I want a diverse blog so I thought I'd tackle the persistent myth of the dark ages.
Myth 1: The common medieval man was a serf.
Fact: According to the dark ages lie if a man wasn't born a noble he
was to lead a brutal short life of toil bound to a squalid piece of
land, yet while serfdom did exist in certain medieval lands it was far
from universal. Its also an example of the double standard that drives
the narrative, medieval Asia obviously had equivalents of serfdom and
autocracy yet these civilizations are not demonized and used as the
very epitome of backwardness. People confuse peasants (free farmers) with
serfs (unfree farmers).
Serfdom did not exist in Italian states which enjoyed highly urbanized economies, rural agriculture was useless to the Venetian or the Florentine. In Spain the peasants of Leone and Castile secured charters that allowed them to avoid serfdom. Serfdom only existed in the peninsula's northern region.
Viking age Scandinavia did not have serfdom though it did have slaves who were
only captives taken in battle equivalent to prisoners of war. The free farming middle class
made up the core of Norse society, while going Viking gave young men opportunities to make
fortunes. Finland was amazingly free society with life revolving around saunas and hunting, no wonder why Tolkien based the elves on them! Finns had no interest in the reformation since the church did not oppress or even annoy them.
Byzantine empire was not a feudal since power was centralized in the emperor's lands,
literacy was wide spread. Misconceptions hold that the 'dark ages'
began when Rome fell ushering in a hellish epoch, which is contrary to
basic history Rome fell when the Turks conquered the Byzantine empire,
the Byzantium's fall contributed to the renaissance since it lead to
circulation of Greek manuscripts. The empire was among the largest
states in the medieval and instead it had the pronoia land system.
Under pronoia land grants only became hereditary until the late stages
of the empire, in every year of the empire those who worked the land
(paroikoi) were "fundamentally free."
Therefore the people of the vast Byzantine empire never knew serfdom. Serfdom was also non-existent in German Baltic lands.
In many Eastern European countries serfdom would not exist until the end of the middle ages. Hungary's formerly free peasants were not made serfs until the 16th century. Serfdom would not exist in Wallachia or Moldavia until the 15th and 16th centuries. What accounts for the shift that is the inverse of the idea that all serfdom ended after the medieval era? During the early modern era eastern European economies became dependent on grain, serfdom increased profits.
Eastern Slavic lands like Kievan Rus or Novgorod did not have serfdom.
Russian serfdom began in the 17th century, it became one of the most brutal slave systems in
history holding over 20 million Russians in bondage unlike medieval
serfdom historians agree that Russian slavery/serfdom was just as
cruel as slavery in the Americas, entire books have been written
noting the eerie parallels between the unfree in Tsarist Russia and
slave states like Brazil or Jamaica. If any civilization can be
called a dark age it would be Tsarist Russia that had perhaps the
largest slave population in history, The middle ages are generally
considered the East Slavic golden age; a time of proto-democratic
institutions, no serfdom and a remarkably merciful and advanced legal
Serfdom didn't exist in the Swiss confederation, the Gersau republic,
League of God's House, the League of the Ten Jurisdictions and the
Grey League these societies were among the most democratic in history.
Myth: all medieval governments were hellish autocracies.
What an odious double standard no one argues that medieval southeast Asia or the middle east experienced a dark age because they were ruled by autocracies. Europe was actually the most republican continent in the middle ages. While we think of democracy as an ancient Greek invention open societies actually owe more to the middle ages. Medieval republican systems made a contribution to the Enlightenment; Corsica's terri di commune system gave birth to the Corsican constitutions. John Adams praised the old Swiss confederation and the three leagues as ideal republics and models for the United States to follow.
Norman Davies wrote that "the link between th democracy of ancient Athens and that of contemporary Europe is tenuous. Democracy did not prevail in its birthplace. It was not admired by Roman thinkers; and it was all but forgotten for more than a for more than a millennium. The democratic practices of today's Europe trace their origins as much to popular assemblies of of the Viking type [DING], to the diets convened by feudal monarchs, and to medieval city republics.""
Europe has a consistent medieval republican and/or proto-democratic heritage. The anglo-Saxons had the folkmoot which has enjoyed praise as an important entry in democratic development. Gaelic Ireland had many assemblies: the Cuirmtig, was open to all clann members this congress primarily served to create new proposals. The Dal consisted of only leaders who represented clanns. Clann chiefs were elected in assemblies while kings were elected under the tannistry system, no king could be above the law.
