Soap in the Fourteenth Century

B for Bath

There are a few things that were made during the fourteenth century that make me wonder why people thought that adding two (or more) specific things together would make something that they could use. For example, medieval ink was made from water, ground oak apples, gum and a rusty nail. I can understand why they thought the first three ingredients might work, but the addition of the rusty nail baffles me. Did someone drop it into the mix by accident or did he add it with some understanding of what might happen?

It’s the same thing with soap. Why would anyone think that adding lye to olive oil, or tallow (rendered animal fat) if you were making it in England, would make something you could wash with? 

It makes sense that people thought of lye (in this instance produced from potash) as a cleaning material. I mentioned last week that lye was used to bleach linen. It’s a caustic solution, though, and not the first thing that would come to mind when you’re thinking about cleaning your skin.

I should add that there are different types of lye, dependent on the type of plant involved. Lye was produced by mixing water with the ash of plants (usually wood, but other plants were also used), allowing it to stand for a while and then pouring off the water. The water was evaporated to concentrate the liquid and then added to the oil/fat.

Soap was used for washing clothes and, to a lesser extent, bodies.  Castile soap was the best quality soap available. As its name indicates, it came from Spain. It was made with olive oil and local potash. It came in hard cakes and was less caustic than soaps made in countries further north. It cost about 4d a cake, about two-thirds of a day’s wages for a skilled labourer in England. The white version was for cleaning the skin and the black version was for cleaning cloth. Similar types of soap were eventually made in Italy and Provence when they began importing soda ash from Egypt and Syria.

In England softer, more liquid soaps were made using tallow. They were white, grey and black and were used for cleaning cloth. They were fairly caustic, leaving washerwomen with blistered hands and legs.

Not surprisingly, for most people washing their skin meant using nothing more than water.


The Time Traveller’s Guide to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer

Power and Profit: The Medieval Merchant in Europe by Peter Spufford


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:













Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life

30 responses to “Soap in the Fourteenth Century

  1. Losing the Plot

    I wish I had references for you. I remember a conversation with my RE teacher back at school, he mentioned that soap came to be discovered after cleaning up after burnt offerings, but that would be way back in ancient history . I don’t know if he read this or if it was just a theory.

    As for the rusty nail, mordants used to fix dye in cloth are nearly always metallic so I would hazard a guess that someone took knowledge from cloth making and applied it to ink. You are still left with the same question though, all be it about cloth, of ‘what made you think putting these ingredients together was a good idea?”

    Liked by 4 people

    • Soap is supposed to be ancient. Now that I’ve posted it, though, I’ve realised that I didn’t put two and two together. The Romans used oil for cleaning themselves, so why not put two cleaning substances together to make a better cleaning substance?

      Liked by 3 people

  2. I know the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians all used types of soap. The former included olive oil in the mixture.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. I get hand made soaps from a blogger in Poland, I must find out how it is done now and if there are similarities.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I guess, once the notion of having soap was set, perfecting the recipe would become a goal. I’m a totally unrelated trend, I’ve been watching for decades the slow evolution of wood-fillers. We still don’t have one that dries hard and accepts stain as well as the wood around it, but we’re getting closer. The trend has always been along two tracks – wax and dye or sawdust and some form of glue. These are things furniture makers would have handy.

    I like to think we have always been curious and that someone has always been trying to improve the things they work with. Perhaps the guy who tossed the rusty nail in the ink was trying to clean the nail.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. lydiaschoch

    I’ve always assumed that soap was created accidentally the first few times until people realized how useful it was. It definitely doesn’t seem like something anyone would make on purpose based on the ingredients!

    Liked by 4 people

  6. The rusty nail!I love it…’sure I’ll just throw one of these in..’ I know what you mean though when you wonder how people arrived at recipes for things…I guess thats why we need people willing to ‘go off the reservation’ and mess around…now Im wondering about all those experiments that ended in disaster…

    Liked by 4 people

  7. The “how on earth did they think of that?” question is one that frequently occurs to me, too. As Dan Antion suggests, a lot may be a process of gradual improvement and refinement. The occasional accidental effect seems very likely, too. Strange combinations haven’t always worked, so we’ll know more about the successes than the failures. Think of all those horrid medical concoctions that often combined genuinely beneficial herbs with downright disgusting things. Trial and error!

