This is not the story about the Emperor’s new clothes – although I’m sure there are business parallels to be found there!

We often think that earlier ages, such as the Tudor period, must have been rather smelly, given the heavy clothes worn, the absence of dry cleaning, and the limitations of plumbing.  Indeed, Queen Elizabeth I is often quoted as saying that she took a bath every month, ‘whether she needed it or not’ – most of us would say that this was not in doubt!  Now I don’t know whether this statement is true of the Queen, or indeed of other royal or noble individuals, but it’s interesting to note that, although to our modern eyes this suggests an absence of hygiene, this is very far from the truth.

It was in fact specifically bathing (not washing) that the Tudors were concerned about and this had its roots in the medical opinion of the time.  It was considered dangerous to immerse yourself in water, because this was thought to allow impurities to enter the body through the pores. There was one exception and that was if you could get hold of pure water from a fresh spring, and mix it with expensive herbs. Obviously only the wealthy could afford to do this, especially as the mechanics of having a bath meant a lot of hard work for the servants. Only royalty would have the luxury of a bathroom and any sort of permanent plumbing. So having a monthly bath was in fact a sign of high living and luxury. Not only that, but it was considered a health cure, so ‘whether she needed it or not’ could have been a reference to the Queen’s state of health!

So that’s one theory – but the absence of daily bathing does not in any event mean that the Tudors weren’t hygienic. Ladies and gentlemen of that period washed themselves daily, using herb-scented water and special (expensive!) soap, and were rubbed down with linen towels (which were fresh every day). Not only that, but, although the outer garments could not usually be washed or cleaned, the undergarments could.  These would be linen and, for those who could afford it, changed daily.  In fact there is evidence that royalty and the nobility changed their linen several times a day!

So what we’re talking about here is perception and perspective. Taking at face value the statement about a monthly bath, it’s easy to perceive the Tudors as dirty and unhygienic  (and I expect the less well-off may well have been!). But put this into the context of medical opinion, the other strategies used for cleanliness, and the technological limitations (plus the inexhaustible supply of servants for those who could afford them) and it seems to me that the Tudors can give us a run for our money!

And the business application of all this?

  • That there is more than one way of achieving an objective
  • That resources (in this case servants) play a large part in what can be achieved
  • That statements cannot necessarily be taken at face value
  • That context can have a dramatic effect

Do let me know what you think!