How to Clean Your Body in the Renaissance

One of the silliest historical myths out there is that people in the past were somehow ‘dirty’ and had poor hygiene, especially compared to today’s standards. Of course, I’m generalising; each culture had different practices depending on time and place. But think of people living in the Italian Renaissance: how did they cleanse their bodies? Bodily hygiene was intimately connected to health and medicine – arguably even more so than to the world of beauty and cosmetics. So, what was Renaissance hygiene like?

What is Hygiene?

To start with, people understood the very idea of ‘hygiene’ differently. It meant removing the impurities that constantly came out of the body, rather than merely getting rid of the dirt deposited on the body surface: the focus was on what came from the inside, not just the outside, of the body. This means we must talk about ‘excrements’ – and I don’t just mean urine and faeces, but also bodily fluids and even ‘vapours’. In the Renaissance, it was believed that food was digested, ‘concocted’ in the stomach and transformed into blood and corporeal matter. The residues from that process were ‘excreted’ from the body through the ears, eyes, nose, mouth, scalp, and the pores of the skin. If these impurities remained in the body, they could create obstructions and trigger illness. Hygiene was then, closely linked to medicine: regular purging was a vital part of preventing ill health, but occasional, medical purges were very popular treatments (just think of bloodletting).

The organs in the body knew how to ‘purge’ themselves of these impurities; it was up to people to help remove the residues to maintain health. Even hair was understood as an ‘excrement’ of the head (seriously!), which had to be kept clean to remain healthy. And, in Renaissance books about health, the care of the head, and especially the scalp and the hair, was extensively discussed. Curiously, what we today consider excrement, faeces and urine, weren’t as prominent, although authors gave readers some dietary advice. So, daily hygiene focused on preventing illness through the care of the body, especially the skin and hair.

Everyday Rituals

Morning toilette became a central part of healthcare. We often think of combing or brushing the hair as part of styling it and, although that was certainly important too, in the Renaissance these practices were also considered part of hygiene, as combs removed excrements from the head. Deep cleansing of the scalp and hair was a matter of health more than beauty. Plus, at a time in which both philosophy and physiology considered the brain to be the central organ of the body, this cleansing was considered specifically crucial for brain health. Men increasingly visited barbers, who treated their beards and hair, but also nails, ears, teeth, and the skin of the upper body.

So, this was a period in which objects connected to health proliferated, especially combs. Because combs would be in close contact with excrement, it was advised that people don’t share them – and even that men use different combs for the hair and beard, to avoid contamination. Ear cleaners and toothpicks were popular too. Wealthy people could have them made of precious materials such as ivory and encrusted with jewels. (There was even a 16th-century commentator who wrote how gentlemen who wore gold toothpicks in necklaces around their necks were vulgar and showing off.)

Special soaps and herbal washes were recommended to clean the head and hair – although one should proceed with caution. Washing the hair was potentially dangerous during pregnancy, and pregnant people were advised to clean their hair with powders and combs (not unlike the ‘dry shampoo’ many of us use today). There were even tales of miscarriages being caused by hair washing during pregnancy – which meant, of course, that the woman could be blamed for the loss of pregnancy.

Baths and Skincare

In Renaissance regimens, which gave advice on how to preserve health, it was recommended that readers open the pores of the skin to cleanse it. This could be done by rubbing the skin with the hands or a cloth, usually with a herbal solution. Exercising (and especially sweating) was also believed to help open the pores and expel impurities from the body (which makes me think of contemporary ‘detox’ trends such as ‘hot yoga’!). However, the porosity of the body made it vulnerable to contamination, so readers should be mindful of excess.

Baths shouldn’t be too long or frequent, and the water shouldn’t be too hot nor too cold, but tepid. Bathing could bring health hazards with it, as the wet body left the water, and the cold air touched the open pores. Afterwards, the person should rest, to help the body recover. As other forms of bodily hygiene were adopted, bathing became increasingly less popular, although medicinal baths for specific conditions continued to be used. Baths fell out of fashion and started to become rare in domestic environments. On the other hand, basins, ewers, and towels became increasingly popular for washing the face and hands – which makes sense in a period in which many diseases were believed to be transmitted by contact with other people’s hands. With these transformations, the distinction between the medical hygiene of the body and the world of cosmetics and beauty virtually disappeared.

Hygiene and Undergarments

But one of the main ways of keeping the body clean had to do with clothing. Although most people didn’t bathe as often as we do today (although there are records of people washing daily), they cleansed their bodies in other ways. The main one, and the one most foreign to us when we think of ‘bodily hygiene’, was probably changing their bedlinens and linen underclothes often, as they collected residues expelled by the body. This was particularly important for people who menstruated. As Petronio wrote in 1602:

‘[The bath] was the discovery of the ancients for keeping the body fresh and clean, for since they did nor have the custom of wearing linen garments […] they were apt to become covered in dirt of all kinds […] but in our times since all, rich and poor alike, are accustomed to wear shirts and thereby more easily keep the body clean, the bath is neither so widely nor frequently employed as in the times of the ancients.’

