Some facts about health and hygiene in Shakespeare’s day – explore Playground to discover more fact pages

Theatres were closed down during outbreaks of plague. Though we now know that fleas and rats carried the plague, back then people blamed it on ‘bad’ air, the stars and planets, and God being angry.

Many cures were natural medicines: mixtures of herbs and other easily found ingredients. So a cure for a bad cut was made by soaking stale bread in hot milk and adding herbs.

If medicines were natural it doesn’t mean they were not gruesome – or that they would work. One recipe for ointment for pains in the legs begins: take eight baby swallows and crush them until you cannot tell feathers from flesh…

Because people didn’t know about germs, most patients that had an operation were likely to die – from the pain, the blood loss or infection from germs after the operation.

People didn’t bathe often. Mostly, they just washed their hands and face and combed their hair (and beards). They relied on their underclothes to soak up dirt and smell and changed these as often as they could afford to have them washed. They also used perfumes and sweet waters to cover up bad smells.

One pamphlet recommended that people keep their teeth white by rubbing their teeth with powdered fish bones and then rinsing their mouths out with a mixture of vinegar and sulphuric acid!

Sir John Harrington invented the flushing toilet in the 1590s. He built one in his house (the Queen did, too). However, it was expensive. It cost £1 10 shillings and 8 pence to build – a year’s wages for a male servant.

Toilets were called ‘privies’. Towns had a few public ones, often built over rivers to carry the waste away. Unfortunately, the water people used to wash and cook with usually came from the same river.

‘Gong fermors’ emptied the privies at night. They were paid well, but smelled a lot of the time, because it was hard to wash well enough to get rid of the smell from their bodies and clothes!

Most people used a chamber pot (or a chair with a chamber pot inside it) at night. Some guests didn’t bother to use these but urinated in the fireplace

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