Were medieval people less smelly?

17 January 2010

Question

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?

Answer

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 that's about 200 or 300 years before the medieval period, it's 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 wasn't 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, didn't they? Because castles had guarderobes which is the bogs and correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't 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, wouldn't they? Diana - Exactly. So, yes, they probably did smell pretty awful. Also, actually, there's another thing I'd like to add is that if you're constantly being exposed to horrible smells, you're going to be desensitized to them, aren't you? So perhaps, in that sense... Chris - I think there are limits.

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