According to sources such as Hollywood, history textbooks, and the word on the street, the Middle Ages were a thousand-year grunge revival in which everybody walked around covered in fleas and mud.
According to such sources as Hollywood, history textbooks, and the word on the street, the Middle Ages were a thousand-year grunge revival in which everybody walked around covered in fleas and mud and you could tell a person’s class by the particular stench of their balls. This is total bullshit. I know this because I just spent two weeks adhering strictly to premodern hygiene techniques and aside from a few skid marks, unexplained sores, heavy dandruff, lots of smegma, and a possible case of Saint Anthony’s fire, I turned out fine. Here’s how it went.
THE BASIC RULES
I was not allowed to indulge in any sanitary practices developed before the Age of Enlightenment, and I had to wear the same set of clothes for all 14 days. I went with an all-white ensemble because I wanted to keep track of the grime. I also thought it gave the whole endeavor a sort of Fitzcarraldo expeditionary vibe, but I’m only able to admit that now, after the fact.
I am what you might call “lackadaisical” about cleaning myself in the first place, so the only thing separating my first few days of medieval hygiene from three days of my regular hygiene was pissing. I’d initially decided to go al fresco, a move I’ve perfected over many nights of drinking. But then I discovered that pissing on the sidewalk, sober, at 10 in the morning feels like a dress rehearsal for exposing yourself to a kindergarten class. So I got a chamber pot.
These are probably the best thing to happen to peeing since the bladder. There were a couple of basics I had to get down, like holding the pot up to my crotch instead of trying to aim into it on the floor and never starting full-stream. But after mopping up a couple early loads with my sleeve, the whole apartment was now my bathroom.
The only downside was emptying the pot. Heaving it out the window doesn’t work since I live above my landlord (it’s also been illegal since the 500 BC Roman dejecti effusive act). Most mornings I would just dump it out in the gutter between a couple of parked cars or, if I was feeling particularly civic, the storm drain at the end of the block. It took me three days to figure out that you have to pitch the urine if you don’t want it dribbling all over your pants.
After two days of neglect, the plaque at my gums started to shift from faint yellow to ocher and I was increasingly finding deposits of caramelized soda in the top of my crowns. My girlfriend classified the scent of my breath as somewhere between the smells of garbage and human crap.
Miswak is a weird Middle Eastern stick that Mohammed loved so much he should have married it. It’s just a twig that frays down into a decent toothbrush, but that didn’t stop the prophet from bringing it up in the Hadith every chance he got. Nor does it stop present-day miswak exporters from claiming it “strengthens the back,” “keeps away devil-thought,” and is the “cure of every disease except death.”
I gave the stick a dry run, at which point I learned that miswak tastes eerily similar to the smell of urinal cakes. Then, following an ancient Egyptian recipe, I ground up a bowl of ox hooves, pumice, burned eggshells, and myrrh and whipped it into a thin, grainy paste with some of my spit. This concoction sounds pretty gross and it felt a lot like I was buffing my teeth with sand, but guess what? It is basically the same thing as contemporary toothpaste, give or take a little fluoride. Without being too much of a skirt about it, it got the job done.
I’m a fairly infrequent shitter, so I was lucky to enjoy a three-day honeymoon period with my chamber pot in which it was a urine-only receptacle. Eventually, inevitably, I was forced to break the seal and drop a log in there. This was a shame because, as I came to discover, no matter how carefully you piss away the little brown flecks on the side, you will never kill the smell.
Still, shitting in a pot was a lot easier than I thought it was going to be. All you have to do is make sure you’re squatting over the right place, tuck back your dignity for a couple seconds, and gingerly let rip. This seems counterintuitive, but I found that it helps to have a teensy pool of urine at the bottom of the pot—not enough to splash back, but just a little puddle for the turd to land in so it doesn’t instantly graft itself to the pot’s ceramic surface. I consider this discovery on par with the invention of modern plumbing, as it transformed the process of dumping my shit by the East River on the way to work from a terrifying five- to ten-minute ordeal into a simple stop-and-slop.
WIPING, PART THE FIRST
At the beginning of Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, young Gargantua uses rudimentary science to figure out the best ass-wiping material in the world. Turns out it’s the neck of a well-downed goose. The runners-up include bedsheets, a march cat, calf’s skin, a lady’s velvet mask, several pillows, and a penitent’s hood.
I couldn’t get my hands on any of these to use, but I did try subbing in my t-shirt for the bedsheets. Wiping your ass with a soft linen is one of the most luxurious sensations on earth, but only until your ass is clean. After that you’re stuck trying to figure out whether to shove the shit-encrusted cloth in the chamber pot or clean it with your piss, as the Romans liked to do. I’d already emptied my bladder and didn’t feel like saving the shirt in the shower for later, so I smushed down my freshly steaming loaf to make room in the pot. That was not fun.