    Liked by 4 people

  8. As a teenager, I helped in a reenactment of Colonial American folkways.
    One of the things I did was stir soap. I was told that the stronger the lye, the harsher the soap. Hardwood trees made most of the ashes used by colonists, and the fat was usually from hogs.

    Hog fat was far commoner. Hogs were more economical to raise to butcher weight. But I don’t know if hogs were as common to the medieval folk as they were to their colonial progeny, and if lard was a soap ingredient at that time.

    Tallow had many other uses, such as for candles & in munitions.
    Cattle were mostly mixed breeds that were used for oxen and milk, as well as eating. It was rare for ordinary folk to have beef cattle just for themselves. Beef was a commodity that could be sold to the Royal Navy and the upper
    crust. The tallow of colonial cattle was quite lucrative.

    From this, & knowing that most New England colonists were from Britain, I am assuming they carried their knowledge of soap making from the mother land. One of the demonstrators used strong lye soap to scrub the wooden floors of a cabin. The results looked almost bleached! She used a coarse broom for scrubbing. Doubtless the colonial housewife was on her knees to scrub HER floor, just like her medieval foremother! And she also likely had bloody & cracked hands. No wonder even ordinary colonial wives often had hired girls. They were cheap and no one cared about their health.

    There must have been a way to make lye soaps a little kindlier to human skin, but perhaps it was expensive. I do know of a recipe that called for adding some honey. Why, I have no idea.

    This may be comparing cheese and chalk, but it does give a perspective of an age that still used some medieval practices for basic survival.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. I am fascinated by soap making and have always wondered just how people discovered these complex processes. Have you heard about using conkers to wash clothes? Apparently they have saponin in them like soap nuts. You smash them and grind them up. I am very tempted to try it myself this autumn. If I do, I will let you know!

    Liked by 3 people

  10. It’s so fascinating isn’t it? It does sound like three very random ingredients chucked in together but obviously it worked.

    Liked by 4 people

  11. There’s a wildflower in the UK called soapwort, or Saponaria officinalis to give it its official name. Both the roots and the leaves are traditionally used as soap for people & clothes.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. I’d like to think it was happy accident, too! Love that you used Ian Mortimer’s book for your research; it’s such a great source. I’ll have to dive back in and find where he talks about soap history again!

    Liked by 2 people

  13. American colonists used two basic soaps; soft & hard. Soft soap was kept in a barrel or keg.

    Hard soap was poured into a wooden frame with a thick cloth liner. When partially set, the slab was pulled out of the frame & cut into blocks, which were separated & placed on shelves to dry. Once dried (or “cured”) enough, they could be stored in boxes in dry places, such as under beds. This could take days or even weeks, depending upon weather and types of fat & quality of lye used.

    The harder the soap, the better it lasted. Ground pumice or fine sand could be added to hard soap to help clean really dirty hands. Even today, pumice is added to soaps for that purpose or to use on calloused skin.

    Since all soap “sets” eventually, even soft soap, the barrel or keg needed to be completely used up in a certain time. I remember seeing dried crusts of soap around the rim of the barrel, which was scraped off & used. Waste not want not!

    I remember my grandmother shaving blocks of laundry soap for her washes.
    She didn’t think the new powdered detergents worked as well. She would unwrap her bars & set them on a shelf to dry harder, which she said made better suds. Don’t know if it was true, but she sure was set in her ways! I guess she was doing what her colonial foremothers did. I’m kind of sorry my generation broke the tradition.

    All this had to have been learned generation by generation. Too bad so little was written about the household tasks of medieval women! Thankfully, little had changed from the 14th through the 18th centuries in the subject of soap!

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Pingback: Thursday, 10/24: Vocab + Relay, Proofreading, TMA – Mr. Coward's Seventh Grade English

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