Read the Fornicating Post

Last week, regular readers were treated to an edifying display of the reasons why it’s important to make sure you read what’s actually there and not what you think is there. The commenter to Sarah’s Making It Real post also demonstrated how to obtain that rare mark of (dis)honor, being banned from Mad Genius Club.

Here’s a hint: when everyone who responds to you says you’re wrong, you just might be wrong. You might also have failed to communicate your point correctly – since you might not actually be wrong per se, but what you’re arguing isn’t what you think you’re arguing.

This sort of thing is the reason that renowned acronym RTFM came into being, although in this case it’s more RTFPost.

Now, some more general observations re: the craft and not making a giant international ass of yourself…

The phrase “idea of cleanliness will not be the same as yours” does not mean “they are all filthy”. It means their standard of clean isn’t the same as yours. In the context of “medieval housewife” unless we’re talking fairly wealthy there’s a good chance of a single-room dwelling with an earth floor that’s been packed down pretty hard, particularly if you’re talking peasant farmer’s wife. Depending on where you are and what part of the middle ages you’re dealing with, the dwelling could be part of a larger structure that houses all the family’s animals and winter could mean cohabiting quite closely with said family animals.

That doesn’t mean those families lived in filth. They knew they needed to keep things clean, but when you’ve got an earth floor and you’re sharing living space with your livestock, “clean” means mucking out the animal stalls daily, taking anything you do indoors (if you’re fortunate enough to have a chamber pot and don’t have to go to the outhouse or just plain out – and don’t use the animal stalls as a convenient already in use ersatz toilet) out as well, sweeping the floor to get rid of any nastiness underfoot, and the usual general tidiness.

If there was ample water, bathing might happen once a week (this was still the standard well into the 20th century, not least because if you don’t have hot water on demand, it takes a long time to fill a tub with buckets of hot water, so everyone uses the water and the last person in a large family gets grayish, rather mucky tepid water. But they still try to wash), even in winter when there was a real health hazard for women – long hair takes forever to dry, longer if you’ve got it in a braid, and until it’s dry it’s dripping on your clothes.

Clothes got washed possibly weekly – again, in winter this was an issue, and people didn’t have many changes of clothing to work with. A peasant farmer might have two shirts, one for Sundays (and washday) and one for regular wear – because cloth was expensive in labor if you made it yourself and in money if you didn’t. To get enough linen for a family’s clothing was a process that took a small farm about a year from planting to sewing the goods.

Once again, that doesn’t mean that the people living this way were filthy: they weren’t. They were as clean as their climate and technology permitted.

Which pretty much sums up most of humanity throughout history, when you stop to think about it. Every culture has its cleaning rituals, some of which include bathing for religious purity as well as general cleanliness. One of the reasons left-handers have faced centuries of discrimination is that where there is a lack of certain cleaning supplies for ablutions, it’s very common to use the left hand instead (most likely because most people are right-handed, so they use their right hand to eat). The inevitable human connection between our waste and “dirty” (which in this case is well and truly justified) followed, and hey look at that! Lefties are the devil’s children. Speaking as a lefty, I know this isn’t true. I’m much more evil than that.

And now I’ve managed to rant on for almost 700 words on general medieval standards of cleanliness and the practical difficulties thereof, and I haven’t even touched most of Ye Special Snowflake’s folly (claiming that having been to Portugal trumped Sarah growing up there was a particularly entertaining digression), I should probably call it and hope for something resembling sanity to mysteriously arise next week.

114 Comments

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114 responses to “Read the Fornicating Post

  1. “Which pretty much sums up most of humanity throughout history, when you stop to think about it.”

    Better not stop to think about it, for it isn’t true.

    • Maybe in whatever alternative universe you inha bit, but your dillusuional ranting and cherry picking, and general ignorance of what people lie about as well as any remote understanding of the culture involved make you look like an object fool. And now you’re evanding a ban. You just have to keep digging, don’t you?

      • It used to be understood that big chunks of the writing of the day were the equivalent of today’s ranting blogs — some nutjob’s pet topic rather than typical of the day. But these pet topics are getting seized upon by modern “Studies” types and being put forth as broadly typical.

