I am a writer of fiction, I’m allowed to take liberties from time to time with facts. The best example is the iron maiden, which history honestly can’t figure out. It is unlikely they were ever really used as a torture device and we’ve only found a few, all of them from Germany, all of them in the 1800s. However, as a fiction writer, I can turn them into a torture device.
It doesn’t mean I don’t do research. I can only make up so much before the entire tale becomes so incredibly unbelievable it falls to pieces.
A few weeks ago, I picked up a book on the Black Death. As cruel as it sounds, some very good things came from bubonic plague outbreaks. The book caught my attention specifically because it discussed the tragedies and the benefits.
Last night, I hit the halfway mark and found myself checking the publication date: 2013… And I closed the book. I won’t be opening it again. The author failed to do some research, some significant research, research that totally undermines an entire series of chapters in the book.
It was believed that noxious vapors were responsible for at least some of the spread of the bubonic plague. As a result, the perfume and herb industries had massive booms. However, the author fell back on an old wives’ tale that has been discredited by history: people in the middle ages didn’t bathe very often.
Actually, they did. Bath houses were still in existence and open to the public, even the lowly commoners and serfs were bathing. It wasn’t until the 1500s that bathing began to fall from fashion and bath houses were shut down at alarming rates. Most of it stems from a cockeyed sense of morality and the habits of a few particularly bizarre rulers (Charles the IV of France not only refused to bathe, but change his clothes for approximately 5 months because of a power struggle for the throne… he probably won just because he smelled so insanely bad… but he was known for being a nutter).
But the Black Death swept across Europe in the 1300s! Washing the body, not just the hands and face, was a big deal. If a person didn’t bathe at least a couple times a week, they were considered eccentric. Medical literature of the time encourages bathing because “dirt causes diseases.” Culturally, bath houses still served the purpose of allowing people to socialize outside the home or fields. Literature and artwork both deal with bathing as a common, every day practice.
As a historian, my medieval history classes dealt with bathing, it was discussed at length, because it was a common social event. One of the more interesting lectures I remember receiving was about how peasant women used the time in the bath houses to not just clean themselves and children, but to gossip and pass along news. If Sabrina from the southern part of the village had gone missing, it was more likely that the peasants found out in the bath house than from messengers and newspapers. Men and their time in the bath houses weren’t any different. There was a class difference among bath houses, some catering only to peasants and serfs, while others only catered to the wealthy, but they still had them.
A quick perusal of modern day research into the middle ages, disproves the non-bathing theory. I found seven scholarly papers in a simple search. Going through my back catalogue of history magazines and books provides even more evidence that historians have known this was false for a long time.
Here’s my problem with these sorts of things. It isn’t that they are historically inaccurate or can be disproven by picking up a book on the middle ages.. It’s that we keep repeating these “facts” despite knowing different, thereby perpetuating the myth until we have a huge historical problem. Consider this: The Greeks and Egyptians new the world was round. However, we are taught that people before the Age of Exploration thought the world was flat. Why would we “lose” that knowledge in the span of a 1000 years? It doesn’t make sense. New historical research has taught us that no one believed the world was flat… even peasants believed it was round, peasants just didn’t give a shit about it being round, they were unlikely to travel more than 20 miles from their homes during the entire course of their lives. So, no adventurer set out to prove the world was round, which is exactly what I was taught 20 years ago in history… Explorers were uncertain where they would end up, because they believed the world was flat.
Hogwash! By the way, if you are a girl and majored in history… You need this shirt. I want one.