If the body expelled excrement through the pores of the skin, these impurities were absorbed by clothing, which meant that changing the bedding and undergarments regularly was believed to be superior to washing, according to many health regimens and domestic manuals (although baths were recommended for children under 5 years old).

Hygiene and Health

In any case, men were largely believed to be cleaner than women, especially because of the ‘things natural to women’ – menstruation. Female bodies were imagined as being particularly ‘leaky’ and so needed further care and hygiene. Plus, with their hair often being longer, they needed to take special care to remain clean. And female bodies were believed to be much more susceptible to illness and disease, again highlighting the connection between hygiene and health.

The cleansing of the body in Renaissance Italy was about more than personal care; it was a matter of health. This meant that newly created spaces in houses, such as dressing rooms, became ever more important, and objects such as combs and brushes, too. Linen underwear also became virtually omnipresent. Although the ‘Renaissance way’ of keeping the body clean might differ from our contemporary standards, it is undeniable that people took hygiene seriously, and they tried their best to keep the body in good health.


Castore Durante, Il Tesoro della sanità (Rome, 1586).

Marsilio Ficino, De le tre vite (Venice, 1548).  

Alessandro Petronio, Del Viver delli Romani (Rome, 1592).

Further Reading:

Rudolph Bell, How to Do It: Guides to Good Living for Renaissance Italians (London, 1999).

Sandra Cavallo and Tessa Storey, Healthy Living in Late Renaissance Italy (Oxford, 2013).

Roy Porter, Patients and Practitioners: Lay Perceptions of Medicine and re-Industrial Society (Cambridge, 1985).

Share this post:
Key Concepts

What are the ‘Non-Naturals’?

When I was growing up, I was told to avoid cold showers if I was having my period. I was also not supposed to leave the house with my hair wet unless it was summer. When we travelled to the mountains, my maternal grandmother would ‘fill her lungs with forest air’. She claimed to feel instantly healthier.

We all heard similar things, but the origin of this advice is often unclear. Going beyond family anecdotes, there’s the vast world of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), from which much of this knowledge derives. Born in no small measure from a deeply felt disappointment at orthodox medicine, this discussion is often framed as an opposition between traditional and empirical knowledge and a medicalised, intervention-based, hospital-centred model of care. So, alternative medicine often focuses on lifestyle: diet, exercise, sleep, and overall well-being are taken into consideration.

Paradoxically, this feels old and new at the same time. For instance, the adoption of a more plant-based diet can be seen as a trendy choice by some today, while for others it is linked to a long tradition of accumulation of knowledge, often by marginalised communities (think of Buddhist monks, for instance).

As always, I am struck by how studying the history of medicine can help us navigate the present. But this is a (very) big topic, and I want to concentrate on the idea of ‘non-naturals’ in the past. So, first things first. If we think of a 16th-century person interested in buying a book about domestic medicine at their local fair, they would usually be able to choose between two big groups: books with recipes for common ailments, and regimens for a healthy life. The first group was usually about treating a specific problem, while the latter was about preventing disease in the first place.

From Hippocrates in the 5th century BCE to the 18th century, the main framework through which Europeans understood medicine was the humoral theory.  People had four humours (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile), and it was believed that their imbalance was responsible for illness. But humours were of course not the only factors in explaining health (or the lack thereof). If recipes were aimed at treating the sick body, regimens were guides to conserve health. Treatment and prevention were two sides of the same coin: medicine was not only a healing art but the art of preserving health.

So, how would a 16th-century person go about preventing illness? Besides keeping humours in balance (with bloodletting and similar methods), they needed to be mindful of the six ‘non-natural’ things which determined health: food/drink, exercise/rest, air, sleep, evacuation, and emotions. Described by Hippocrates and further developed by Galen in the second century CE, guidelines about the non-naturals abounded in medieval and early modern medical texts, especially regimens of health, authored by physicians. But what did they say? And how do they relate to my grandmother breathing in the pine-scented forest air?

1. Food and Drink

In the same way that people had individual constitutions, so did foods and beverages, which could be hot, cold, dry, or wet. These qualities should be taken into consideration when choosing and preparing foods and drinks. For instance, wine was believed to ‘heat’ the body, which is why it should be drunk in moderation, especially by those who had a choleric or sanguine temperament. Pregnant or nursing people should water their wine down to diminish its heat. It was believed that the stomach was responsible for concocting food before it would be distributed in the body by the blood. Because they influenced the digestive process, some foods such as raw vegetables were believed to prepare the stomach for a meal, while others would be more suited to ‘closing’ the stomach afterwards. (Have you ever wondered why the French finish a meal with cheese? That’s why.)

2. Exercise and Rest

Exercise improved bodily functions: for instance, it heated the body, promoting digestion. It opened the pores, allowing waste to leave the body through sweat. For Galen, exercise should be vigorous, accompanied by accelerated breathing. But later physicians cautioned people to be moderate and to adapt exercise to their individual needs. They could be active (such as walking) or passive (such as being transported in a carriage). Those who could not partake in strenuous activities could resort to baths or massages, which would attain similar health results. Sounds much nicer to me than jogging – and closer to a spa day!