        • Some yes, some no. The trick is sorting out which is which. Example: I have a copy of the book “The Domostroi” which is, essentially, a series of letters from a father to his son who is setting up his own household. It’s taken as typical, and from what I know of Russians it probably is reasonably so. But we still don’t know for sure, so most people I know who’ve studied it treat it rather like the ‘better homes and gardens’ of the period: This is what people thought the world should be like in a broad kind of idealized sense, but it probably didn’t actually work that way on a practical level, but it gets us into the right ballpark. Some of the other notes in the apendix are also quite interesting… like the warning to a non-Russian orthodox priest who was being warned to take it easy or the Russians would run him into his grave with their rather um… enthusiastic… piety and displays.

          • Yes. I look at The Domostroi the same way I do Castiglioni and other books written for a certain group at a certain place and time – they are fascinating, and illuminating, but often described the ideal for a small group (perhaps even one family). Not until you get into the era of printing and “cheap” books do you start to lean on manners and household management guides as being relatively representative. *takes off historians hat*

            • And if they’re what you have to go on, they are quite useful as an ‘anchor point’ for figuring other things out. Though I am an amateur (though not above arguing with professionals. You learn more that way. 🙂 )

          • They’re taking a sample size of one as typical!?!?

            OMGWTFBBQ……

            • Not in isolation, and if I implied that, my apologies. The “typical” comment was in response to the assertion that what has survived is the equivalent of the modern rage blogs. In the case of the Domostroi, not so much. It’s more… average… than that. Yes, there is corroborating evidence that leads them to view the letters as ‘typical of his type/station/age/etc.’ at least with rough values of ‘typical’.

              They are also useful because they have been a collection practically since the guy wrote them so they have survived intact rather than in pieces. (Hence the Better Homes and Gardens reference.) Does anyone actually have a perfect ‘better homes and gardens’ house? No, but it at least is a better ‘look’ into the expectations/ideals of the era.

    • How very, very cute. So you changed IPs. You know that’s a banneable offense, right?

      • slab1

        I always miss seeing the fun of a truly special snowflake making a spectacular as s out of itself. Sniff.

        • Christopher M. Chupik

          It hasn’t been this exciting since the days of Clamps and his multiple-screenname disorder postings.

        • Kate Paulk

          Oh this one is mostly tedious. And can’t keep its story straight: last week it was all “they WEREN’T filthy! I KNOW this! Respect Mah Authoritah!” and today I make an off-hand comment that most folk in most cultures in known history did try to stay clean by their cultural standards, and it’s basically saying “No they didn’t”.

          It would be amusing if it weren’t so pathetic.

          • I still remember not being very happy with the bodily odours we had to sit through whenever we had to go using subways in winter. While living in East Berlin, we’d make a point of staying near the doors. And even in the late 90s there were still people who, apparently didn’t think bathing in winter was healthy, judging from the ripe smells I’d encounter in Parisian subways.

            Being unfortunately short enough to be face level to most armpits gives one a very unique perspective. =/

            (And being busy RL I missed entertainment. Sigh.)

  2. c4c
    Because I want to see how this all pans out …

  3. I remember reading in one of L.M. Montgomery’s books, a character who normally had lovely hair, but for X number of days after she washed it, it looked awful. I don’t remember how long X was, but longer than most of us would go without washing hair.

    Which told me, A: she really needed a conditioner, and B: she didn’t wash her hair every time she bathed. (Which probably was once a week or so, for reasons described.)

    Thinking about it, the old joke about “I just washed my hair today, and couldn’t do anything with it,” has morphed into “Bad Hair Day,” because otherwise it would make little sense in today’s world.

    • Mostly you brushed your hair every night or morning (a hundred strokes) and hair doesn’t make as much oil if you don’t wash it often. (Sort of like dog hair.) You have to leave it unwashed for a month or six weeks to make hair switch modes, though.

  4. Looks like you punctured the myth of the pre-Christian Pagan Golden Age and somebody got offended.

    • Eh, pre-Christian Pagan Golden Age, that segued into the ‘Muslim Golden Age’ myth… both getting rather punctured.

      • Bob

        Speaking of which, I’m somewhat interested in the pre-Muslim pagan age (golden or otherwise) in the Middle East. Wish it was easier to get some accurate information about what life was like there pre-Mohammed.

        • If I may suggest, look into the history of the Silk Road and the Sogdians. They pretty much ruled the roads, and were mercantile in nature (read: protocapitalists). They were wiped out by the Mongols and eventually chased into the Uzbeckistan hinterlands by the Muslims (look up Yagnobhi). Ive learned a lot about that portion of the Middle and Far East by reading about them and the Silk Roads.