The medieval Swiss confederation enjoys recognition as an example of medieval direct democracy. Yet it was not an isolated accident, the confederacy neighbored other democratic societies. The grey league, league of god's house and league of ten jurisdictions formed the three leagues, read more about them in 'Early Modern Democracy in the Grisons.'
The republic of Gersau, a state that managed to maintain its independence from the middle ages to the 19th century a testament to the alpine democratic tradition. A council of nine and a court consisting of seven members governed Gersau; elect through the Landsgemeinde system. Louis Simond wrote that "during the whole period of the existence of the republic of Gersau" no one was "punished for any crime." In Germany proper isolation allowed people in Ditmarschen to form an independent republic governed by 48 elected councilors, this entity had a highly organized militia which managed to repel invasions which allowed Ditmarschen to remain independent until 1559.
Switzerland is a product of the commune, autonomous towns that were products of the practical need for unity in harsh times. The people swore oaths to the community as a whole that rendered them equal and assemblies held the most power. This tradition produced Italian republics, the existence of city states free from feudalism that enjoyed free trade is a strong to the dark age mythology.
Italian republics are diabolized as hellish oligarchies, if we accept that it would not change the fact that they were among the most advanced societies at the time. The myth of unjust intrigue burdened oligarchies is a product of past propaganda. Historian Frederic Chapin Lane explained that Venice's Spanish and French created a "myth" that Venice was a "tyrannical oligarchy maintained by a terrifying efficiency in the use of spies, tortures, and poisons." Such libels have tarred Italy's glorious republican heritage.
Though it is true that Venice and others were ruled by various families revisionists ignore that until the late middle ages common people exercised power through assemblies. Genoa was governed by consuls who were elected by the common people, a practice that began in the ninth century. In Venice the general assembly or Arrengo held power until elite made it powerless in the fifteenth century. The practice of genuine republicanism in these city-states lasted longer than many modern countries.
Not all Italian republics became great powers. Cospaia was a small commune that became an independent, egalitarian republic in the 13th century and remained so until the 19th century. San Marino was founded in the 4th century and remained an egalitarian republic throughout the middle ages, its independent to this very day.
Elsewhere the commune system produced republican societies. According to Henri Pirenne "democratic government was firmly established through the towns" in Flanders. He described how "the history of the town populations of the middle ages begins with democratic government." Communes could create oasis's of liberty in autocracies, according to FL Carsten self governing towns created democratic spaces in Germany.
Basques owned lands free of monarchy and the church; feudalism was nonexistent and Basques enjoyed an inherently democratic society. Basque communities were governed by the Elitaze system, people would meet after church to make decisions about issues affecting their area. The Elitaze tradition also served the purpose of electing representatives to the Juntas (assemblies) which governed larger districts or entire provinces. According to Robert Trask "from about 1300 we find abundant evidence of well-developed local democracy in the Basque provinces....”
Further north Scandinavia developed republican institutions like the Thing assemblies. According to 'the Vikings, Voyagers of Discovery and Plunder' "the Thing (assembly) was the cornerstone of democracy and authority in the Viking age. Each district had its own Thing and as a rule these open-air assemblies met once or twice a year, although they could be convened more frequently. The basic function of the Thing was to provide and arena where matters of local importance could be debated. Kings were elected, new laws were discussed, disputes over land and property were settled, and violent crime and theft were adjudicated upon. Above the district assemblies was a regional Thing, where the more important decisions could be taken by the districts would be ratified."
Iceland is one medieval society that has gained liberal admiration, the narrative of common people settling in a chillingly beautiful land and establishing an egalitarian society appeals to even the most hardened cynic. Due to a lack of materials Icelandic art became centered around story telling, literacy became common, medieval Iceland produced countless masterpieces and more literature than the Ottoman empire. Iceland's society was centered around assemblies (the althing) and elected officials (the law speaker for example was elected for three years.
Frisia (currently Friesland, West Friesland, Groningen province, Ostfriesland, Stade and North Friesland) consisted of a string of autonomous areas devoid of feudalism or serfdom and free from tax and fief. There is ample evidence that the Frisians had an ideology comparable to modern democracy; the traditional battle cry was "better dead than a slave", law texts were prefaced by "the people want." By the standards of the time (and even compared to modern life) Frisians enjoyed a vast level of freedom, especially since there was no central government, Frisian freedom laste from 1101 to 1498.
