On the Unsung Sense
The remembrance of smells: the apricot sweetness of a bowl of freesias, the aroma of coffee brewing in the pot, the scent of a freshly cut lawn and burning leaves; these are so deeply embedded in our memories that like the tune of a favourite song they can cut through decades and remain as sharp as when we first sensed them. These are pleasing examples, but those less pleasant: sewage, perspiration, faecal matter, decay, the sweetness of rotting garbage the smells of illness and death; these too have powerful impact on us, and are no less strongly tied to our recollections of past experiences.
When we think of the distant past, the past that we personally did not experience, we tend not to think of how it would have smelt. This is because smell is one of the constituents of life that is particularly difficult to reconstruct. Much of what we know or assume of history comes to us in the form of print or film. As, at present, neither of these mediums enables us to encounter smell, we miss, in some cases to our good fortune, a whole aspect of the experience that must have been prominent and sometimes dominant.
Among the many misconceptions regarding hygiene in the Middle Ages, is the idea that, except on rare occasions, nobody bothered to wash. While it is perfectly true that in many places bathing was not a daily activity (for example, in monastic houses it was generally discouraged, and with the exception of the sick, the monks were limited to bathing three times a year), for lay communities it was more common than we are sometimes given to believe. In the warmer parts of Europe, Italy for example, bathing was probably an almost daily occurrence, and by the thirteenth century even in central and northern Europe bathing became increasingly popular. Thirteenth century Paris had some thirty-two public bathing establishments, and by the fourteenth century, possibly earlier, the large number of steam bathes in London, south of the Thames, earned the area of Southwark the name "the Stews", deriving from the French word for the stoves (estuves) that heated the baths. It was a location no less known for its brothels, and as the number of public bathhouses and of brothels increased, the idea became established, particularly in the eyes of the Church, that these two activities were interrelated, and therefore that both were condemnable. Indeed, in medieval sources the term for bathhouse is sometimes synonymous with that for brothel - bordello (bordel in Old French, perhaps bordel-eau). Bathing in European society had increasingly acquired a sordid reputation, and people were encouraged by the Church to limit their physical hygiene in order to preserve their moral hygiene. But rather than a lack of personal cleanliness, it was probably mainly due to the generally poor urban infrastructure dealing with waste disposal, that enabled the success of Yersinia pestis, the plague virus that wiped out around a third of Europe's population in the fourteenth century.
The connection between hygiene and debauchery is found in the Latin East as well, and is recorded in both Frankish and Muslim sources. The twelfth century Syrian, Usamah ibn Munqidh gave some colourful descriptions of what Muslims regarded as immoral behaviour when Frankish men visiting the bathhouse were sometimes accompanied by their wives and daughters. But occasionally the apparent connection is only a matter of terminology. When in 1134 the canons of the Holy Sepulchre were granted a house “with a bordellus” situated next to the bathhouse of Tancred, it could hardly have been a reference to a brothel.* An interesting case of the relationship between sex and cleanliness is found during the Third Crusade. When, in August 1191, after the occupation of Acre King Richard ran into difficulties in getting his men to leave the delights of the city and its "most beautiful girls" he expressly forbade the women of the city from accompanying the soldiers on their march south. Only the laundresses, presumably matronly and less of a temptation, were permitted to do so.** By this means both the moral integrity of the soldiers and their cleanliness were maintained, though perhaps not their good spirits.
According to the Muslim physician, astronomer and geographer, al-Qazwini (1203–1283) the Franks: …do not cleanse or bathe themselves more than once or twice a year, and then in cold water, and they do not wash their garments from the time they put them on until they fall to pieces.*** However, the presence of bathhouses in most Frankish towns and large fortresses as well as in some villages and monastic houses, suggests that this was more a reflection of the low opinion in which al-Qazwini held the Westerners than a realistic statement of fact.
It is probably true that had we lived in a time in which we were constantly encountering people who rarely saw a bath, where walking down a street required frequent stepping aside on order to avoid the flow of sewage, or where the food we ate could sometimes only be consumed because its odour had been partly masked with a heavy application of spices, our sensitivity to the smells that surrounded us would have been largely blunted.
* Reinhold Röhricht, Regesta regni Hierosolymitani, Innsbruck, 1893, no. 149 (http://crusades-regesta.com/ RRR, no. 322).
** H. Nicholson (ed.), Chronicle of the Third Crusade: A Translation of the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, Aldershot, 1997, p., 4.9, p. 235.
*** Abu Yahya Zakariya' ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini, Athar al-bilad, trans. Bernard Lewis, Islam from the Prophet Muhammad to the Capture of Constantinople, vol. 2, Oxford, 1974, p. 123.