        • Kate Paulk

          Sadly, post-Mohammed there was a dedicated effort to eliminate any evidence the place was ever pagan.

          Not that that kind of rewriting history is at all familiar…

          • Yes, the Sauds go all out in demolishing/destroying/eradicating all evidence or relics of pre-Islam Arabia. Which is a horrific crime against history.

            • Anonymous Coward

              This is not limited to pre-Islamic items. One of the characteristics of Wahhabi Islam (dating back to its founding) is the destruction of shrines, tombs, libraries and other ‘idolatrous’ sites from Islam’s early history.

      • slab1

        Actually, there was a lot of puncturing in the Muslim golden age.

        • Fair point. We never got back to puncturing his ‘Germans vs. the Romans on cleanliness’ once he hit the ground running on the Muslim adoration.

          • slab1

            Are his comments still up? Must have been amusing.

            • Still up. We just avoided the flow of more of the same.

              • Kate Paulk

                Yeah. They got kind of tedious after a while, what with the great walls of text punctured by occasional references and all of it barely relevant to the actual point.

                But then, it was more than a bit obvious he didn’t ever *get* the actual point, and might not get it even if one sat him on it.

      • In a series of posts about Hypatia, Michael Flynn wrote that pretty much everyone in the ancient world was a murderous psychopath. That does seem to hold true.

        • Kate Paulk

          By our standards, pretty close. It’s not the ancient world, but when I was researching Impaler finding out that every one of Vlad’s contemporaries spent a chunk of their childhood as hostages, the paranoia and backstabbing of the era made a whole lot more sense.

        • By Judeo-Christian standards, he’s right.

          Another way to look at it is that we’re really weird.

          (Do I even have to point out that “normal” and “good” aren’t synonyms?!?!)

          • BobtheRegisterredFool

            Y’all are the crazy ones. I’m trying to be normal. 🙂

            Seriously, I studied Latin with the intention that maybe the Sapir Whorf hypothesis might let me tap into parts of the ancient world that might be more functional in some circumstances than our modern fashions.

            In hindsight, I should be grateful I wasn’t more successful.

            I still contend that the classics are a connection to the norms of human society, and that one of our ills as society is having lost contact with what those imply. Even compared to the 19th, enough of what we have contact with has been made similar to our society that we can trick ourselves into thinking our society is the whole of humanity, and forget how truly alien it is. Or that this alien quality needs maintenance, and how to do so.

      • That was… weird to go back and read. It calls to mind the morally and emotionally flat world. Like apparently some features of his home town meant EVERYWHERE in the ancient world was like that home town. Or that Sarah’s point about “conditions will have results…” means that that the home town didn’t exist. Like… WTF?

        It reminds me of an argument I got into once when some of us were discussing Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Hawkmistress! At one chapter I started pointing out that a lot of the book’s talk on horsemanship started making no sense (having been raised with a couple of horses myself) but others were insisting it would totally work that way…

        Anyway, I’m rambling now.

        • Kate Paulk

          It is weird. Including misreading or deliberately interpreting “different standard because technology and culture” as “they were filthy”.

          Possibly because someone is convinced its home town is perfect therefore anything different than it must be horrible evil and filthy. Which makes the other digressions even stranger.

          Ah, well. I guess making sense is a tool of the patriarchy or something.

  5. Christopher M. Chupik

    “hope for something resembling sanity to mysteriously arise next week.”

    That appears sadly unlikely.

    • Kate Paulk

      Hey! I can still hope for miracles!

    • Laurie

      My sister and I attended the RiffTrax Live simulcast of Carnival of Souls last week (highly recommended btw), Before the show started, the RiffTrax folks had a sort of Powerpoint slide show of funny lines riffing on spooky or Halloween themes. The 2-slide joke that sticks most in my mind went: “We’ve been having so much fun with this election season, it has been decided to extend it for three more months, so this all won’t be decided until January.” Next slide: “The previous slide was the scariest thing we’ve said all evening.”

  6. Bob

    Why is it all the fun comment arguments happen on the days when I don’t follow or am too busy to follow?

    • Tom cook

      It’s a conspiracy, they have all the fun without us 😦

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      I’d forgotten how busy I was that day, and decided to check in case I’d managed to get myself banned. Then I’d read the rest of this post, and realized that it didn’t sound much like me.