In eastern Europe the people in Kievan Rus were enjoying what is recognized as a golden age. Kievan Rus was a former runner to modern constitutional monarchies since common people could participate in politics via the Veche or general assembly which was the supreme organ in Rus. The cities of Novgorod and Pskov became republics, in both the prince was elected through the veche.
Vainakh (the Noxchi/Chechens and Ingush) lands were devastated by Mongol invasions, in keeping with the pattern of common reacting to hardship they developed a society that Amjad Jaimoukha correctly describes as "pluralism and deference to individuality" that featured elected councils, courts of justice and unique customs. Georgia is home to the Khevsurs a highland people whose identity revolves around their medieval culture with a society lead by "elected.....leaders or khevisberi (ხევისბერი, elder) and council of elders."
Myth: medieval laws were horribly cruel.
Medieval has become a synonym for torturous legal codes, the
very word conjures pornographic fantasies of innocent milk maids being
dragged down to dungeons for torture yet the reality was very
different a large amount of medieval codes were extraordinarily
merciful even compared to modern laws. Many laws punished crimes only
with fines, criminals were often banished or could seek refuge with
the church and even death sentences could abrogated with fines and
military services. Germanic laws featured the weregild, a value
placed on people (usually according to social rank) if someone was
murdered or injured the perpetrator had to pay a fine to the victim's
family (parallels include the Welsh Galanas, Polish Główszczyzna and
Irish Éraic). A list of legal codes, its also worth noting that fine
based law did not mention homosexuality which seems to be have been
tolerated though evidence for claims of medieval orthodox equivalents
of gay marriage seems specious and a case of liberals trying to
project their views into the past.
*Russkaya Pravda was the law in Kievan Rus, Novgorod and Pskov and it
punished crimes solely with fines and secured rights for women. Did
they determinate guilt by comparing a suspect's weight to that of a
duck? Not exactly; crimes were investigated, 'detectives' had to
(while checking for false accusations), engage in immediate pursuit
and collect evidence; Russkaya Pravda was a precursor of modern
forensic science. Perhaps one day someone will create a TV show about
a young, attractive and ethnically diverse team of detectives solving
crimes (with unorthodox methods of course) in Pskov.
*Medieval Scandinavian laws punished crimes with fines (as did
Finland) and outlawing criminals (more on that below).
*Byzantine law included the death penalty but it was far from a cruel
system, there were emperors who reigned their entire lives without
sentencing anyone to death.
*In the Swiss confederation, Gersau republic and the three leagues
laws were the product of democratic process and varied widely certain
cantons had the death penalty others had entirely fine based laws.
*Frisnia an autonomous region of the Netherlands developed its own
code based entirely around compensation rather than violence.
*The 'Ewa, quae se ad Amorem habet' or 'the law that they have along
the Amor' was the law in the rest of the Netherlands under it most
crimes were punished through fines only one crime carried the death
penalty: stealing something seven times. However a defendant could
escape this penalty with money, or with the help of a superior. The
law states that "it is allowed that his master promises a pledge for
him as compensation and releases him from death."
*Italian law is complex enough for several books since Italy consisted
of a multitude of states, though Italian laws were far from barbaric
since most were based in Roman law: a "sophisticated and advanced"
*Law in the Kingdom of Leon was ground in Roman legal codes,
*Salic law originally punished crimes strictly with fines though the
death penalty was added as a punishment for a small number of severe
*Now part of Croatia, the Dalmatian region was independent in the
middle ages and was a bastion of Roman culture and urban
sophistication governed by Roman laws.
*Gaelic law, particularly the Brehon code, enjoys liberal admiration
for the rights it bestowed on women, tolerance of homosexuality (only
mentioned as a reason for divorce) and how it punished crimes through
compensation instead of violence.
*David I's Laws of the Brets and Scots punished crimes strictly through fines.
*Anglo-Saxon law was fine based.
*Icelandic law punished crimes through compensation or outlawry An
outlaw was banished from society; anyone could legally kill an outlaw
and the property of an outlaw was
seized. However this sentence was a lesser evil compared to modern examples
of the death penalty; it was possible to survive, journey to other lands and
begin a new life.
