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Soap Making: The European Dark Ages - 09/04/2013

After the fall of the Roman Empire in Western Europe, there was little soap making done or use of it in the European Dark Ages. In the Byzantine Empire, the remains of the Roman world in the eastern Mediterranean area, and in the expanding Arab world soap was made and used. Around the 8th century soap making was revived in Italy and Spain. By the 13th century, France also became a producer of soap for the European market. During the 14th century, soap making was started in England. Soaps produced in the south of Europe, Italy, Spain, and the southern ports of France (Marseilles and Castle soaps) were made from olive oils. These soaps made using olive oils were of a higher quality than those made by the soap producers of England and northern France. These northern soap makers, not being able to obtain the olive oil, made their soaps with only animal fats. Tallow, the fat from cattle, was the chief fat used. Northern European soap makers even resorted to making soap from fish oils. Soaps made from the poor quality animals fats and oils, while adequate for laundry and textile usage, were not desirable for bathing and washing. The soap from southern Europe with their olive oils were superior. This resulted in a lively trade of exporting fine soaps from southern Europe.

Wait a minute you say, people did not take baths in the Middle Ages. That is a popular misconception. They did. There were public bath houses, called stews, where the patrons bathe in large wooden tubs and were given bars of soap to use. Nobles and rich merchants had their own private baths. It was during the later Medieval Times, when bathing fell out of favor. Public baths were closed because the authorities of the time thought these baths promoted the spread of the Plague. In general people of the Renaissance moved away from the idea of keeping the body clean. They preferred to cover the body with heavy scents.

Soap, however, did remain a useful item for cleaning and washing clothes. Soap also was still used for personal washing as well but by our standards far less frequently than was needed. The fact that soap was a valuable item in the 17th and 18th centuries even though the idea of bathing was not popular is shown by the efforts the settlers to the New World took to make it. While maybe bathing the whole body was out of fashion keeping you and your surroundings clean was not.


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