  7. this was still the standard well into the 20th century

    Well into the seventies, I can say from personal experience. Until we moved “into town” (population: 900) in 1976 or so to a house with a shower, we not only had one bath a week (Saturday night, probably for church the next day), the last of the three of us boys had a pretty muddy tub to bathe in. Our sister (younger than us) got a fresh tub.

    • Kate Paulk

      Quite.

      I grew up in Australia in the 70s and 80s, and outhouses didn’t vanish until the mid-80s in the major cities. Further out, it depends.

      • Yeah, there was a tradition in our area of, on homecoming night (football), building a bonfire out of other people’s outhouses. When I was in high school in the early eighties, the football players still talked about where they could find outhouses, but they were hard to find. I expect this tradition started out not very innocent, but by the time I was in high school at least some people were glad to get rid of them. I’m sure they’re all gone by now.

  8. I really need to write down the folklore we had on washing before I forget all of it. You never washed your hair when sick, and I don’t think we did in what passed for hard cold in our area. You never got a haircut when sick, either. I remember my mother washing her hair and drying it off the best she could with a towel, then wrapping a drier towel, turban style, around her head for an amount of time in cold weather. Women who wore their hair up took it down. I don’t if all Medieval women did likewise washing their hair, but it seems possible.

    As was pointed out, the whole “in Medieval times” is like “On Monday it rained on Mongo.” The world is a great big place and they don’t do things the same everywhere or everywhen. What was common in one place may not be in another, and may not have been common even in that place in another era.

    • Oh, that. In my household it was “you don’t wash your hair while having a period.” Since I could have epic week and a half bleeds, I HATED that rule. Started breaking it in my teens. Mom insisted it would make me sterile. Um….

      • That’s an obnoxious rule. Probably common, too, since part of my junior high sex ed for girls stressed that it was okay to take a bath or shower during your period.

        • Holly

          If you think about shared family bath water, though, it starts to make sense, because ew!
          Well, not bathing, not avoiding washing hair. But if you washed your hair when you bathed, then it seems pretty reasonable.
          We’ve forgotton, as a culture, how hard it is to get clean water from nature, and anyone who wants to go natural, I’ve got some crystal clear girardia (sp?) filled creek water here to show the error of their ways.

    • Oooh. I’d love to see those. Please? ^_^

  9. On washing clothes: I think we forget that clothes were expensive. Growing up we did not have the amount of clothes we have now, and looking at closets in old houses is most instructive. That is, if you can find closets. Many old houses don’t have them. People just didn’t have that many outfits and shoes, even in the living memory of some of us here. Roll that back to when all clothing was made by hand and homespun was the norm, and, well, most people didn’t have much of a wardrobe.

    I have seen some comment that people compensated by the use of an undergarment that was cheaper than outerwear and intended to keep the outerwear clean. Does this mean that multiple sets of undergarments (not necessarily confused with our idea of underwear), were in use and changed more frequently?

    • fynbospress

      You’ll also find a lack of closets due to taxes. That is, houses being taxed on the number of rooms per house led to massive proliferation of the wardrobe as a free-standing piece of furniture, in some countries. (Which then got cemented into architectural styles.)

      And yes, the clothes that touched the skin were swapped out and washed much more frequently than the outerwear. Even post-WWII, in South America, my grandfather had separate collars and cuffs, and they were changed out daily along with his undershirt, while he’d wear the same dress shirt for several days in a row. My mother was a little puzzled when she first taught me how to iron, because she started with handkerchiefs, collars, and cuffs, But in the 1980’s, all my father’s shirts had their collars and cuffs sewn on… leading to a dearth of tiny flat things to practice on.

      Going a little further back, the chemise or sark (Or when cut short, the cutty sark – now you know!) was swapped out along with the other smalls, while the outer wear was worn several times in a row. This keeps the majority of the oils and sweat off the outer wear – be it a dress, a shirt and kilt, or a shirt and good pair of trousers.

      • TRX

        Sort of like the old British window tax, which is why you see so many older homes with windows bricked over. Better to sit in the dark than pay the taxman.

    • I went to a great panel on costuming characters, and one of the things they stressed is how much technology influences outfits. The prevalence of ruffles in the Victorian era is the result of the invention of the sewing machine, for example, when the rich folk were still hiring the seamstresses by the hour and the work could get done quicker. How to signify that you could pay for more time? More fabric!

      As for undergarments, yes, yes, a thousand times yes. My dad wore undershirts, and yours probably did too, but they’ve largely fallen out of fashion as it’s just as easy to wash the outer shirt (and in climates like mine, it’s cooler too.) Heck, I had camisoles as a kid, though I think my mom caught on sooner than I did that they weren’t precisely necessary.

