So, there you are in your new seventeenth century life. Yes, you still hate the clothes, but you’ve gotten the hang of lacings and garters by now and at least they fill the function of ensuring you’re adequately covered. You still think the clothes stink a bit – natural, as they are but rarely washed – but don’t worry, give it a couple of weeks and you won’t notice.
What does irk you is the fact that you haven’t had a proper wash since you got here, four days ago. You keep on hoping that you’ll come upon some sort of bathing house, but no matter how many alleys and streets you’ve walked up and down, you’ve found nothing. Give up. Wrong century for bathing houses. While most European cities did have communal bathing houses – thank you, dear Romans – well into medieval times (in some cases beyond), by now such institutions are closed, being considered veritable hot beds of sin. Maybe they were, but they also offered the opportunity of now and then soaking in relatively clean water. Note the relatively – people shared tubs to save on the water carrying.
But here, in the seventeenth century, people that live in the towns and cities have a far more restrictive view on keeping clean. They have to, as clean water is hard to find in the urban centres where God knows what ends up in the rivers and streams that flow through them. At times, it can even be an issue to find drinking water. This is not considered a major problem; who wants to drink water anyway? No, people in northern Europe prefer beer, lots and lots of beer. And if you drink a lot of beer, you will sooner or later need to pee, and the chamber pot will be emptied out in the gutter, the rain will wash it all down to … yupp, the river.
You can live with the beer (quite good, actually). You can’t live with the way your skin itches after well over a week without a drop of water anywhere close to it. Tough. At most you’ll get a pitcher of doubtfully clean water and a basin, and so you must learn the fine art of washing things in order. Face first. Hands. Torso. Limbs. Genitals. Feet. By the time you’re done the water in the basin is scummy with a combination of grime and lye soap. You can comfort yourself with the fact that at least you’re cleaner than most of the people around you. Oh; that’s not a comfort? Never mind, you’ll get used to it.
If you’re a woman, you might have ended up working as someone’s maid. Congrats, today is laundry day, and you’ll have one full day with so much water around you you should be thrilled to bits. But soaking soiled linen into vats of boiling water and lye, hours after hours of scrubbing sheets and shirts and petticoats and even more shirts leave you borderline dead from exhaustion. Your hands are bright red after a whole day immersed in lye and water and when the master decides to make the most of the ongoing laundry and change his shirt (What? he hasn’t worn it more than a week!) you would gladly strangle him. By sunset all you want to do is sleep – yes, there is hot water in the cauldron, and the rinsing through could serve as some sort of primitive bath but you’re too tired, too wet.
One thing that is very difficult to keep clean in the absence of water is your hair. Every now and then you might resort to a dry shampooing, which in practice means you dust flour or something over your tresses and then brush it out, hoping to reduce the general greasiness. And given that this new life of yours includes sharing cramped beds with other, rather dirty people, you will soon make the acquaintance of head lice. They itch something awful and you’re in a mild state of shock. You’ve never, ever had lice before! There, there; try dousing your head with vinegar, it might help. Or you can resort to using a fine tooth comb and combing them out of your hair. Takes ages …
Another thing that worries you is your teeth. No toothpaste, no toothbrush, and what on earth do you do if you break off a piece – not entirely unlikely given what you now and then find in the food. Relax. Teeth can be kept clean with twigs. You just chew the end of a twig into a brush (birch is good for this purpose) and go at it. So no major issue, even if there will be mornings when you wake up with the breath of a dead dog longing for the cleansing crisp taste of Colgate’s. Chew on a mint leaf or two.
By now you’ve lived this new life of yours for a couple of months. You no longer reflect on how people smell, you no longer panic over not keeping clean – nobody else does more than wash their face and hands so why should you? But every night before joining your bedmates you clean your teeth. It reminds you of home, of another place and another time lost to you forever. Sometimes it makes you want to cry. Mostly you’re too tired to do more than yawn.