Iceland had two types of outlawry (although the sagas indicate that a
third outlaw type, where an offender was exiled from specific areas),
lesser and greater outlawry.
Lesser outlaws were expelled from Iceland three years; this was not the end
of an Icelander’s world since it was illegal to kill a lesser outlaw abroad,
any captain refusing him passage could be fined and after the three years
were up he could fully resume his place in society.
A full outlaw however had lost all rights; no one could help him or gave him
passage. Anyone could kill him either in Iceland or abroad. However a
sentence of full outlawry could be lessened to permanent exile. Someone
sentenced to permanent exile had the same privileges as a lesser outlaw,
only of course without the option of return.
“When the Thing was over they went west and saw Thorkel the Wealthy of
Alvidra, and tell him all that had happened, and begged him to see Gisli and
tell him, for they said they did not dare to say to his face that he was an
So Gisli was outlawed. That was the great news at that Thing. And Thorkel
the Wealthy went and told Gisli. Then Gisli chaunted this stave:
"At Thorsness Thing
My suit at law
Had never failed
For quirk or flaw, p. 67
Had Vestein's heart,
That never blenched,
In Bjartmar's babies
"They quailed, those kinsmen of my wife,
When all their souls should warm with strife.
To think that here was work to do,
And foes to foil and conquer too.
And so they fled the throng of men,
As when, with addle egg of hen,
The base-born thrall is pelted down
By all the riff-raff of the town.
"Evil tidings from the North,
An outlaw now I wander forth
A forfeit life by land and sea
None dares to speak a word for me
But still, O man in battle tried,
O bounteous man, whate'er betide,
Know this, that vengeance shall be mine
On those two caitiffs, Bork and Stein.”
- Gisli the Outlaw
Lets compare these codes to the law that governed one of the largest
empires in history; Mongol Yassa law, this system punished literally
every offense with death even dropping a cup while riding. Proponents
of the dark age myth promote a the 'burning times' lie none of the
codes above mention or condemn occultism yet Yassa states that
"sorcerers are condemned to death" the same punishment for
Since the Mongols killed tens of millions and had a cruel vast empire
its clear where the real dark age took place.
"You're a great torturer Bob, you can make a man scream for mercy in seconds
but dang you can't make a good cup of coffee."
-The Far Side
Bizarre fantasies about 'medieval' torture instruments are widespread in
Western culture; examples include the Wizard of Id and Pulp Fiction.
Dictatorships that employ torture are described as 'medieval' and people
conclude that medieval societies were horrible; people did not spend their
time making art or exploring, they merely fantasized about elaborate methods
of causing pain! The truth is very different; most of the torture machines
associated with the 'dark ages' did not exist in the medieval world or they
were invented by unscrupulous museum owners in the 18th century.
The Early Modern epoch saw a rise of torture; yet most people imagine
that era merely as 'the
renaissance', a glorious time when everyone learned how to paint and sculpt.
The iron maiden was invented in the 18th century and and there is no
evidence to suggest that it was ever used. Countess Bathory may have used a
spiked device similar to the iron maiden however it is virtually impossible
to separate fact from myth in regards to the Bathory legend. Even if she did
employ such a mechanism it cannot be cited as an example medieval 'savagery'
since the ridiculously demonized Countess lived and died in the 17th
century. Iron maidens were museum props; lurid 'artifacts' that drew in
customers and museum owners did not see a reason to let historical accuracy
stand in the way of financial gain. The most popular theory is that the iron
maiden hoax was invented by German philosopher Johann Philipp Siebenkees
another explanation holds that it was built as a misinterpretation of
*(coat of shame). The coat of shame is often described as a torture device
and it was used in the middle ages however it was designed to shame the
offender not to inflict pain, similar to the stocks. While a session in the
coat of shame was anything but enjoyable the punishment pales in comparison
to penalties carried out under Japanese law.
*The choke pearl is a famous torture device; it is an example of how bizarre
sexual fantasies fuel misconceptions about medieval law. Supposedly the
choke pearl was used to destroy orifices, in reality however it was used as
a gagging device; in the 17th century! There is no recorded evidence to
suggest that it was ever used to rip someone's anus apart.
*The Judas cradle was a fictional device, there is no evidence to support
the lie that it was a medieval torture device.
*There is not a single piece of evidence to support that the spiked/Spanish
chair was ever used to torture a single individual.
*The rack first appeared when the middle ages was coming to an end.