3. Air

The air was a common cause of concern for 16th-century people. Was it cold or hot? Humid or dry? Depending on the person’s constitution, age, gender, and the season of the year, the air could have different effects. For Avicenna, the 11th-century Persian physician who so greatly influenced Western medicine, the air should be temperate: light, bright, moving gently, and smelling sweet. Corrupted air was deemed to cause plague, for instance. People were advised to purify the air with fire and scented herbs. Physicians often prescribed a change of location to their patients, in the hope that illness could be cured in a place where the air was different. The brain was thought to be particularly vulnerable to it – have you ever noticed when you visit a museum how people in the past always seem to be wearing headwear or hats in the paintings? Besides fashion, the concern with air directly influenced architecture. An ideal Italian villa in the Renaissance would have been high up to enjoy the breeze and the sun, but not too exposed to inclement winds. And don’t even think about building your dream house next to a sewer – but who would, if given the choice?

4. Sleep

Regimens of health directed people about how, for how long, and when one should sleep to maximise their health. The main concern was with digestion, as it was believed that sleep was caused by the vapours rising from the food in the stomach to the brain as it was digested. Daytime naps were not advised, as they wouldn’t be long enough for digestion to be complete. Plus, they could cause laziness. As wealthier parts of the population started to nap in the 17th century, it was thought that a wooden chair would be ideal: not too comfortable was the goal. Sleeping on your back was not advised, as these vapours could get blocked in the brain. Elevating your head and sleeping on one side would be better for digestion as well as protecting the brain. Ideally, you should switch sides every couple of hours… But I’m not sure how often people followed this advice after a rich mutton stew and wine!

5. Evacuation

Within the humoral understanding of the body, corrupt or excessive humours often needed to be purged, and impurities, expelled. The regular purging of the body was seen as essential to maintaining one’s health: bloodletting, inducing vomit, provoking sweat, as well as stimulating retained menstruation were all important parts of preventing illness – and not just treatments for it. Superfluous fluids might cause blockages if not removed from the body, and these ‘excrements’ went beyond urine and faeces. My grandmother (the paternal one this time) believed we should brush our hair vigorously, especially before bed. That would make sense to our hypothetical 16th-century person buying a book at the local fair. Combs were essential in removing the ‘excrements of the head’, and combing one’s hair was not just about vanity, but about preventing brain issues by making sure that what needed to be expelled from the body didn’t cause any obstructions. Think of barbers and their connection to medicine (especially barber surgeons). They took care of people’s hair, beards, nails, ears, teeth, and skin, mainly for hygienic purposes. They even had separate comb sets for beards and hair – you wouldn’t want any cross-contamination with your head’s excrements!

6. Emotions

The Greeks called them ‘passions’, the ‘accidents of the soul’. Today, we might talk of mental health instead. A person’s emotional life was thought to greatly affect their health. This was mainly because these fluctuations influenced the heart, responsible for heating the body through heat. Emotions would have a direct effect on the body’s temperature and, as we have seen, the balance between hot/cold and wet/dry was central in the humoral understanding of the body. So, physicians advised their patients to be careful with the passions most likely to disturb their humoral balance: someone of a choleric temperament should be careful with anger or hate, as they would make the body drier and hotter. The key was moderation, as a sudden emotional change could trigger disease or even death. Remember all the stories of people dying from a broken heart in literature? The non-naturals are behind that idea.

The non-naturals are a vast topic, in the same way that the humoral theory is. Understandings of both varied greatly across time and space, and this text can only hope to give the briefest introduction to this subject. Whole books can be (and have been) written about each of the non-naturals. I hope that the fun examples I chose helped to illustrate the logic behind this way of thinking about how what we would today call ‘lifestyle’ affects the body and health. My grandmothers might have been a bit off with their advice. But they were the heirs to a long tradition of trying to be as healthy as possible and to live a long life – and isn’t that what we all want?


Avicenna, A Treatise on the Canon of Medicine of Avicenna (London: Luzat, 1930).

Castore Durante, Il Tesoro della Sanità (Venice: Andrea Muschio, 1586).

Rodrigo Fonseca, Del Conservare la Sanità (Florence: Semartelli, 1603).

Galen, De sanitate tuenda: A Translation of Galen’s Hygiene (Springfield: Thomas, 1951).

Hippocrates, Airs, Waters, Places (London: W. Heinemann, 1923).

Bartolomeo Paschetti, Del Conservar la Sanità (Genoa: Giuseppe Pavoni, 1602).

Further Reading:

Sandra Cavallo and Tessa Storey, Healthy Living in Late Renaissance Italy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

David Gentilcore, Food and Health in Early Modern Europe: Diet, Medicine and Society (1450-1800) (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).

Sasha Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016).

Share this post: