole. Even in the great cities of London, Paris, Prague and Rome, a toilet was little more than a seat with a hole cut into it that projected out of the side of the building. Whenever someone would take a poo, the waste would simply drop into the streets below. Unbelievably, the streets of medieval cities were often filled with several feet of compacted, mashed and mushed sewage. Even today, peeing in public is commonplace in much of China.
8. Dirty Rushes
In medieval times, bundles of straw, or rushes, were used to cover the natural dirt floors of most dwellings. While the top layer of straw was often changed, people rarely took the time to replace all layers of straw. According to the 16th-century British scholar Erasmus, floors were covered with rushes and so imperfectly replaced that the bottom layer was often left undisturbed, sometimes for 20 years, and harbored “expectoration, vomiting, the leakage of dogs and men, ale droppings, scraps of fish, and other abominations not fit to be mentioned.” To cover the atrocious smell, flowers and herbs would be added to fresh layers of rushes. Unfortunately, disguising the odor did nothing to prevent disease spread from the unhygienic conditions of both sleeping and dining areas.
7. Annual Baths
Modern man might be disgusted by the overwhelming and pungent scent of body odor, but it must have been quite the norm in civilization’s history. In fact, it was completely common for people in ancient and medieval times to bathe as infrequently as monthly or even annually. While bathing was a popular and public activity — sans soap — in ancient Rome, early Christians considered bathing a luxury afforded to the vain and prideful. The dirtier and smellier, the closer one grew to God. Even as recently as 17th century Europe, people feared that bathing would allow dirt and disease to enter the body by opening up pores. In fact, Queen Elizabeth I’s contemporaries blamed her near-fatal fight with smallpox on her decision to bathe. Ever wonder why June is the traditional month for weddings? In the distant past, most people had their yearly bath in May so they were still fairly clean when June arrived.
6. Fleas and Lice
Disease was rampant among populations from the medieval period on, and infestations of fleas, mites and lice only spread germs further. The human flea is capable of spreading diseases such as typhus and parasites such as tapeworms, and poor people in particular had such poor nutrition that their bodies couldn’t heal bites, which would easily become infected. Until the 19th century, lice were man’s constant companions. It was only then that the aristocrats of Europe learned how to properly eliminate lice. Even today, in parts of the world where clothes stay on for days and hygiene is a lower priority behind, say, food, body lice are not uncommon.
5. Changing Linens
Seventeenth-century Frenchmen saw the ring around the cuffs and collars of their shirts and thought the linen acted as a wick that drew out the dirt. They firmly believed not only was it safer to change their linen shirts than to bathe, but doing so actually cleaned them better. Clean linen shirts allowed people who had not bathed to appear clean and well groomed. Appearance became more important than personal hygiene, and a large supply of clothes to change into was considered a status symbol. Therefore, a person could change their shirt every few days, but avoid baths. If people of the Middle Ages thought changing into a clean linen shirt and new bedclothes was the proper way to clean their bodies and prevent disease, then what did they do with the dirty shirts and sheets?
4. Laundering with Urine
Today, we associate urine-soaked cloth with dirty diapers and childhood “accidents,” but people of the past actually used to wash their clothes with pee. Just as many now use ammonia to clean dirty, grease and grime from surfaces, many early European launderers used urine for its ammonia to remove stains from cloth. And in ancient Rome, street passersby would commonly relieve themselves in outdoor vessels, and the collected urine was taken to a laundry station, diluted with water and poured over dirty clothes. Romans even used urine to clean and whiten their teeth!
Before that you suffer it to be washed, lay it all night in urine, the next day rub all the spots in the urine as if you were washing in water; then lay it in more urine another night and then rub it again, and so do till you find they be quite out.
Hannah Woolley, The Compleat Servant-Maid, 1677
3. House Toilets, Chamber Pots and Cesspits
People have always pooped, but for most of history they didn’t have access to plumbing or anything remotely resembling a flushable toilet. So where did all the poo go? After people did their business, they could dispose of the waste through a couple of different options. A chamber pot was a small bowl with a handle that was used to collect waste overnight before disposing of it in the morning. In fact, in old England it wasn’t uncommon to hear shouts of “garde loo” while walking down the street, soon to be followed by a shower of chamber-pot contents hurled from the tenement windows. As a result, many streets were covered in feces. Even elaborate homes and castles contained little more than a bowl with a slab of wood and a hole carved in the top. The slab of wood could even cover nothing more than a hole in the floor that took waste products straight into the moat. Meanwhile, a cesspit refers to a deep cylindrical chamber dug into the ground that was used for the temporary collection and storage of feces. Cesspits were introduced to Europe in the 16th century when urban populations led to a large volume of human waste overloading urban street gutters, where chamber pots were emptied each day.
2. Snot Rockets and Loogies
In the Middle Ages people didn’t exactly have access to a box of Kleenex, so what did they do when a cough or sneeze arose? Even when they had to blow their noses, medieval people generally used their hands, although they sometimes also placed a finger over one nostril and shot a snot rocket toward the ground. Later, it was assumed that common folk would continue to use their hands, while the middle class blew their noses and sneezed into their sleeves. Only the aristocracy had access to handkerchiefs. Likewise, plenty of etiquette rules told people when and how it was OK to spit. Even today, spitting, nose-picking and snot rockets are commonplace throughout China.
1. Designated Hygiene Hand
Ever wonder why everyone – even left-handers – shakes hands with the right hand? Many assume it’s simply because the vast majority of people possess a dominant right hand, but that’s not at all the case. While it’s true historically people extended their right hand – that which would typically be used to draw a weapon – as a sign of peace, the right hand was also considered more sanitary. In order to reduce the spread of germs, the left hand was typically considered to be the hygiene hand – used to cough into as well as wipe noses and bums. Therefore, it was hugely impolite to extend that hand to another. Even today, the left hand is used to clean up one’s bum in India, and the right hand is considered the only polite hand to use when eating, shaking hands or even passing an object to another person.