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No Trivial Matter, Page Two

The Unwashed Dark Ages?

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Some medieval trivia is nothing more than nonsense designed to make the people of the Middle Ages look ignorant and slovenly:

Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May, and were still smelling pretty good by June. But they were starting to smell, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor.3

Soap was invented by the Gauls sometime before Christ, and by the end of the ninth century C. E. it was in widespread use in Europe. It was soft, much like today's liquid soap, until hard (cake) soap came into use in the twelfth century. It did not smell particularly lovely and it wouldn't keep your skin lustrously smooth, but it would get you clean.

Going without bathing was considered a penance, even in the early Middle Ages. Public bathhouses were not uncommon, and many were closed down during the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century due to fear of contagion. (They were also popular spots for assignations.) At home, folks were known to take baths by the fire in the winter and out in the garden in the summer.

This is not to say that everyone in the Middle Ages smelled as fresh as a daisy on a daily basis. But it is extremely doubtful that bathing only once a year was acceptable, let alone common, and absolutely ludicrous to think that the reason brides carried bouquets was to hide their stench.

Flowers had many symbolic meanings; in the Church, roses symbolized the Virgin Mary, and in chivalric romances they symbolized passionate love. Bridal bouquets may have been carried for either of these or a dozen other reasons -- if they were carried at all.

Keeping it Real

It has been my experience that when you burst someone's bubble about a fondly-held fallacy, he will not thank you for it. Why, then, should you bother? If you can tell your girlfriend she doesn't look fat in that dress, why can't she go on believing medieval people never bathed?

Put simply, the answer is that truth, even the truth about trivia, is important. We look to details for a clearer picture of life in the Middle Ages; if the details are inaccurate, how clear can the picture be?

There's more to it, of course. The bulk of inaccurate info concerning medieval life serves to paint a dark, degraded, even ridiculous picture of the era. People are represented as ignorant brutes leading lives governed by greed, superstition and fear. This simplistic view of the Middle Ages allows those of us in the modern era to think of ourselves as morally, intellectually and socially superior, without really examining the medieval world or our own.

But if we choose to, we can take a closer look at the people, events and customs of the Middle Ages and compare them a little more reasonably with the world today. Yes, many people were superstitious in medieval times. Watch any sporting event and you'll see that lucky charms and rituals are not at all uncommon today. Yes, there was violence in medieval society. Have we eradicated it from our own? Yes, the world was a very different place then, but the reasons why have more to do with the evolution of technology, of learning, and of society than with any superiority on our part or inferiority on theirs.

Through research, extensive reading, and a constant willingness to learn, we can begin to understand what medieval society was like, how and why it changed, and what it means for us today. And trivia? Those fascinating details of the past are important, especially when they're accurate. They bring the larger picture more clearly into focus, and bring the reality of the past more powerfully home.

And that is no trivial matter.

Note

3 This tidbit is part of a large list, varieties of which have been circulating around the Internet for some time. I've seen it on two medieval mailing lists and it was sent to me by three different visitors. It was probably started as a joke; unfortunately, some people seem unaware of the humor and consider its contents factual. I've refuted the entire list in my feature, The Bad Old Days.

Guide Note: This feature was originally posted in June of 2000 and was updated in September, 2011.

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