Women’s Hygiene in Tudor England

Portrait of Margaret Roper

A question that I have seen comes up regularly in forums and chats is how did women cope with menstruation in the sixteenth century?

According to Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies ‘there is almost complete silence in the archival record on the practical business of dealing with menstruation’ (pg. 24).

Sixteenth century translations of The Bible (Isaiah, chapter3, verse 22) mention the use of menstruation cloths and further clues can be obtained from Queen Elizabeth’s household accounts where there are dozens of listings of long and short ‘vallopes all of fine hollande clothe’, along with other plain linen items (Mikhaila & Malcolm-Davies, pg. 24).

In The Tudor Tailor it is also noted that the v and w in English were often transposed and so the ‘vallopes’ that appear in the accounts were probably a reference to ‘wallops’, ‘a term for fluttering rags, which may have been used as sanitary towels or rolled as tampons’ (pg. 24).

What I have always wondered is how women in the sixteenth century kept the rags in place considering they didn’t wear underwear as we know it today.

Again, a clue lies in Queen Elizabeth’s household accounts where there are listed three ‘gyrdelles of blak Jeane silk made on the fingers garnished with buckelles hookes & eyes whipped over with silk’ possibly used as a ‘sanitary belt’ with the ‘vallopes’ (pg. 24).

I had heard of sixteenth century women using rags but did not realise that they also rolled the linen to make tampons.

Seventeenth century editions of earlier medical manuals mention the use of ‘medical pessaries of shorn wool, fine linen or silk bags containing herbs’ that were inserted into the vagina with the convenience of a string for removal.

Read about bathing in Tudor England.

Read about housework in Tudor England.

References

Mikhaila, N. & Malcolm-Davies, J. The Tudor Tailor: Reconstructing sixteenth century dress, 2006.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing that information – I too have always wondered how this was ‘managed’… very informative!

  2. Anne Barnhill says:

    So many people ask me this question and I had assumed the answer was rags, though have never run across anything about it. But rolled up? that’s really interesting and I love that bag of herbs idea, string and all. Great article! THanks!

  3. I’d also like to learn more about hygiene in general re women – deoderants, soaps, shampoos, hair removal etc etc.

  4. SamanthaRegina says:

    While I wish more things would mention little things like this for us history nerds, it kind of makes sense why theres almost nothing mentioned of it. Most of the writers were men, and I’m sure thats one of the last things they cared to talk about!

  5. Is it also true that those that were poor would use a rag stuffed with moss? or maybe I am mixing this up with another era…

    • Hmm, definitely a rag Dawn but haven’t heard of the moss part. I will see if I can dig anything else up! Natalie

    • Dawn,
      Moss wa used by Native Americans. I’m not sure if women specifically used it, but I know for sure that it was used as a form of diaper for babies. If the baby soiled it, simply toss it and grab more.

      • That makes sense, being used for babies. I feel sure Ruth Goodman mentioned it in one of her historical re-enactment series on Medieval/Victorian times etc. its so annoying when you cant remember… :)

      • I often wonder how some Native American women kept moss in place…hope that’s not straying too far from the subject. XD Anyway, great share! I’m glad someone is addressing the holes often left out of history books. The great things that happen in books are cool, but the everyday lives are even more fascinating.

  6. Thanks very much for help on that info, I’m studying the 15th Century but it can’t be much different. Although they had underwear pretty much like us, as has recently been discovered in Autstria- what a surprise!

  7. I did know that during the Victorian era before modern types of sanitary wear for women was invented that they used to make towels out of rags and clothes. You can still buy some types of sanitary towels which are washable I wouldn’t fancy washing them myself. And they are said to be made from cloth which is more natural. I wonder how the Tudor women managed period pain was there anything they could use maybe something from a plant or flower was what they used.

    • Hi Carole,
      One of the main plants I know of used for painful and/or heavy periods was Lady’s Mantle ‘Alchemilla mollis’, a perrenial garden plant, there were others too,
      Chamomile
      feverfew
      Yarrow
      Golden Rod
      Mugwort, member of mint family
      sweet marjoram
      There were quite a few really, what you got would depend on the herbalist/wise woman, and their own potions.
      They also used ones to sedate and induce sleep such as Poppy, primrose, Valerian and Lemon Balm, alot of these too.
      Most of them were and still are common garden plants/wild flowers, though I wouldn’t suggest you try any without advise. It is very interesting and lots on the web for you to see.
      Some spices were used, but they could only be afforded by the rich and wealthy
      valerian.
      Hope this helped.

      • As for menstrual pain, there was also the old standby of willow bark (what aspirin is made of). It’s analgesic and pain relieving. But I bet many just wanted to curl up in a corner and suffer…much like some of still do today. Perhaps holding a heated rock to their tummy. This is all so interesting and something I have always wondered about.

  8. Many thanks for your informative articles.

    Many wives in Tudor times were constantly pregnant, so could perhaps go for years without having a period, only to die in childbirth. Those were tough times!

  9. The leading cause of death in women was childbirth. Even up to 50-60 years ago. My grandmother and mom used old rags for their periods. I bet it was similar then.

  10. Very insightful comments on hygiene.
    From the very limited “research” I’ve done on this, I get the impression that Tudor “hygiene” may have been similar to that implied in the black and white film “The hunchback of notre dame”, when the king asked his doctor whether the he should bathe more than once a year.
    In the case of the tudor court, it could be that to “clean the loo” so to speak, the entire court went to another palace to make a mess there, whilst, presumably, some oiks cleaned out the “loo” that the court had just vacated.
    Now that one of their “problems” has been addressed here, the other two – non gynaecological – problems involve the human plumbing system. They seem to have worn some pretty hefty clothes in those days – a cold snap in the climate ? – so, should they need to “flush their human plumbing systems”, so to speak, that’s a fair few clothing layers to have to get out of the way.
    Maybe the blokes wore those peculiar very baggy round the hip area clothes as a sort of mobile loo ? … hmmmm. Hence the need for perfume and scent ?
    There’s a sort of “visual joke” in the women’s dresses. All that fabric, and somewhere in it is a relatively slightly built female possibly taking up, what, a quarter of the overall volume of the “fashion package” ?!

    To me, something that is odd about all this is wondering what happened to the Roman legacy of sanitation/baths and aqueducts and the like. In most depictions I’ve seen of Roman life in Rome, people are hardly wearing anything very much. Maybe there was a climate heat wave in Roman times, and things got colder in Tudor times. It is true that Rome is on the med, whilst UK is very near the north sea so maybe that sort of wriggles out of the question.

  11. My mother, from Germany (born 1925), used to knit her own sanitary towels from cotton knitting yarn. These were squares which were then folded, and boiled when they were washed. My pensioner neighbour,( born 1926 in Northwest England) used to wear a nappy during menstruation, and said she never went out at this time if she could help it, as it was very bulky and visible, as such, through her clothes. During my research into Tudor baby cribs for a doll’s house project I came across the information that the bottom of these cribs were lined with moss to soak up the baby’s urine, and later cribs were painted green inside as an ongoing tradition of the moss theme. It makes sense that absorbent moss were used to soak up other bodily fluids.

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