*The Scavenger's daughter was invented in the 16th century (like many
supposedly "medieval" torture devices).
*The medieval torture device known as Crocodile shears was reserved only for
people who had attempted to kill monarchs.
*Chastity belts never existed in the middle ages they were an
invention of the victorian mind.
Myth 3: the Burning times fantasy.
A fat greasy man in a leather hood leads a comely young women out to a pile
of wood in the town square, he forces her to the top and binds her shapely
body to the post with a rusty chain. The wood is set ablaze and the flames
leap higher and higher! She writhes against the chains and ropes!
Witch burning scenarios are embedded into the Western psyche and often cited
as 'proof' that medieval Europe was a uniquely cruel hell. The reality is
very different; victims of public burnings were usually hanged to death
first after which their corpses would be burnt. Witch hunts and burnings
occurred mainly when the middle ages were coming to and end (Joan of Arc was
executed in the late middle ages) or during the Early Modern Period.
The infamous book Malleus Maleficarum ('The Hammer of Witches') was not
published until the end of the middle ages. Inquisitorial courts became
systematically involved in witch hunting only in the fifteenth century. In
other words witch hysteria was common during the supposedly perfect
Renaissance; yet that hasn't created a negative view of the Renaissance.
People think of witch trials as a strictly European evil which simply isn't
true, under Mongol law anyone 'guilty' of 'sorcery' was condemned to death.
The Council of Paderborn in 785 explicitly outlawed the very belief in
witchcraft, obviously people could not be tried for witchcraft under such
laws. The Council of Frankfurt in 794, called by Charlemagne condemned
belief in witchcraft as superstition and ordered that anyone presuming to
kill people for 'witchcraft' would be put to death. It was more dangerous to
accuse someone of 'black magic' than it was to practice the dark arts in
The stereotype that medieval Europeans in general feared any beliefs outside
of strict Christianity is easily disproved by examining how common occultism
was in the medieval world. People from nearly every social status and
profession engaged in magic; peasants, aristocrats, doctors, prostitutes,
clergymen, even Bishops! Books of sorcery (galdrabækr) existed in Iceland in
addition to staves; glyphs designed to produce results ranging from good
dreams to warding off foxes. Below is an interesting account that
illustrates that divination was a very common practice.
"While your Highness was besieging Padua during your campaign, some of the
prisoners anxiously used divination (sortes) to find out what would happen
to your army. One of them, by means of special dots used in one technique
they call 'Geomancy' (a word I haven't come across before) seemed to say
that Padua would not be captured at this time, claiming - and I don't
understand this - that the First House, relating to the army, seemed to be
Lesser Fortune, while the figure of the Seventh House, which represents
enemies, was Greater Fortune."
- Rolandina da Padova: *Cronica in factis et circa facta Marchie
Bishops often complained of lower class farmers taking the host (a
representation of the body of Christ) back to their homes and drawing
symbols on it in order to help crops or make animals fatter. The clergy of
late Anglo-Saxon England produced 'leechbooks' medical manuals that
contained spells for protection and healing, many of these rituals were
Christianized versions of Pagan rites. Very few official condemnations of
occult texts were issued; church officials were more concerned with
heretical books, attempts to suppress grimoires and other such manuals were
sporadic not systemic. In 1258 Pope Alexander IV ordered inquisitors "not to
intrude into investigations of divination or sorcery without knowledge of
manifest heresy involved."
Witch trial occurred in medieval Europe;
however the sentence was usually quite mild contrary to what neo-pagan
authors, who seem to have a need to feel persecuted, would have you believe.
In England, in 1466, Robert Barker of Babraham was brought before his
bishop to answer for owning grimoire, wand and other such items. Robert was
sentenced to public penance, walking around the marketplaces of Ely and
Cambridge barefoot (being seen without shoes was very humiliating in the
middle ages) while carrying his arcane paraphernalia. Under the laws of
Alfred, Guthrum, and Edward the Elder "witches or diviners" were driven
"from the country."
Other codes like Lex Salica do not even mention witchcraft. Yet the
consensus view is that persecution of individuals perceived to be witches
was an evil limited to medieval Europe. Who needs facts when you have lurid
Burning at the stake was not a unique evil. The Ottomans used impalement as
an execution method well into the 19th century, which was just as bad if not
worse than death by fire; a victim of the inquisition could die quickly from
smoke inhalation, a victim of Turkish impalement could stay alive for days.
