How dirty were our ancestors? Hygiene throughout history

Torii Kiyonaga / Wikimedia

Our ancestors have a bad reputation when it comes to hygiene, but do they have the benefit? Well, yes and no.

One of the most obvious changes is the creation of toilets and sanitation systems. Many medieval houses had rooms similar to small cupboards where people relieved themselves in pots and vases, then threw the contents out the windows.

This practice led to the fact that, in 1809, Lisbon issued an edict that forced the population to shout “Água Vai!” before throwing the feces and urine through the windows, so that whoever was on the street would not be taken by surprise with these “gifts”.

The richest houses had some rudimentary plumbing systems, which carried dirty water and waste into pits. However, there are many reports of people who refused to use these bathrooms and who preferred to answer the call of nature in dark corners in their homes and even in the homes of friends.

Empty fireplaces or places hidden by curtains or rugs were also favorite places. In most cases, laziness to go to the bathroom was the main motivation, reports the Ancient Origins🇧🇷

One of the most unusual jobs in the Middle Ages was also being responsible for transporting the king’s portable toilet and recording in detail every time the monarch “relieved”.

Stranger still, this position of “toilet steward” was highly coveted due to the assurance of closeness to the king, which helped officials become confidants of heads of state and possibly receive land or fortune. The post arose out of necessity, as kings often needed help removing their luxurious clothes before going to the bathroom.

Scholars still don’t know if the official only handed a cloth to the king to clean himself or if he really wiped his ass. In England, this office was only abolished in 1901.

If the population relieved itself in any corner of the house, it is not surprising that this attracted many insects and worms to the house. From lice to bedbugs, homes were infested with these pests.

Another factor that fueled the appearance of these animals, especially in the poorest houses, was the fact that the floors were made of straw to protect the dwellings against humidity. On the other hand, this straw was also the ideal home for these insects.

Sometimes, the population would put flowers and herbs in the straw so that the house would not smell so bad. But this only served to mask the problem, as it did not prevent the insects from reproducing and spreading infections.

The beds were also ideal places for these insects to spread and even the people’s own skin and hair. Lice were very common in the Middle Ages, especially in the poorest strata of society, where several members of the same family shared a bed, which facilitated transmission.

The millennial soaps

Although all this does not give a very clean picture of our ancestors, the truth is that soap is an invention that is older than we think. The first was invented by the Babylonians in 2800 BC

Archaeological evidence indicates that the Egyptians bathed regularly, as shown by Papyrus Ebers, one of the oldest and most important medical treatises known to have been written around 1500 BC and which reveals several recipes for combining salts with animal oils and vegetables to make soap.

The Greeks were also very clean. Not only did they use soap, they invented the first “showers” ​​and the richest even had their own bathrooms.

The Romans were also famous for being fond of public baths and for being talented engineers, having invented sanitation systems similar to modern ones and created aqueducts to transport water to their villages.

It was also the Romans who baptized soap, in honor of Monte Sapo, a legendary mountain on the outskirts of Rome where water flowed and mixed with ashes and animal fat, forming bars of soap.

Despite their reputation as bearded and dirty barbarians, the Vikings were also very adept at hygiene and even bathed once a week, far more often than their contemporaries in other parts of the world.

The Icelandic word for Saturday — Laugardagur — even means “washing day” and several combs, ear cleaners or razor blades have also been found in excavations in Scandinavia.

In some places during the Middle Ages there were public baths that the population could pay to use. Those who didn’t have money used the rivers to bathe or resorted to “dry washing”, rubbing the body with a clean towel.

Gradually, Europe started to become more adept at hygiene, but there were some setbacks. King Louis XVI of France was a notorious example of this, as the story goes that the monarch was afraid to take a bath and only took it twice in his entire life.

Dental care (or lack thereof)

In terms of oral health, things were not famous. Toothbrushes were first introduced to England in the late 17th century and there is evidence that toothpicks were used before this. However, dental problems were very common in it.

Some ancient Sumerian texts even account for “tooth worms🇧🇷 This was the designation given to cavities, which left visible holes in the teeth. Dentists at the time did not know the cause of these holes, assuming they were caused by worms.

Little was done in terms of preventive measures and the main concern was to deal with the problems after they manifested themselves. Even so, there were civilizations that took better care of their teeth without even knowing it.

The skeletons of Romans living in Rome show that they had healthier diets than the rest of the Empire’s population, which translated into better oral health.

Adriana Peixoto, ZAP //

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