Science Questions

Were medieval people less smelly?

Sun, 17th Jan 2010

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Sara, Germany asked:

When comparing medieval times to present day, the lack of hygiene back then seems pretty offensive. Were people then just not as smelly as we are today? In other words, does the processing additives, antibiotics and hormones in the food that we have today for instance affect our body odour?


Diana -   I think for the most part, the answer is probably no.  I don't know if you were ever a fan of Blackadder or anything, the stereotype for Baldrick, the smelly peasant, is probably quite true.  And actually, if you've ever been to any of those reconstruction sites like Jorvik thatís about 200 or 300 years before the medieval period, itís not quite medieval, but I think it gives you a really good idea of what things might have smelled like and they include also some toilet smells and cooking smells, mouldy things. Smells are pretty awful.  And from what we know from the archaeology, there wasnít a lot of bathing going on for the peasants at least.  And there was certainly, in the houses of medieval people, all sorts of bits of evidence for maggots and flies and things just living in the house with them, but it may have been for the more upper class medieval people like Lords and things that they did actually bathe maybe once a week.

Chris -   They used to keep their clothing near the loo in their castle, didnít they?  Because castles had guarderobes which is the bogs and correct me if I'm wrong, but wasnít that done under the intention that the things that rot your clothes, moths and things that would make your clothes go horrible, would avoid the stink for the same reason we would?

Diana -   Yeah and they were probably slightly better ventilated than the rest of the places.  Well, because of course their toilets were just, holes.

Chris -   Indeed because your clothes would smell otherwise, wouldnít they?

Diana -   Exactly.  So, yes, they probably did smell pretty awful.  Also, actually, thereís another thing Iíd like to add is that if you're constantly being exposed to horrible smells, you're going to be desensitized to them, arenít you?  So perhaps, in that sense...

Chris -   I think there are limits.



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I don't think they were - probably much worse in fact. The people of those times wore, or carried, "nosegays" or "posies" made from fragrant flowers and herbs. These could be held up to the nose to mask the 'orrible pongs of the time.
Geezer, Sat, 9th Jan 2010

I don't think they were either - most likely much worse. Chemistry4me, Sat, 9th Jan 2010

Odor originating from Medications
All medications have side effects, but these in particular affect the patient body odor.

a. Excessive Sweating
Overdoses of analgesics such as aspirin and acetaminophen, some anti psychotic medications used to treat mental disorders, morphine, drugs to reduce fever, and excess doses of the thyroid hormone thyroxine can cause excessive sweating in the body. Offensive bacteria proliferate in perspiration.

b. Dehydration
Antihistamines/decongestants, antidepressant, anticholinergic (blocks the effects of a neurotransmitter), anorexiants (diet pills), antihypersentives (blood pressure control), anti-Parkinson agent, some antipsychotics, some birth control pills, bronchodilators (ashtma), diuretics (water pill), and sedative (sleeping pills) have dehydration as a side-effect. Dry mouth means less saliva. Less saliva means more sulphur-producing bacteria.

c. Candidiasis
Antibiotics, antineoplastic drugs (anticancer) and corticosteroids (asthma) promote candidiasis.

d. Hairy Tongue
Phenothiazines (one of a group of tranquilizing drugs) cause hairy tongue in some patients, providing an ideal environment for the aggregation of food particles and bacteria.

e. Halitosis
The cysteamine bitartrate has been used to treat cystinosis. Treatment with cysteamine bitartrate can delay or prevent kidney transplant in cystinosis patients. In current available form, however, cysteamine bitartrate poses unpleasant side effects: It smells and tastes like rotten eggs, consequently the patient may present halitosis and body odor. Levocarnitine treats carnithine deficiency. Common side effect: Bad taste in mouth; diarrhea; mild muscle weakness; nausea; stomach cramps; unpleasant body odor; vomiting. Chemistry4me, Sat, 9th Jan 2010

I had a friend in my teens that started taking a medication for his VERY bad acne. Acne disappeared but his perspiration was REALLY unpleasant... side effect of the drug... not sure what it was. sillymilly, Sun, 10th Jan 2010

While it's true that, in relatively rare cases, medication gives rise to body odour, I think it's fair to assume that not washing would have given rise to body odour in practically every case. The collective odour from them must have been a whole lot more pongy than it is now. Bored chemist, Sun, 10th Jan 2010

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