The other day I was delighted to see in our local bookstore a stack of Ruth Goodman's new book, How to Be a Tudor. I enjoyed very much her How to Be a Victorian, a sensible and very readable description of the daily life of the average Victorian, and although I am fascinated by the Victorian period, I admit that -- like Ruth herself -- I can hardly get enough of the Tudors/Elizabethans.
Like her Victorian book, Ruth has organized this new one according to the daily routine of the average person of the period, "from dawn to dusk" -- that is, getting up from bed and saying one's prayers, getting dressed, having breakfast, and so on. I have noticed, in my own explorations of the Tudor period, quite a lot of sources insisting that the people as a rule smelled bad, so I was interested to find that one of the first things Ruth does is refute this, not only with her historical research, but with the personal experience she has had in living, for months at a time, as the Tudors would have done, in her series, "Tales from the Green Valley" and "Tudor Monastery Farm".
It is generally known now to be correct that the Tudors didn't bathe, but what is misunderstood is that just because they didn't actually get into a tub of hot water doesn't mean that they didn't keep themselves clean. Since it was commonly thought in the period that disease entered the body not only by breathing noxious vapors but also through the pores of the skin, the importance of maintaining personal cleanliness was widely accepted, and one of the surest ways to do this was to keep the filth of the outside world and of one's own body from contact with the skin through clean clothing, most especially the layer closest to the skin. Since the outer garments were usually of wool, and sometimes silk, and therefore difficult to launder, the clothing that was next to the skin was generally made of linen, and changed and washed as regularly as possible. You would have a linen smock or shirt, under-breeches, hose, cuffs, coifs and caps (to wear under a hat), and so on, which meant that essentially everything in contact with your skin or hair could be fairly easily cleaned. In addition, many authorities of the time also recommended that one's daily routine should include a vigorous rub-down with a linen cloth, since linen's absorbent properties were well-known, with the added benefit of the light roughness of the weave gathering up the sweat and dirt from the skin.
What about the less well-off people? Wills and probate inventories, even of non-nobles, seems to indicate that most people had two or three sets of undergarments -- presumably one to wear, one in the laundry, and a "best" for Sundays -- though of course nobles sometimes had several dozen shirts or smocks, and changed at least once a day. Was two or three changes enough? Allow me to quote Ruth at length --
Did people in the Tudor era stink to high heaven? ...
I have twice followed the regime [of linen undergarments and a daily scrub of the skin with a linen cloth]. The first time was for a period of just over three months, while living in modern society. No one noticed! It helps, of course, if you wear natural-fibre clothes over the top of your linen underwear. I used a fine linen smock, over which I could wear a modern skirt and top without looking odd, and I wore a pair of fine linen hose beneath a nice thick pair of woollen opaque tights (these, of course, did contain a little elastane). I changed the smock and hose daily and rubbed myself down with a linen cloth in the evening before bed, and I took neither shower nor bath for the entire period. I remained remarkably smell-free -- even my feet. My skin also stayed in good condition -- better than usual, in fact. This, then, was the level of hygiene that a wealthy person could achieve if they wished: one that could pass unnoticed in modern society. While we know that some people did follow the full regime outlined above, we have no way of knowing how many. Several advice books that include some form of early-morning hygiene regime don't mention the rubbing cloth at all, stopping short after telling young men to wash their hands and face and comb their hair.
I have also followed the regime in a more Tudor context while filming a TV series, during which I wore all the correct period layers and head coverings. I was working on a farm, so this entailed a much heavier coarse linen smock, woollen hose and far fewer changes of underwear. Although I was working mostly outdoors, often engaged in heavy labour and also lurking around an open fire, I found that just changing my linen smock once a week proved acceptable both to me and to my colleagues -- including those behind the camera, who had more conventional modern sensibilities. The woollen hose I changed just three times over the six months; the linen parts of the head-dress I changed weekly along with the smock. There was a slight smell, but it was mostly masked by the much stronger smell of woodsmoke. Once again my skin remained in good condition. This, of course, was much more representative of the majority of the population's experience in Tudor times, in the frequency of changes, the lifestyle and the types of material that the underwear was made from.
A friend and colleague has also tried it the other way around, washing his body but not the underwear. The difference between the two was stark and revealing. He continued with a full modern hygiene routine, showering at least once a day and using a range of modern products, but wore the same linen shirt (and outer clothes) for several months without washing them at all. The smell was overpowering, impossible to ignore. He looked filthy, too.
Many modern writers have presumed that without hot soapy water being regularly applied to bodies, Tudor England must have been a place inhabited by people who smelt like the long-term homeless. Much play has been made about the difference between beautiful clothes on the surface and an imagined filth and stench on the inside. I would refute that reading of the situation. The sixteenth-century belief in the cleansing power of linen turns out in practice to have some truth in it. The laundry makes a vast difference. The smell of the past undoubtedly was not the same as the smell of the present, but we need to be aware that cleanliness and being neat and sweet-smelling were important issues for Tudor people. Charitable institutions were eager to ensure that their inmates conformed to the social norm, and masters wanted their servants to be so attired. There must of course have been the occasional "stinking beast" among those having a particularly hard time, but it appears to be the absence of laundry, rather than the absence of washing the body in water, that has the biggest impact upon personal hygiene.
[From chapter 2, "To Wash or Not to Wash". Photos from "Tales from the Green Valley" and "Tudor Monastery Farm".]