A first thy Poet, never let him lacke

A comely cleanly Shirt unto his backe. 
Cleane Linnen, is my Mistris, and my Theme

—John Taylor, In Praise of Cleane Linen (1624)

With prayers said, it was time to prepare the body for the day. Washing the body with hot soapy water was obviously a stupid and dangerous thing to do in a world wherein disease entered the body through the open pores of the skin. Only a fool would expose himself or herself to the evil miasmas that carried plague, sweating sickness and smallpox from person to person. The physician Thomas Moulton, in his This is the Myrrour or Glasse of Helth of 1545, spelt it out: ‘Also use no baths or stoves; nor swet too much, for all openeth the pores of a manne’s body and maketh the venomous ayre to enter and for to infecte the bloode.’ The medical advice of the era was clear: avoid places where the air was stagnant, or where vapours rose from marshes, pools, tanyards and muck heaps; keep the air about you fresh and sweet-smelling; keep the pores of your skin tightly sealed, and cover the body as fully as possible.

While sickness was generally viewed as an imbalance within the body, infection was seen as an outside agency that arose from places of putrefaction and drifted in the air like seeds or spores. There were several ways that the more noxious fumes could enter the body, the main infection route being the mouth and nose. The pores of the skin were a secondary route but one that could at least be guarded against by the adoption of a sensible personal hygiene routine, one that maintained the skin as a solid barrier. Clean clothes were therefore essential for health, in particular the layer that touched the skin. Ideally no wool, leather or silk would be in direct contact with your body, as these were difficult to clean. Linen shirts, smocks, under-breeches, hose, ruffs, cuffs, bands, coifs (skull-caps) and caps could be combined by the two sexes to give total coverage in a form that permitted regular vigorous laundry. Each time you changed or ‘shifted’ this linen layer, you would remove the dirt, grease and sweat that had accumulated. The more regularly you changed your underwear, the healthier and cleaner you would be. Linen was considered to be especially effective at this job as it was absorbent, so it actively drew the grease and sweat away from the skin into the weave of the cloth, like a sponge soaking up a spillage.

In addition to providing clean clothes, linen could also be employed to cleanse the body actively. In Sir Thomas Elyot’s book The Castel of Helth (1534), he recommends that the morning routine should include a session whereby a man was to ‘rubbe the body with a course lynnen clothe, first softely and easilye, and after to increase more and more, to a harde and swyfte rubbynge, untyll the fleshe do swelle, and be somewhat ruddy, and that not only downe ryghte, but also overthwart and round’. This would ensure that ‘his body is clensed’. This vigorous rubbing, especially if done after exercise, was intended to help draw out the body’s toxins through the open pores, with the unwanted bodily matter then being carried away by the coarse linen cloth. ‘Rubbing cloths’ or ‘body cloths’, despite their very low financial value, occasionally turn up in inventories of people’s goods.

Most people seem to have owned only two or three sets of underwear. Many people bequeathed some of their clothes in their wills, and others turn up in probate inventories. Charitable institutions also found it necessary to provide underwear for their inmates. St Bartholomew’s Hospital in Smithfield, London, provided shirts for men and smocks for women when it was ‘needful either at their coming in or departure’, highlighting perhaps the woeful state, or even complete lack, of decent underwear among some of the poor and sick who sought out their help. Since St Bartholomew’s was a medical hospital treating the sick, the perceived therapeutic effects of clean linen may well have been a major motivation for the governors of the hospital to provide the incoming patients with underwear. Providing patients with underwear when they were discharged, however, would have been more to do with the social propriety of clean linens.

The picture that we can put together is one in which linen underwear was an essential part of cleanliness and respectability, but was not always achievable. All clothing was expensive, and while shirts and hose were generally cheaper than doublets and gowns, they still represented a significant investment. Towards the end of the sixteenth century a basic canvas shirt suitable for a poor person cost around two shillings new. A second-hand shirt with plenty of wear still left in it could be valued at one shilling and six pence, while an old worn-out shirt fit for turning into dishcloths could be worth only two pence. Meanwhile, bread—the cheapest of all food—cost a penny a loaf, and just six pence a day was considered to be a working man’s wage.

So even if you do have the requisite clothing, does this system actually work? Did people in the Tudor era stink to high heaven? Were they endangering their health as they tried paradoxically to preserve it from evil miasmas or foul air?

I have twice followed the regime. The first time was for a period of just over three months, while living in modern society. No one noticed! It helps, of course, if you wear natural-fibre clothes over the top of your linen underwear. I used a fine linen smock, over which I could wear a modern skirt and top without looking odd, and I wore a pair of fine linen hose beneath a nice thick pair of woollen opaque tights (these, of course, did contain a little elastane). I changed the smock and hose daily and rubbed myself down with a linen cloth in the evening before bed, and I took neither shower nor bath for the entire period. I remained remarkably smell-free—even my feet. My skin also stayed in good condition—better than usual, in fact. This, then, was the level of hygiene that a wealthy person could achieve if they wished: one that could pass unnoticed in modern society. While we know that some people did follow the full regime outlined above, we have no way of knowing how many. Several advice books that include some form of early-morning hygiene regime don’t mention the rubbing cloth at all, stopping short after telling young men to wash their hands and face and comb their hair.

I have also followed the regime in a more Tudor context while filming a TV series, during which I wore all the correct period layers and head coverings. I was working on a farm, so this entailed a much heavier coarse linen smock, woollen hose and far fewer changes of underwear. Although I was working mostly outdoors, often engaged in heavy labour and also lurking around an open fire, I found that just changing my linen smock once a week proved acceptable both to me and to my colleagues—including those behind the camera, who had more conventional modern sensibilities. The woollen hose I changed just three times over the six months; the linen parts of the head-dress I changed weekly along with the smock. There was a slight smell, but it was mostly masked by the much stronger smell of woodsmoke. Once again my skin remained in good condition. This, of course, was much more representative of the majority of the population’s experience in Tudor times, in the frequency of changes, the lifestyle and the types of material that the underwear was made from.

A friend and colleague has also tried it the other way around, washing his body but not the underwear. The difference between the two was stark and revealing. He continued with a full modern hygiene routine, showering at least once a day and using a range of modern products, but wore the same linen shirt (and outer clothes) for several months without washing them at all. The smell was overpowering, impossible to ignore. He looked filthy too.

Many modern writers have presumed that without hot soapy water being regularly applied to bodies, Tudor England must have been a place inhabited by people who smelt like the long-term homeless. Much play has been made about the difference between beautiful clothes on the surface and an imagined filth and stench on the inside. I would refute that reading of the situation. The sixteenth-century belief in the cleansing power of linen turns out in practice to have some truth to it. The laundry makes a vast difference. The smell of the past undoubtedly was not the same as the smell of the present, but we need to be aware that cleanliness and being neat and sweet-smelling were important issues for Tudor people. Charitable institutions were eager to ensure that their inmates conformed to the social norm, and masters wanted their servants to be so attired. There must of course have been the occasional ‘stinking beast’ among those having a particularly hard time, but it appears to be the absence of laundry, rather than the absence of washing the body in water, that has the biggest impact upon personal hygiene. 

Excerpted from How to Be a Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Tudor Life by Ruth Goodman. Copyright © 2015 by Ruth Goodman. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.