I suppose that most of us regard our distant ancestors as primitive proto-people, most of whom lived in abysmal poverty and unimaginable filth… Okay, well I did anyway. Without giving it too much thought, if pushed for an opinion, I suspect I would tend to judge things by current standards: current sanitary etiquette. I know that’s not fair to their epoch or knowledge base, but you are how you grew up: daily shower and tooth brushing kind of stuff. ‘God loveth the clean,’ as Francis Bacon wrote.
Maybe I have just been conflating History with dirt -or it could have been Poverty that confused me; anyway, they had a lot of things living on and in them in those days that would trouble me, so it’s probably a yuck thing as well. And it didn’t help when I read about lice streaming off the 12th century Archbishop Thomas à Becket’s body like a retreating army after his assassination. I mean if a prelate had lice, I can only imagine what the rest of the coeval peasants were harbouring.
I could have gone to my grave none the wiser had it not been for a serendipitous stumble over an article in Aeon by Katherine Harvey, a medieval historian at Birkbeck, University of London: https://aeon.co/essays/medieval-people-were-surprisingly-clean-apart-from-the-clergy
As she points out, ‘In a time when only the richest enjoyed running water in their homes, very few Europeans had the resources to abide by 21st-century standards of hygiene, even if they wanted to. At the same time, the filthiness of medieval people should not be exaggerated. Much evidence shows that personal hygiene mattered to medieval people, that they made an effort to keep clean. Popular advice books recommended washing the hands, face and teeth on rising, plus further handwashing throughout the day. Other body parts were washed less frequently: daily washing of the genitals, for example, was believed to be a Jewish custom, and thus viewed with suspicion by the non-Jewish population. Nevertheless, many households owned freestanding wooden tubs for bathing, and late-medieval cities usually had public bathhouses… Delicate outer garments might be brushed and perfumed, but undergarments and household linens were frequently laundered. Advice books suggested that underwear should be changed every day, and household accounts are scattered with payments to washerwomen.’
But what about those things they couldn’t wash off? I mean I can still recall the horror of having to dissect segments of an almost thirty foot long diphyllobothrial fish tapeworm in biology class, and having to put the absolute nightmare scolex of a fresh Taenia solium –the pig tapeworm- under a microscope. People shouldn’t have to do that kind of stuff -especially impressionable meat-eating students. Okay, maybe I shouldn’t eat meat, but on the other hand, maybe what we don’t know about -what we don’t know is in us- is a kindness afforded to ages past.
And yet, deep down, I realize that a lot of this is just 21st century hubris -of course they knew about tapeworms in the past: they occasionally show themselves at awkward moments, even now. Children sometimes demonstrate their inner cities, and adults, however superficially vigilant, are at times confronted with unexpected guests in their bowls. People did attempt treatments in those days -even if, as Harvey relates, ‘Until the 17th century, people thought that they [parasites] were produced by spontaneous generation – that is, not by hatching from eggs, but by forming from existing (usually unpleasant) matter.’ And she notes that ‘Children were thought to be particularly vulnerable to intestinal parasites because they were naturally warm and wet… The susceptibility of adults also depended on diet, among other things. According to Bernard of Gordon, professor of medicine at the University of Montpellier from 1285, gluttons were particularly prone to worms… Medieval recipe collections are scattered with treatments for parasites – suggesting both the scale of the problem, and also a real desire to be rid of these pests.’
All this is well and good, of course -at least the common folk were trying for health. What I find troubling, however, is Harvey’s discussion of the clerics. ‘Notably, the one section of medieval society that embraced poor hygiene was the clergy. For the medieval religious, parasites (both those that afflicted the living and those that consumed the dead) were a popular focus for contemplation, since they served as an important reminder of the frailties of the flesh… Throughout the middle ages, holy men and women ignored conventional hygiene, and consequently suffered… St Margaret of Hungary (a Dominican nun of royal birth) refused to wash her hair so that she would be tormented by lice. The 14th-century Dominican mystic Henry de Suso wore a hairshirt and was often ‘tortured by vermin’; eventually, he took to wearing leather gloves with sharp tacks sticking outwards, so that if he tried to scratch at his bites in his sleep he would claw at his flesh… For Thomas Becket, Thomas Cantilupe [a bishop] and the many other medieval holy men and women who spent their lives itching and scratching, parasites served as a form of asceticism – a way of disciplining their bodies, like fasting or flagellation, and thus proving the depth of their faith.’
You get the impression that the clergy of the time were not so much trying to improve the souls of their flocks as stacking up brownie points before their God: ‘Even rich and powerful churchmen might embrace this form of suffering, concealing their penitential garments (and the creatures that lived in them) under their splendid vestments.’
You can see how difficult it is to put oneself in the medieval mindset -parts of it seem so completely alien. And yet, unlike the American philosopher, Thomas Nagel’s query about what it would be like to be something really alien (like a bat, say: ‘an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism’) Harvey seems to imply that the medieval clerics were decidedly conscious -just of different things.
Perhaps the clergy had a need to differentiate themselves from those around them, however -a need to demonstrate the ineffable mystery of their calling. I mean, they had a hard life; the prospect of a life of celibacy must have seemed untenable in those days. Even in post-flood Winnipeg, it never got much mention in my teenage diary -of course neither did the priesthood. Both struck me as too much of a sacrifice, too much like a lone actor preaching to a distracted audience. And yet, I might have got it wrong -at least in the middle ages, the priests were never really alone…