Examples of Ottoman terror includes combining impalement and fire; Diakos a
Greek hero was impaled, roasted over a fire and finally died after three
days. The Ottomans matched the scale of the inquisition; in 1814 at least
200 were impaled in Belgrade.
Admirers of the empire often portray it as a harmonious land of tolerance,
ignoring persecution that parallels witch and heretic hunts. They also
ignore that even in the early modern era with all its sectarian savagery
the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Netherlands were more tolerant.
The Muslim Lipka Tatars rejected the Turks because Poles gave them more
Hurufism is a fascinating doctrine of Islamic mysticism; grounded in the
Kabbalah the sect equated God with man and promoted absolute equality.
Obviously this threat to the Ottomman order was not well received; the
Ottoman policy was to burn or flay followers of Hurufism alive.
Even indirect sympathizers were imprisoned and executed. Unlike the
inquisition the persecution of Sufis is not over; in the early 1990s over
thirty Alevis were burned alive in Sivas. In 1995 a Turkish teahouse which
was a popular meeting place for refusing was machine gunned killing two
Alevis which was followed by riots resulting in the murders of Sufis.
“Near the city of Edirne, in an empty area, towards the end of the 1450’s; a
gigantic pit was dug for the burning of thousands of people. When the
digging was finished, (the hollow had been filled with a veritable forest of
wood), it was then set alight. The heat was like Hell. When the fire reached
into the sky, soldiers pushed untold thousands of bound captives to the edge
of the hollow. First, a turbaned elder prayed. Then the assembled populace
stood behind the surrounding soldiers, watching events unfold. At the
instigation of the elder, they then prayed to God and cursed their enemies.
Afterwards, soldiers started to throw their imprisoned victims into the
fire. The screams of burning people were inevitably mixed with the sound of
prayers and violent accusations. Everywhere was shaded by a dark smoke and
the smell of burning meat polluted the air. Nobody, however, left the square
until this tragedy finished; they waited until the very last person had
become carbonized. Shockingly, those assembled around this horror cursed the
souls of both the dying and the dead. Then they left the square. The only
sin of these living, human sacrifices was being “Hurufi”, or in other words,
martyrs for one of the most mysterious, complicated and potent sects in the
history of Islam. If these people raised hell, however, they deserved to
burn in flames.”
-Tashkopruzade Ebu-l Ismauddin Ahmed Efendi
In Japan death by burning was a common means of execution. In the
17th century a new law made it illegal for any Japanese individual to harbor
or befriend Christians; 'offenders' would be executed burned alive. Japanese
converts were hunted down and burned alive; food for thought for any naive
Westerner under the delusion that Asian spirituality is perfect and benign.
"I saw fifty-five of them martyred at one time at Miyako. Among them were
little children of five or six years, burned alive in the arms of their
mothers who cried 'Jesus recieve their souls!'"
"Christian Martyrs of Nagasaki"
Myth: Europeans never bathed.
Most people associate with the middle ages with smelly peasants; supposedly bathing was a rarity even for the wealthy. This myth has become a part of pop culture; in the episode "Robin Brain" Pinky and Brain tell medieval Europeans to bathe more often, they respond by telling the two mice that "everyone knows that soap and water are a lethal combination" and the cartoon ends with the two rodents tarred and feathered. The LOTR films portray most of the Human characters as dirty; the only consistently clean characters are non-Human. The truth however is very different; numerous cultures maintained high standards of hygiene.
Roman bathing customs survived, Italian states also adopted Muslim bathing customs through its levantine trade. According to 'Medieval Italy: Texts in Translation' "Until very recently, many scholars believed that bathing was rare in the Middle Ages; some hypothesized that it was revived in the West during the Crusades, when Europeans encountered the religious, cultural, and architectural practices of Muslims and Jews." Yet a translated charter proved that "bathing flourished" in Italy "before crusades."
The Byzantine Empire
The Byzantines maintained an exceptional hygienic standard; so much for nonsense about medieval Christians teaching that bathing is 'evil.' Apart from public bathes which served a social function (similar to the ancient Thermae facilites), most houses had tanks with water and all gave big importance in the hygiene. The Baths of Zeuxippus were the most famous (other than numerous private baths); Zeuxippus was more than just a place to wash, it was literally a work of art and a museum with scores of sculptures.