The bread-and-butter of my wiping was the old nautical standby of fruit. On my first try, I used a couple of bananas peeled very carefully down one side. My first impulse was to hold the skin by the outside and wipe with the fleshy innards. Total amateur hour. It felt like I was applying a cool, refreshing wet wipe to my shitty ass, but all it accomplished was coating the feces in a sticky layer of banana meat. Even worse, because there was no dook visible on the used peel, I assumed I was done. The banana residue carried me for a few hours upright, but the second I sat down, the entire inseam of my boxers looked like it’d been dipped in cake frosting.
Orange peels worked a little bit better, although after a night stewing in my own juices they made the chamber pot reek like nothing I’ve smelled in my life. One thing I realized is that the size of the fruit doesn’t matter. Peels with a big surface area like grapefruit may prevent you from sticking a finger up your ass, but unless you take an entire crate with you to the bathroom, you’re still going to walk away with at least a light spackling of dung. That might just be me, though.
SMELL, PART THE FIRST
By day 4, I had a pretty good goat going. Nothing crazy, but enough to make folks sitting near me ask “Who’s smoking weed?” anytime my coworker’s desk fan passed over my armpit. While the medieval consensus was to let this sort of small shit slide, the Egyptians used little balls of porridge as deodorant. Seeing as how they built the pyramids instead of a bunch of lousy churches, I decided to go with them on this one.
I cooked up some oatmeal, let it cool, and slopped it under my arm. After a couple seconds, the porridge slime congealed into a thin, gluelike film that completely sealed off the smell for two days. The oats, on the other hand, embedded themselves in my skin like deer ticks. Thanks, oats.
Putting on my second layer of porridge several days later, I noticed several dime-size spots of blood on my undershirt that didn’t correspond with anything on my body. While looking for their source, I also turned up a large welt, complete with pus, an inch above my left elbow. Everyone thought it was gross, but I saw them as medieval beauty marks meet stigmata.
The Roman method of pissing on your clothes to clean them sounds crazy enough to work (especially if you know that urine contains trace amounts of broken-down ammonia). I tried this out on one sleeve of my shirt, but no matter how hard I rinsed and scrubbed, I couldn’t get the pee smell out. I guess the Romans were OK with that.
Entering week 2, my hair was like Ally Sheedy’s in The Breakfast Club (but without the cuteness), so I decided to look into some olde-time product.
Anticipating their descendents’ style by a good 3,000 years, the ancient Israelis concocted a simple, volumizing hair gel from ash and pine oil. After rubbing a few dollops of this into my scalp, I looked like a cartoon bomb had gone off in my hands and I smelled like hamster chips. Later I learned that each of the cowlicks I’d given myself with this crap is now permanent.
Having spent a week caked in at least a little shit, I decided it was time to, as they say in British erotica, “pamper my bottom.” The xylosphongium is an ancient Roman wiper that consists of a sea sponge soaked in salt water and tied to the end of a stick.
This thing is so much better than a wad of paper it’s ridiculous. The only trick is remembering to keep one side of the sphongium dry for the final wipe.
By day 8, “Who’s smoking weed?” had devolved into “Who’s frying dog shit?” and I’d been relegated to an empty corner of the office on account of smelling like homelessness. I was still smearing porridge under my arms, but after the second batch, the smell of oats merely commingled with the stench instead of quashing it.
But even my pit stink was no match for the centimeter-deep layer of tallow coating the entire surface of my balls and tinting the base of my cock breakfast-sausage gray. I learned long ago, on drugs, not to ask other people if they can smell your crotch, but now the curiosity was destroying me. Every time I sat down in a chair, my face ended up nose-level with a cloud of dick cheese.
Since Egyptian hygiene had failed me, I decided to move a few thousand years forward to the Greeks. Loosely following a recipe by first-century pharmacist Pedanius Dioscorides, I made a perfume from myrrh and the roots of various flowers steeped in boiling olive oil. After straining out the plant crap, I rubbed the unguent all over my body (except for my balls—they were literally too greasy for it to stick) and got ready to go out. I’m not very good with fragrances, but the result smelled somewhere between head shop and one of those bookstores that sell crystals. I think it may also have contained the pheromone well-to-do Greeks used to seduce other guys, because no girl would talk to me for longer than 20 seconds at a time.
At midnight of day 15—at the insistence of literally every person I know—I slid into the tub and watched two weeks’ hard work flake off my body in visible chunks. Overall I feel like I did a pretty good job of keeping my worst odors concealed by the lesser ones. Unfortunately, the one smell I could never mask was the acrid funk of prejudice. Maybe someday the rest of the world will wake up to how good we used to have it, but for now I guess it’s back to wiping my ass with a piece of paper like some kind of sucker.