      And Tudor nobility had linen undergarments over their whole body. A modern specialist in historical clothing actually tested how well they worked by wearing period undergarments to a film set, while not doing a daily shower, and even her friends who would *tell* her if she were smelly didn’t notice. (Apparently this is a specialty with linen, which means only the truly rich could have sets of linen undergarments to do this. Linen is pretty labor-intensive.)

      • Linen is pretty labor-intensive.

        Oh, boy, yes. I watched some of the medieval process for turning Flax into fibers that could be woven a few months ago, and not only was it fabulously labor intensive, but wasteful as heck.

        • Kate Paulk

          Hoo yeah. I went to one of the local living history places at a time when they had their people out and the major displays on and was chatting to the woman working in the linen display about the whole process as it was done in the late 1700s/early 1800s.

          Massively labor intensive, wasteful, and horribly time consuming. And stinky when there was a batch retting.

      • I’d like to point out all this talk of undergarments is great, but in the TWENTIETH CENTURY in our area, people would steal clothes from the line (i.e. it was worth stealing) and would wear undergarments as outer garments. Because undergarments were foreign. I think undergarments for women came in in the 16th century in England, and no one is sure how far down the middle class they extended. For peasants they would be unheard of.

    • Robin Munn

      Clothes being expensive — yes, most people certainly DO forget. One of the first things I noticed about the BBC production of Cadfael was how clean and new everyone’s clothing looked. Nowhere was a single patch, or ripped-and-resewn area, visible — even on the actors portraying peasants. Real peasants had (as I understand it) only ONE set of clothes. If a peasant was had TWO sets, he was filthy rich. There’s no way that those clothes weren’t constantly being mended. In Pargeter’s original novels, she got this right — there’s a scene where Cadfael takes a cloak that had belonged to a murder victim and gives it to a beggar, and it’s a HUGE deal for that beggar, because now he can actually keep warm at night. He couldn’t afford a blanket, and how he’s being given a thick, warm cloak just like rich people have! But in the BBC production, the costume designers didn’t understand this, and had only new-looking clothing on every single person. That bothered me right away.

      Other things bothered me later on, like how the BBC production couldn’t stand to portray any of the Christian faith as being genuine, so they changed the plot in a major way: in the novels, there’s a miracle where a young man, lame from birth, is healed. The monks make a big deal about checking whether it’s a genuine miracle, as opposed to fakery (because some people DO fake such things), and it proves to be a genuine healing. The BBC production changes it so that the young man is faking being lame — and thereby completely RUINS one of the best characters in the series, turning a noble (in character, not birth), honest, upright young man into a scheming villain. I’m very glad I found out about that change BEFORE I watched the episode in question — because when I found out, I dropped the series right then and there. I wasn’t through watching it… but then suddenly I WAS through watching it, having no desire to go back and watch any more.

      • Robin Munn

        Meant to add that Derek Jacobi did a fine job portraying Cadfael, and now when I read the books, it’s Jacobi’s face I see in my mind’s eye. My gripe is with the writers (and, to a much lesser degree, the costume shop), not with Jacobi’s performance.

  10. On soap: Oh, my, do I even go there? I suspect a Medieval European household may have made their own out of fats and wood ash drippings, just as many made their own cloth and wore homespun. Since it was based on potassium hydroxide, it would have been a soft soap, and used for both clothes and personal washing. This sort of soap would have to be dipped and stored in a container, and would be dependent on the availability of fats and ashes.

    Then there would be soap, the luxury item, which might have been brined to produce a hard soap (chemically I think it converts potassium hydroxide to sodium hydroxide, which is the same stuff as canned lye today). That’s known to have gone way back. But I suspect only the well-to-do could afford it, and most everyone else made their own, soft, soap. I’ll only note that homemade soap was common into the 20th Century in rural America. My grandmothers made it, but my mother never had to. Other soaps were available, but for everyday use, homemade soap was cheaper, at least, for a while.

    The presence of soap doesn’t mean a full bath was a daily event. I suspect people were getting a “wash down” as we called it in between the weekly full bath. Nor does the ability to make soap mean it was plentiful everywhere. Candles were expensive, maybe due to tallow, and oils availability likely varied.

