England in the First Millennium – Hygiene, Bathing and How to Deal With Fleas

The word ‘hygiene’ in the first millennium, certainly among the Anglo-Saxons, was an oxymoron.

For instance, people would dig their latrine pits outside the backs of their houses, apparently untroubled by the odour, which would have mingled deliciously with the droppings from their animals and perfumes of similar pungency.

The flies, of course, must have had a field day. A good tramp in the latrines, followed by a stroll across any food they might find lying about in the house, no doubt made their day.

For some reason, the Anglo-Saxon thought it only fair and reasonable that his or her body should play host to any parasite that was anxious for shelter. The whip-worm, despite its name, was relatively inoffensive. The maw-worm, however, was not. It favoured people’s liver and lungs, and had the most startling habit of suddenly appearing from the corner of someone’s eye.

Fleas, on the other hand, were not well tolerated. A number of methods used to be tried to rid the householder of these pests, one of which was laying sheepskins around the bed and waiting for the little brutes to vacate the bed and embrace the sheepskin, as it were. Since the sheepskin was white, or nearly so, the flea could be spotted as soon as he landed.

I expect the bed was gently tapped to encourage their exodus, but once on the sheepskin, the homeowner would presumably leap from hiding, waving a cudgel and lay about him or her, sending as many fleas to the promised land as possible.

It almost goes without saying that bathing wasn’t the most popular pastime around, either. The monks of one 10th. century European monastery were ordered to bathe 5 times per year. Now to your average Anglo-Saxon, this was fanaticism. Once a year, fine. Twice, if you were one of those fastidious types, but five times? Come on!

Mind you, it seems that on the other end of the scale, the Danes would bathe and comb their hair every week. Now while this was frowned upon, (I’m surprised the church didn’t issue a sanction on such radical behaviour), the commentator on this Danish custom was forced to admit that it seemed to give them a distinct edge when it came to the ladies.

So there was absolutely no concept of hygiene nor cleanliness in any form. But again, the Lord would protect you. If you happened to drop a piece of food on the floor, which as you can imagine would be covered in all forms of excrement, the best advice was to pick it up, make the sign of the Cross over it, season it well and pop it in your mouth!

Allow me to leave you with this thought. Acupuncture. No, not with needles, but with red hot iron pokers. There was even a book showing the points on the body where the pokers should be applied.

Enjoy your dinner!