3 Things You Didn’t Know About Medieval Times in Rome

A medieval mosaic from the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, a five-minute walk from JCU

A medieval mosaic from the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, a five-minute walk from JCU

The medieval period spanned a thousand years, from the 5th to the 15th century, which modern historians divide into the early, high and late Middle Age time periods. And medieval Roman society was starkly divided into three classes: those who prayed (clergy and noblemen), those who fought (knights and soldiers), and those who worked (the peasantry).

Keen history lovers will already know all this. But even the sharpest of students are likely unaware of certain recent discoveries and hidden historical facts about medieval Roman life.

Read on for three things you probably don’t know about medieval times in Rome:

1. Illegal Hairstyles: Classical Studies in Rome Reveal Ancient Fashion Police!

During the first period of the medieval era, hair was thought to be a private part of a woman’s body and had erotic connotations. A woman’s hair was legally considered the personal property of her husband – and as such, its public exhibition was considered scandalous, unseemly, and disrespectful.

For modesty, women would tie their hair tightly and securely in place with complex braids and chignons, covering much of it with flowers, cloth, and veils. Some would even shave away the hair around their foreheads, giving them a fashionable “high-brow” and slightly less hair to conceal. And the many clever women who tried to sidestep the law by covering their own hair with the hair of another – a wig – were condemned by the Church!

If you study history in Italy, you’ll discover firsthand the powerful presence of the Church within Rome – and its influence on law, politics, and even fashion throughout history.

“The woman who wears a wig commits a mortal sin,” wrote Saint Bernard, noting that any blessings she received would remain in the wig and not ever pass through to her soul. And his fellow 12th century Church leaders agreed, collectively denouncing wigs as an invention of “The Evil One.”

2. Medieval Rome: The Birthplace of the Laundromat

Because cleaning clothes was physically demanding and time-intensive, pre-medieval people didn’t keep their wardrobes in a regular washing rotation as we do today. They simply wore their clothes daily and eventually discarded them as they went out of fashion, smelled too badly, or became infested with insects.

But medieval Romans discovered new innovations in laundering. They discovered that urine contains ammonia, a powerful bleaching agent, and began to wash their clothes in large basins of it. Although not the most pleasant disinfectant, urine was freely available, and effective in washing dirt and bugs out of silk, brocade, and velvet clothes.

Local women participate in a historical re-enactment of medieval laundering in Taggia, Italy.

Local women participate in a historical re-enactment of medieval laundering in Taggia, Italy.

Medieval Roman street corners hosted public urinals for laundering purposes. Their basins were collected and brought to skilled women who would hop in and stomp the dirt out of urine-soaked clothes. These periods of laundering were called the “great wash,” and were believed to be most effective when performed at full moon – because the women thought moonlight had bleaching powers.

It’s this practice of regular laundering that went on to shape our longstanding (albeit urine-free) domestic relationship with clothes today.

3. Study History in Rome & Discover the True Colors of Medieval Life

The Middle Ages marked a tumultuous time in Roman politics. The Pope himself packed up shop and moved from Rome to Avignon in France from 1309-1377 because of conflicts between the falling Roman Empire, the emerging Byzantine Empire, and the Church.

But when you study history in Rome, you’ll encounter spectacular artifacts that prove this time period, amidst all the turmoil, was truly bright and colorful.

There was an appreciation of color in all aspects of medieval Roman life. From brightly dyed garments and jewellery, to early stained glass windows, to wall paintings in both secular houses and churches – colorful decoration was everywhere in medieval Rome.

A medieval painting offers a glimpse into the characteristically bright style of the age.

A medieval painting offers a glimpse into the characteristically bright style of the age.

Roman history reaches back thousands of lifetimes. Whether on learning fieldtrips with your John Cabot University class, or after school with a couple of friends – there are endless opportunities to discover this famous legacy for yourself. The Eternal City is the perfect place to travel back through time and uncover even more mysteries about what life was really in in medieval times!

Which medieval relic would you love to see most while you study abroad in Italy?

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