    • Uncle Lar

      There was a phrase fairly common once upon a time that I’ve not see of late. Taking a whore’s bath, which meant a quick wash of pits and crotch with a soapy washcloth. Easy to do without fully disrobing with a modicum of privacy and a wash basin.
      I’ll assume y’all will understand the likely origin of the term.

      • It was pretty common to have a basin, a water pitcher, and a washrag. Even without soap (or olive oil, the Southern soap), you can scrape yourself clean.

        • Laurie

          A historical re-creator said you could get a pretty good wash with a pitcher (preferably of warm water, but cold would get the job done), wash basin, a supply of clean cloths to buff off the skin, and a slop pail. Pour a little water into the wash basin, wash off an area-with or without soap, buff heavily, pour the water into the slop pail when it got too dirty, then repeat. She said she did this for three months and no one around her noticed a difference.

          This was for Victorian Britain, but I think her book on Tudor farmsteads has much the same process, although much less likely to have warm water.

          I also remember one of the Laura Ingalls Wilders books describing the Saturday bath in the wintertime for a farming family (so this would be late 1800s America frontier). They’d bring in snow, heat it up over the fire and the father would have his bath first. Whoever came next would dump out the previous bath (because it would be too dangerous for someone wet to dump out his bathwater in the wintertime), heat more snow and have his/her bath, repeat through the family. The last one would leave the bathwater to be dumped out in the morning.

    • I’ll only note that homemade soap was common into the 20th Century in rural America. My grandmothers made it, but my mother never had to. Other soaps were available, but for everyday use, homemade soap was cheaper, at least, for a while.

      For values of cheaper. My mother grew up with that generation that still made their own soap. Late in life, she tried her hand at it again. Her reason was “to save money on soap” — I suspect it was at least partially just to have something more to do.
      She quickly discovered that homemade soap is not nearly as gentle as the store-bought varieties. All the money she save by making her own soap went to replace the clothes that were developing holes from washing with the made-made soap. I doubt that it would be nice to bathe with, either.

      • Sara the Red

        I think it also depends on the process used. I do homemade soap, but it’s of the “artisan” variety–ie, there are extra fats/oils to make it kind to skin, but it also takes a good long while to “cure” properly (if doing the cold-process method). As in, up to six weeks or more before saponification has converted all the harsh lye. In this case, the homemade soap really is gentler on my skin than store-bought detergent bars. But again, it’s A Process.

        Folks back in the day, I suspect, didn’t have the luxury of either adding extra oils/fats (even if they had them on hand, they were likely in limited supply), nor of waiting around for six weeks for the soap to be ready! And if they did, they were rich and they weren’t making it themselves.

        I did consider trying out the homemade laundry soap thing…but read enough grumbling online about it gunking up machines and/or being hard on clothing that I’ve set that aside for now.

        • Sometime between the publication of the first Foxfire book and the Bicentennial, a local lady made a batch of soap for the school and a class. My mother rolled her eyes at that: She remembered home made soap as harsh. This, however, made with the regional traditional lard and lye, wasn’t. Other than look, it was no more harsh than store bought.

          That had my mother thinking that maybe it was how it was made rather than something about the soap itself. Turns out she was right. Uncombined lye makes the soap harsh and does bad things.

          Technically that home made soap was “artisan,” too, and it was common to render your own lard, and to save drippings to make soap. I think it was just a matter of not having enough fatty acids. for the amount of lye. Could they have simply not realized this was the problem, and thought that’s just the way homemade soap was? Could it be from adapting home made potassium hydroxide recipes to canned sodium hydroxide? haven’t a clue. And until I thought about making soap, first to save money, and then for my own shaving soap, I’d never heard of the “zap” test or super fatting.

          Note: Even though I downloaded public domain 19th and 20th Century books on soap making and books of “household” formulas, and had a recipe in mind that I ran through an online soap calculator, I haven’t tried it. Unlike my experiment to measure telluric currents, there was enough expense that if I didn’t like soap making or was unable to produce a good product, I’d be out of that money.

          Anyway, maybe it’s worth considering what our medieval homemaker would have to do to make soap. First, she would have to collect enough ashes and drip them to extract potassium hydroxide. Next, she’d have to collect fats or oils. Then she’d have to use utensils not used for cooking (my grandmothers talked of making soap in a wash pot, fat first and adding lye, but the idea of metal and lye still strikes me as a bad, bad, thing and wouldn’t do it). She’d have to boil down the lye in something until it reached a strong enough concentration, but hydrometers hadn’t been invented yet. She could have tried floating an egg, or seeing if it dissolved a feather. Then she’d have to mix it with the melted fat and stir and stir and stir. She’d probably have to watch it because the reaction that makes soap also generates heat. Then she’d have a batch of soft soap that would have to be stored in a container.

