The French Middle Ages take up the old standards of cleanliness by the washing of hands and faces. The moment of these ablutions is announced by a horn or a trumpet. In the XVth Century, this custom has not completely disappeared.
At the bottom of the donjon, the sound of a horn is suddenly heard. Sometimes several horn-blowers unite for this purpose. This means that the meal is ready to be served, but it particularly means that it is time to wash your hands.
When the water is “blown”, nobles and middle-classes, young and old, ladies and barons, all arrive, claiming the eve or aive. The servants, in the order of the rank of the guests, pour water over their hands, then present them with touailles or towels.
You only wash what can be seen. All that is visible – hands, face, linen – must be clean. The rest doesn’t matter. The washing of hands is not connected to any notion of hygiene. It is only a question of appearance, which explains the ritual surrounding ablutions.
The Middle Age man is wary of water. A body immerged in water for too long becomes vulnerable. The skin softens, water infiltrates, and destroys the organism. The washing of hands is above all a social act. To give “hand water” to someone is a gesture of politeness and friendship, which is often mentioned in courtly writings of the time.
In noble houses, little fountains, each with a tap and a basin under it to receive the water, are put at the disposition of guests.
Collective wash-bowls or lavatoria, are found principally in convents and other religious establishments. The opening which gives access to this sort of room is generally divided into two equal parts by a pillar or a column, so that the monks can enter from one side and leave by the other, after having circled the wash-room.
The monks wash their hands and faces there. It is only on Saturdays that they have a more complete wash, elsewhere.
Three hand towels are hung in the cloister, one for each category of monk. It is also at the cloister fountain that it is customary to wash the dead before burying them.
Instruments of show and symbols of a certain life-style, wash-bowls are also very numerous in dining-rooms. Sometimes of big dimensions and permanently fixed, in lead, stone, marble or bronze. Sometimes mobile and placed in a little alcove in a wall, or supported by a console, or placed on an iron stand.
The big one, consisting in a long basin or a trough with taps or gargoyles, is more often found in abbeys, where a great number of people come to “wash” themselves at one time, before and after meals.
In castles and homes, a vase and a basin are sufficient for ordinary needs. They are presented to the masters of the house and their guests when they are about to sit down to a meal, and again at the moment of leaving the table.
However, the alcoves which still exist in a lot of ancient castles show that the wash-basins are sometimes of quite considerable dimensions, and that a particular place is assigned to them.
There is a whole ceremonial to be observed for this washing of the hands before a meal. D’Assoucy writes that the ceremony of the washing of hands and of the taking of one’s place is one third longer than the dinner.
A society object, the wash-basin is as much in use among the middle-classes as among the lords. This is why the latter soon think up a way of modifying such an un-aristocratic fashion and imagine hand-basins.
Equerries respectfully bring metal basins, more or less engraved, to the side of each guest, who is already seated in front of the table. Some dip their fingers. Others pretend to wash them. They start with the host, then stop in front of the highest ranking lords and ladies. The hand-basin is presented by a young squire or sergeant, who has been improperly called a page.
In a gentleman’s home, the squire has the towel rolled around his arm. In a king’s home, or at the homes of princes of royal blood, it is folded on his shoulder. He presents “for hand washing”, by slightly raising the vase, ceremoniously, and holding it above the basin, starting with the highest ranking people. If there is no more water, wine is used.
Hand-basins are sometimes of a rare magnificence. The edges are strewn with fleurs-de-lys or leaves arranged like grape-bearing vines. Others carry the arms of the House to which they belong.
The Rohans, the Beaumanoirs have their hand-basins. Louis d’Anjou, Charles V, Charles VI possess very richly decorated ones, according to their inventories.
The Duke of Anjou has no less than sixty, “all of them golden, enamelled or of white silver”. Charles V possesses more than seventy in silver, and twenty-four in gold.
Countess Mahaut d’Artois (beginning of XIVth Century) has four silver basins, costing one hundred pounds. Some are used by her to wash her hands. Others, deeper, to wash her head. The accounts of her hotel frequently mention the buying of soap and of “cinders for washing the head of Madame”.
It is to be noted that women lived then from this profession. An example is “Aline, the washer of heads, residing in Paris, Rue des Ecrivains, in the Parish of Saint-Severin”.
Third part tomorrow.