"For a minimal fee one could enter the cavernous, multifunctional complexes and find a comfortable, luxurious setting for bathing, exercise and meeting friends for convrsations business, readings and lectures."
-Marcus Louis Rautman, Daily life in the Byzantine Empire
Private and public toilets drained into subterranean sewers that emptied into the sea. Most buildings had latrines that were flushed with water drawn form cisterns and/or wells or by running water.
Lower class people did not dump waste into the street; modest homes had pits that collected usage. At routine intervals these pits would be emptied and hauled off. The Byzantium had a very high level of sanitation as well as garbage removal. Byzantine standards also heavily influenced and contributed to other cultures; without the empire's texts it's likely that the Islamic golden age and the Italian renaissance never would have occurred. Popular mythology dictates that medieval Europeans 'destroyed' classical texts yet in the 7th century Paul of Aegina created the most complete medical compendium for the next seven to eight centuries.
"Nowhere on earth is the use of the bath so necessary, as it is in the Northern lands. There you find both private and public baths extremely well equipped. Private baths belong to highly placed persons and are built in the vicinity of fresh running water and beautiful gardens and herbs. Public baths are built in towns and villages and in such a large quantity as the number of people living there make necessary."
The idea of filthy Nordic savages has heavily influenced the fantasy archetype of the barbarian, it is also a false stereotype grounded in biased Christian writings. In reality the Norse bathed routinely, the average Scandinavian bathed at least once a week, the use of hot springs and artifacts (combs, washing bowls etc.) suggest a strong bathing culture, because of these the Norse and their cousins - the Anglo-Danes, the Rus etc. - had a reputation for obsessive cleanliness. Scandinavians in the Varangian guard would have been adopted Byzantine hygienic customs, although that isn't to say that they automatically assimilated.
Hygiene is featured in Nordic literature, in Njáls saga the character Bergthora "went round the table with water to wash the guests' hands." In Egil's saga, the main character tells a 'good man' that he "shall have soft bath" Athelstan washes the corpse of his brother before burial. Grettir's Saga features a scene where Grettir "went up to the homestead at Reeks, and into a bath that night" after swimming.
"Then were their positions fixed and their pavilions were pitched, their huts and their tents were made. Their fires were kindled, cooking of food and drink was made; baths of clean-bathing were made by them, and their hair was smooth-combed; their persons were minutely cleansed, supper and vicutals were eaten by them; and tunes and merry songs and eulogies were sung by them."
-Cath Ruis na Ríg
There is abundant evidence that medieval Gaels maintained a high standard of hygiene, a tradition dating back to the Ancient Celts; Pliny described how male Gauls washed more than women. The Celts were either evil savages or foppish dandies to the Romans! Soap would have been widespread in the ancient Celtic world due to their vast trading networks and the emphasis that Celts placed on appearance. The Burnt Mounds (known as Fulacht fiadh in Irish) are located all over the British Isles (Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Mann, Wales and England) these sites date back to the Iron age and early medieval era and were used to heat liquids. At first they were thought to have been used for cooking; however there is no evidence to support this theory, the most popular explanation is that they must have been for bathing.
"It is difficult to believe they were effective cooking places, as you'd need to boil about 100 gallons of water in these troughs and large amounts of meat. But why would people go to so much trouble to heat water? Sauna is an integral component of cultural life in Nordic countries. So it may be that Ireland had cultural traditions in which washing and bathing were done as part of ritual activity."
- Dr Paul Gosling
The Irish bathed frequently and guests were provided with baths; a common sign of hospitality. Medieval Ireland had a highly developed vocabulary for washing, with separate words for bathing the feet, hair, the hands or immersing the entire body. Gaelic literature gives us an insight into how bathing was routine for Irish people in the middle ages, in the Tain Bo Cualnge Cuchulain "took a repast, and he remained until he had washed
himself and bathed on that day." In Echtra Nerai the characters enter a house to find "tubs for washing and bathing in it, and a drink in either of them," after being warned about a house that never had "a washing- nor a bathing-tub, nor a slop-pail in it at night after sleeping."
It is reasonable to conclude that the Scots and Manx practiced bathing due to the presence of burnt mounds, Irish and later Nordic influence. Scandinavians who assimilated and became Norse-Gaels would have most likely retained their original bathing customs and introduced these practices to their neighbors. In 'History of the Highlands & of the Highland clans, Volume 2' by James Browne, the author describes how both children were bathed every morning and evening, the people did this in order to "steel the body", adults bathed daily.
