It’s a bit of a myth that people in the Middle Ages were dirty. We know from contemporary instruction books that fairly high standards of hygiene that were expected at mealtimes at least. Much has been made, however, of the fact that instruction books were needed at all. This must mean, say some, that there were many people whose standards of behaviour and cleanliness were lower than they should have been, and that’s probably true. The same thing applies today, however. We would not need such reminders as ‘Now wash your hands’ in public toilets if everyone complied with that basic hygiene requirement. I would suggest that we accept that, as far as they were able, most people in the Middle Ages did wash their hands before meals.
Instruction books for monks also included directions about cleanliness. The wonderfully-named ‘Babees Book’ was written to instruct the novices at Barnwell Priory. It includes the instruction “The youthful monk is bidden to wash his hands before meals.” Given that some monks in the early days of monasticism could be children, such an instruction is not unexpected. Even these days it’s difficult to get young boys to wash their hands. In the Middle Ages, food was eaten with a knife and fingers from a common dish. Dirty hands would not have been welcome at the table. The place where monks washed their hands was the lavatorium. Don’t confuse this with the latrine, which we’ll come to later. This was a place for washing only.
The lavatorium was usually by the entrance to the refectory, but it was sometimes in the open area surrounded by the cloisters. Wherever it was, the lavatorium had a roof and was large enough to allow access to several monks at the same time. I’m not entirely convinced that I’ve captured what remains of the lavatorium at Roche Abbey in the photograph of the refectory above, as I wasn’t looking for it at the time, but it’s on the left in the middle distance if it’s there at all. Here’s a link to a wonderful example of a lavatorium at Wenlock Priory, which I’ve seen several times but don’t seem to have photographed.
The lavatorium at Roche Abbey was fed by a spring. The water travelled through pipes that filled a shallow basin running along the wall. The basins and troughs in lavatoria would have been lined with lead. The lavatorium was also used on Saturday afternoons when the abbot washed the monks’ feet as a mark of humility. This was supposed to be done in all monasteries, but given a growing tendency for abbots to live in a separate building in the monastic grounds as the Middle Ages went on, I suspect it was a practice that fell increasingly out of use.
Not only was the lavatorium at Roche Abbey filled with water from pipes, but there were also drains to take the water away. Dirty water wasn’t allowed to stand for long. This was the case in most lavatoria.
The monks washed and shaved here after Prime each morning. They shaved in order of seniority, with the senior monks benefiting from the hot water and sharp razors. Clean towels were kept nearby. It was the job of the fraterer to ensure that there were sufficient clean towels ready for use.
The photograph below is irrelevant to this post’s subject, but I was very taken with the little bridges over the stream that runs through Roche Abbey and I doubt they’ll come up again.