During the Middle Ages, poorer people washed in cold water from wooden barrels, while the rich had the luxury of taking hot baths in simply designed bathrooms. They also washed their hands before meals in specially designed stone basins called lavers and cleaned their teeth by rubbing them with cloth and burnt rosemary. Occupants of large buildings, such as monasteries and castles, relieved themselves in lavatories called privies or garderobes.

Hygiene improved in the Middle Ages after the outbreak of the Black Death. People began to notice a correlation between better hygiene and a decrease in illness. Hygiene improved even more when the Crusaders brought soap back from the Far East to Europe.

The disposal of waste and garbage was not treated with the same care. People in the Middle Ages favored placing straw or reeds on floors in place of rugs or mats. Although the top layer of straw was often replaced, the bottom layer was usually left and covered. In many cases, the same straw remained in place for years, sometimes as long as 20 years. The straw held animal waste, old food and many other unsanitary droppings. People often spread lavender, chamomile, rose petals, daisies and fennel over the straw or rushes to disguise the bad odors.