Beating the Heat in Elizabethan England

English merchant (left), noble, and a lady-in-waiting for Elizabeth IThe title is a bit of a misdirection, but it seemed indelicate to call too much attention to a post about how much Elizabethans, well, stunk. But there’s nothing like a steamy summer in Ohio to turn my mind to how our heavily-dressed Tudor counterparts must have suffered through the long and occasionally hot and humid summers of the mid 16th century!

First, I have to clear the air, as it were: Elizabethans were not an unhygienic people. A wonderful book by Alison Sims, “The Tudor Housewife” sets this record straight. Given the limited technology of the period, Elizabethans did the best they could—washing their faces and hands, particularly before and after meals, and bathing as often as it was expedient to do so. Given that a proper bath (which involved dunking oneself in water) required a large wooden tub lined with linens, and water heated from the fire, this did not happen very frequently.

For many peasants, bathing was only possible a few times a year. In fact, one of the reasons why June was considered an excellent time for marriages, is that it happened to coincide with the time where many villagers regardless of station had recently bathed. In between baths, Elizabethans took care to keep their shifts (the long smock worn next to the body) as clean as possible, changing it as often as their circumstances allowed. To the shock of no one, living in the countryside allowed for cleaner living standards than in the heart of the city, but this was less due to an individual’s bathing preferences and more to do with the overwhelming problem of sewage. Without running water, Elizabethans had very little recourse other than to dump bodily and household refuse into the streets. Add to that the heat and humidity of a long summer, and thousands of people crammed together in poor housing conditions, and you can see how living in Elizabethan London might not be terribly enjoyable for the average man or woman.

However, the nobility and royal houses took bathing very seriously. They had endured several generations of dealing with the Plague, and had come to realize that squalid, dirty conditions seemed to contribute to the spread of sickness and disease. In addition to such luxuries as the permanent, plumbed-in bathrooms of Henry VIII at Hampton Court and Whitehall, fine ladies could expect to have at their disposal scented toilet soap and washing water, which included sage, marjoram, chamomile, rosemary and orange peel as potential ingredients. Elizabethans also were interested, at least to some extent, in dental hygiene. While toothpaste was still centuries away from being created, the proper Elizabethan used tools like herbal rubs of rosemary and sage, mouthwash made of vinegar, wine and alum, and minty sweets to clean teeth and freshen breath.

On the subject of scents, there is divided information. Elizabeth was a tremendous fan of pomanders and perfumes, and the assumption has always been that this is because such scents were needed to mask body odors. Sims disagrees, suggesting that perfumes were simply another luxury of the rich. I would counter that, based on my research.  Given the vast array of recipes that existed for various perfumes and scented washing waters, as well as the number and layers of clothes that Elizabethans wore—often without frequent washing of the material—AND the very real problem of a lack of sanitation (and all of its attendant smells), I believe that scents performed a very vital function in addition to their luxury. They helped everyone get through the day with a bit more cheer! In fact, the use of nosegays was quite popular during this time. Nosegays were small items that users held up to their noses while walking through a crowd—such as a tiny bouquet of flowers, a sachet containing dried flowers or herbs, an orange studded with cloves, a sprig of herbs, or the like.

Then again. . . some Elizabethan practices regarding scents were just unfortunate. In one entry, I read where it was common practice for an Elizabethan maiden to peel an apple, place a slice in her armpit to absorb the smell and then present it to a potential suitor as a memento. Which . . . seems unappealing, as it were—at least to my modern sensibilities!

Nevertheless, the next time you hit the showers, apply deodorant, or throw your clothes into the washing machine (or, heck, flush a toilet!), send up a cheer for all of the ways we have today to keep fresh and clean! Elizabethans had a far more difficult time beating the heat.




One thought on “Beating the Heat in Elizabethan England

  1. Burning questions… answered!

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