          Oh, and she’s eyeballing all this. No graduated measuring cups. If I was writing this into a story, I’d have her fretting about the sign of the moon, thinking that had a bearing on success or failure of the batch.

          Since there were soap boiler guilds turning out a quality product, I wonder if they used some sort of set measure, if nothing more than cups and boilers of the same size. They were obviously doing something right.

          • Since there were soap boiler guilds turning out a quality product, I wonder if they used some sort of set measure, if nothing more than cups and boilers of the same size. They were obviously doing something right.

            Going off of my grandmother’s cooking, any recipes would just be memory-aids and “until it looks right” would be the real gage.

            I can’t *tell* you how much garlic and herbs to add to the olive oil to make my baked potatoes, I just know when the mixed result looks right.

          • Feather Blade

            Lard is pretty interesting as a soap ingredient.

            If you use vegetable oils, the plain soap turns out off white.

            If you use lard (apparently the best quality fat to do this it leaf lard from …around the kidneys? IIRC) the soap turns out a bright pure white, like commercial soap, no titanium dioxide needed

  11. It gets even more interesting when you go outside European cultures. Everyone knows that the Japanese were crazy about bathing, right? Wrong, depending on the time period. Up until probably the 13th century, they would go for a month or more without bathing. As a matter of fact, in Heian Japan, the art of mixing incense was highly developed. This was mostly because people would scent their clothes with smoke from the incense burners to cover up the god-awful stink of weeks of accumulated BO. Heian women wore their hair long, as in “dragging on the floor behind me” long, and would only wash it every five or six months. They would use yin-yang sorcery and the I-Ching prognostication tables to choose propitious days for washing, since it was such a chore. For sanitary needs, they had what amounted to giant catboxes full of sand (we are speaking of the nobility here, since they are the only ones of whom we have any records). The men and ladies would take a removable piece up from the floor, do their business, then put the piece back. At some point, some poor schmuck of a servant would have to “clean the catbox.”

    But, of course, cleanliness and sanitary practices are universal, world-wide.

    David

    • But they kept their hair shiny with some kind of nasty sticky oil, like hairspray. One of the “I trained as an American geisha” memoir books talked about it, as did that one daughter of a samurai memoir where she had to go to the palace.

    • Kate Paulk

      Of course they are… *snort*.

      One could mention the Mongols, who revered water as sacred – and therefore refused to come in contact with it. To the Rus, who had a thriving sauna culture, a solid easterly must have meant lots of warning the Horde was visiting.

      • Interesting variant – the Comanche regarded flowing water as something that could break their medicine (Puha). And drowning meant your spirit was doomed and could not reach a happy afterlife. But they swam and bathed quite often when the weather was warm and water available.

  12. Oh, and on washing clothes and doing laundry. Even well into the 19th century, Japanese female outfits were elaborate enough that they actually disassembled the clothing into its component panels, washed them separately, then just sewed the thing back together when they were done. Needless to say, this was not something you did twice a week in your afternoons.

    David

  13. Bjorn Hasseler

    c4c

  14. Sam L.

    WELLHHHHHHHHH. We are all the same, everywhere in the world, and always have been! Which is why I love SF, where most everyone is different. Can’t stand myself, so why should anyone else?

  15. joe doakes

    Re: living with animals, I have read pioneer accounts from original Minnesota settlers in the 1840s. One woman’s story said: “I was eight years old the summer I walked from Chicago to Mankato. Our wagon was full of everything we owned and the oxen were the only ones we had so everyone walked alongside, except the babies. We stayed in the Johnson’s barn that first winter until Daddy got our barn built on our claim, then lived in our own barn with our animals while Daddy cleared land to grow crops for food and for money. We moved into the cabin Daddy built a few years later.”

    That woman’s grand-daughter would have lived on a Minnesota farm without electricity until Rural Electrification, meaning no lights or electric well pump, in the 1930-40’s. Wood stove, boiling water for a bath, freezing hair in winter, lasted much longer than the Middle Ages.

    • My mother-in-law’s first house after she got married did not have indoor plumbing and had an outhouse. Nor electricity or central heating of any kind.

      In North Dakota.

      We are not far from those days at all.