Bathing has part of Switzerland's history since Ancient times, the ruins of Roman bathing facilities have been unearthed in Switzerland. Practices such as thermal bathes were at the height of their popularity in the middle ages. There are accounts of common people who spent the whole day or even the entire night immersed in water!
The sensuality of Swiss bathing culture defies the stereotype of dirty and sexually repressed medieval people. Hot springs, baths and communal hot tubs were part of routine life in the Confederation; they were social centers, much like the Finnish sauna, were men and women interacted and ate food from floating trays. Bathers ate eggs (cooked in hot springs), beef, lamb, venison and fish, they drank white wine and fresh milk. One early modern woodcut depicts a male meeting with two female clients in a private hot tub out in the open.
Bathing was a feature of folklore; it was believed that people should not drink cold water for this led to a terrible addiction. Conrad, of Baumgarten slew the vile Austrian bailie Wolfenschiess while he was bathing. In Leukerbad it was held that if a cure were taken during a leap year or two years after a solar or lunar eclipse the waters would not produce the same healing effect. The curative waters were supposed to open the wombs of infertile women. According to myth if a woman dipped her feet into the biggest of Baden's springs during a full moon, she would conceive.
Baths were also important political functions; Confederates saw no reason to separate business from pleasure. Baden routinely hosted the Tagsatzung and served as a focus for diplomatic matters all because of its famous nineteen hot springs. Baden (also known as Aquae helveticae – the Swiss waters) even had a bathing tavern! It is logical to conclude that the Confederates exported this hygienic culture to conquered territories and associates such as the Freie Ämter.
The Persian adventurer Ahmad Ibn Rustah wrote that the people of the Rus Khaganate "carry clean clothes and the men adorn themselves with bracelets and gold. They treat their slaves well and also they carry exquisite clothes, because they put great effort in trade." Cleanliness did not die with the Pagans, bathing was part of daily routine for the population of Kievan Rus. In the twelfth century Andrew, the apostle described a traditional banya.
"They warm them to extreme heat, then undress, and after anointing themselves with tallow, they take young reeds and lash their bodies. They actually lash themselves so violently that they barely escape alive. Then they drench themselves with cold water, and thus are revived. They think nothing of doing this every day, and actually inflict such voluntary torture on themselves. They make of the act not a mere washing but a veritable torment."
-Russian Primary Chronicle
What Andrew didn't understand was that he wasn't witnessing masochism; these people were so committed to cleanliness that they were literally beating impurities out of themselves!
"When the evening bath is wanted,
Fetch the water and the bath-whisks,
Have the bath-whisks warm and ready,
Fill thou full with steam the bathroom,
Do not take too long about it,
Do not loiter in the bathroom,
Lest my father-in-law imagine,
You were lying on the bath-boards,
On the bench your head reclining.
When the room again you enter,
Then announce the bath is ready;
O my father-in-law beloved,
Now the bath is fully ready,
Water brought and likewise bath-whisks,
All the boards are cleanly scoured,
Go and bathe thee at thy pleasure,
Wash thou there as it shall please thee,
I myself will mind the steaming,
Standing underneath the boarding."
- The Kalevala
"In the sauna one must conduct himself as one would in church."
-Old Finnish saying
The sauna has been a Finnish institution since the dawn of the middle ages, nomadic Finns even carried portable sweat lodges. Sauna sessions were routine and they were not simply places to spruce up, a sauna was a key social establishment; much like the Roman thermae. Villagers would take turns preparing the sauna, once it was ready neighbors would be invited to join them. In Finland and other Northern lands groups of men and women would patronize saunas, which disproves the stereotypes that all medieval Europeans were repressed religious types fearful of any suggestion of sexuality.
Women traditionally gave birth inside saunas, since smoke contained tannic acid that sterilized the surfaces medical operations were also performed in saunas; this proves that medieval Finns were not ignorant of matters relating to hygiene. Saunas had spiritual significance; many foreign observers wrote that the Finns treated these structures as if they were "shrines" and used them for rites of passage. Once inside the sauna they would use a whisk made of plants (a vihta) for massage and skin stimulation, this detail combined with the almost religious reverence of the sauna has led to comparisons between the sauna and Amerindian sweat lodge.