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:

Opening up the Mother: Caesarean Sections and the Romans


Discussion of issues related to violence, murder, and suicide

Some persistent myths haunt historians. One of my personal pet peeves is the idea that Julius Caesar was born through a caesarean section. The name Caesar supposedly came from the cut maternal uterus: caeso matris utero, in Latin. Which doesn’t make any sense. The main reason for this is that, until quite recently (late 17th century, at the earliest), caesarean sections were not performed in Europe until the pregnant person was dead. They were called sectio in mortua, literally the ‘cutting of the dead woman’. And we know that Caesar’s mother, Aurelia, lived for decades after she gave birth to him.

So… No caesarean section in Caesar’s case. But why did people believe that Julius Caesar had been born in this fascinating way for so long? Caesar’s birth story has been retold for centuries. For instance, in a 15th-century manuscript preserved in Florence, a reader interested in Caesar’s birth could learn that

He was called Caesar because his mother died before he was born, and she was cut open, and he was pulled alive from her body.
Brief History of the Roman Emperors (Florence, 1479).

There were many similar retellings of this famous birth in manuscript form and, from the 16th century onwards, in print.

There is no evidence (that I know of) that caesarean sections were performed in ancient Rome. There was a period during which Roman law required babies to be extracted from their mother’s womb if she died in childbirth so that they could be buried separately (the infant rarely survived), but these were uncommon occurrences. However, that may be precisely why such a unique and mythic birth would be attributed to Caesar, who was understood as the heroic founder of the Roman empire. Nor was Caesar the only Roman whose caesarean delivery fascinated people. As Ovid wrote in his Metamorphoses, Asclepius (the god of medicine) was born in a similar way. His father, Apollo, had fallen in love with the nymph Coronis, whom he impregnated and later killed in a fit of jealousy. Regretting his crime immediately, Apollo decided to cut the nymph’s body open and save their baby. The remorseful father became a surgeon, symbolising Asclepius’s connection to medicine (and, indeed, Apollo’s).

Both Caesar and Asclepius’ births were retold through the centuries, but a common narrative aspect of these births was how auspicious they were. These men didn’t depend on their mothers: the mother acted as a vessel to the baby, having no active role in its delivery. (Or after that, as caesarean sections implied the mother’s death.)

Julius Caesar’s birth story was entangled with the story of the birth of the Roman empire, which symbolically started with the opening of the maternal womb. In many of these retellings, this is also how the empire’s story ended, too. With Nero, the end of the lineage was symbolised by another opened womb: his mother’s. In the same Florentine manuscript in which Caesar’s birth was described, it was written that

He [Nero] had his mother killed to see where he had been, so he had her opened. […] Then he ordered the philosophers to make him pregnant so that he could have a son who resembled him, as he doubted his wife would bear him legitimate children. The philosophers did so by putting a frog inside his body.
Brief History of the Roman Emperors

Nero was so intrigued by pregnancy that he had his mother, Agrippina, eviscerated and her womb inspected. His project of becoming pregnant himself not only ensured his paternity but also eliminated women from the dynastic conversation altogether.

In the 13th-century Golden Legend, writer Jacobus de Voragine added that, after physicians had told the emperor that his mother’s murder and dissection and his impregnation were unthinkable, Nero threatened to kill them, and the physicians conceded. So, they made him a drink containing the frog mentioned above. They gave it to the emperor, and the frog grew in Nero’s belly, with the emperor thinking he was carrying a baby. Finally, he couldn’t stand the exhaustion of pregnancy anymore and begged his physicians to end it. They made him vomit, giving birth through the mouth, and out came ‘a frog horrible to see, covered in evil humours and blood’.  Nero committed suicide, his maternal evisceration and subsequent pregnancy symbolising imperial decadence and wickedness.

For people reading these texts in the late medieval and early modern periods, the mirroring stories of Nero and Caesar would be familiar. The Roman Empire began and ended with an opened womb: Caesar’s tale was a heroic model, while Nero’s fate was a cautionary tale. Written in the vernacular, these descriptions of Roman history circulated widely. Caesar’s mother was a good woman: she lived and died to give birth to her husband’s heir. Aurelia was a model of sacrificing the (female) individual to the (male) collective. Nero’s mother, Agrippina, didn’t even have a voice in most of these texts: she was a tragic victim of her son’s folly.

However, in both cases (as well as in the story of Asclepius’ birth), these opened wombs constituted a common motif in visual arts, from paintings to the decoration of homes and furniture, especially in Northern Italy. But why?

It’s no coincidence that Caesar’s birth appeared in so many manuscripts in early modern Florence. This mythical Roman history was crucial to shaping Florentine nobles’ aristocratic values and identity. Other stories in which male agency and power forced female submission (such as the rape of the Sabine women) were commonly used to decorate homes and reinforce patriarchal values.

Regardless of *what really happened* in Ancient Rome (another expression historians usually hate), these unique stories could fascinate, shock, and entertain centuries later: but we can argue that they also served to remind people (and especially women) of the ‘natural’ order, with women subjugated by men. Whether it was Caesar’s moral tale of feminine sacrifice, Nero’s horrific story of matricide and unnatural ‘self-impregnation’, or Asclepius’ destiny to become a divine healer, these stories had in common powerful, alive men and disempowered, dead women.

*All translations are my own.


Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend (London: 1470).

Philippa Bright and Diane Speed (eds), Oxford Medieval Texts: The Anglo-Latin Gesta Romanorum: from Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce MS 310 (Oxford: 2019)

Brief History of the Roman Emperors (Florence, BNCF, ms. Palat. 471: 1479).

Ovid, Metamorphoses (Oxford: 2004) edited by R. J. Tarrant.

Further reading:

Katharine Park, Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection (New York: 2006).

Share this post: