Monday, March 11, 2002

Private Lives of the 17th and 18th Centuries

By Linda

Graendal and the other Forsaken despise the living conditions in the late Third Age:

This Age was frightful usually, primitive and uncomfortable.

- The Path of Daggers, New Alliances

From the social structure, fashions and many of the inventions, the late Third Age is on the verge of the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, roughly equivalent to the 17th to 18th centuries in our world (apart from the delayed development of gunpowder weapons) (see Inventions from Rand's Academies article). This article describes many of the personal lifestyle details of those times so that readers can decide for themselves whether they agree with the Forsaken’s assessment.


The style of underwear depends on the fashion of the outer clothing to some extent. For example, in Cairhien in The Great Hunt, the noblewomen wore very wide dresses in the style of 18th century France. These would require paniers, a framework of hoops that sat on the hips or within a petticoat and held the skirts out to the side (see sketch of panier petticoat right and Wheel of Time Fashion and Real World Nations article).

Underwear on the mainland is usually made of woven linen, durable and easily laundered. Linen is also very comfortable; it draws moisture away from the body and can hold up to 20% of its weight in moisture without feeling damp. There is no cotton on the mainland, except perhaps in the Aiel Waste. The Aiel fabric algode is probably cotton, since algodon and algodao are Spanish and Portuguese respectively for cotton. However, cotton requires quite a lot of water to grow, being a sub-tropical plant, so perhaps algode is agave, a fibre-yielding desert plant and Jordan is showing how the names of things change over time.

The rich may choose to wear silk underwear:

Some people in this world wear silk smallclothes, and some have their sigils embroidered on their smallclothes.

- Robert Jordan, on his blog

Apart from being expensive, silk is more difficult to launder than linen (see Laundry section below) and is not durable. It is also much warmer to wear than linen, and not as cool as Nynaeve and Egwene first imagined. In cold weather wool is more practical, but then practicality is not what silk is about: it’s a beautiful status symbol as Jordan implied. Sigils were sewn on clothes as identifying marks, especially for expensive items, since laundry was done in bulk or might be outsourced. Nynaeve and Egwene changed from wearing linen to silk as their circumstances rose and they cut ties with the Two Rivers. The poor wear wool underwear (The Fires of Heaven, Memories). There is no knitted or stretchy underwear and no elastic. Underwear had button, hook and eye, or tape closures.

Men’s under clothing in the 17th to 18th centuries consisted of a long-sleeved under-shirt and baggy pull-on drawers of linen (or silk for nobles). Men’s smallclothes in the Wheel of Time world appear to be very similar.

European women in the 17th to 18th centuries wore a long-sleeved shift, smock or chemise of thin fabric as underwear (see paintings above, high necked on the left and low cut on the right). This is the case in the Wheel of Time world also; even Aiel maidens wear short shifts (The Fires of Heaven, Gateways). The shift’s neckline may or may not be cut lower than that of the dress, depending on the fashion, the weather, and the wearer’s taste and modesty. Our heroines are more fashion-conscious and daring than most (Aviendha excepted), so it is safe to say that only a thin band of the embroidered neckline of their shift would be visible, if that.

One or more petticoats were often worn over the shift and under the dress in Europe in the 17th to 18th centuries to keep warm, or to keep skirts full (see sketch of petticoat, right). Elaborately-embellished petticoats might be displayed by a cut-away dress, in which case they became a skirt rather than an undergarment. This is a fashion in Ebou Dar (see Wheel of Time Fashion and Real World Nations article).

Corsets were worn in the 17th to 18th centuries but have not been mentioned in the books. They were designed to shape the torso to the look currently in fashion. Prior to the mid-1600s, they supported and slightly flattened the breasts; later, they accentuated the breasts. A well-made and fitted corset is comfortable, and provides more support for larger-breasted women than does a bra. In the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century corsets were worn so tight that some women’s internal organs were permanently altered by them. Breasts were thrust outward by many corset designs, but were otherwise allowed to hang loose, since the bra wasn’t invented until the 1890s. So, no bras in the Wheel of Time world and apparently Jordan has dispensed with the corset also. It could be that the petticoats included bodices with boning for support, but there is nothing in the books to suggest this, and the series is a fantasy after all.

Underpants for women, long-legged drawers, were adopted very gradually in Europe from the mid 17th century. Even in the 19th century many women still wore only the shift under their clothing. Underpants under long, bulky skirts would make going to the toilet, especially in chamber pots or latrines (see Toilet section below), cumbersome even if the drawers were open at the crotch, which a fair portion were historically. Drawers tended to be worn if the weather was very cold or when slim-fitting, diaphanous dresses were fashionable eg during Regency times (1810‒1820). There is no mention of an underpants type garment for women in the series.

The underwear of the Empress is unguessable, since in A Memory of Light she wears very modern skin-tight silk top and pants under her gowns. Perhaps this tight clothing is her underwear.

The invention of water-powered spinning machines and the cotton gin in the Industrial Revolution made cotton fabrics widely available and saw the beginning of mass-produced underwear. For the first time, people began buying undergarments in shops rather than making them at home. Rand’s academies are producing inventions that will initiate the Industrial Revolution, and mass production, in the Wheel of Time world. However, cotton has yet to reach the major nations.

Both sexes wore stockings in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries to protect their feet from their shoes, for warmth, and, in the case of women, for modesty. Showing your bare legs was a real no-no, as it is on the mainland in the Wheel of Time world:

The saddle had pushed her skirts above her knees again, but she [Egwene] hardly noticed that now. She could not spend every minute fussing with them. And she had on stockings; it was not as though she were bare-legged.

- The Fires of Heaven, The Fifth, I Give You

Stockings were two separate tubes either knitted or cut from woven cloth and sewn to fit the leg. They were held up by garters (tapes or ribbons, not elastic) above the knee, or attached to men’s breeches by strings (points). Since there is no cotton on the mainland, stockings are made of wool (or silk for the rich).

Both men and women wore stout leather shoes with medium heels. Men also wore French falls, a buff leather boot with a high top wide enough to be crushed down.

- Encyclopaedia Britannica

Soft, embroidered slippers were for those rich enough to remain indoors.

In our world, people slept in nightshirts from the late Middle Ages. Prior to this they either slept naked or kept on their day clothes (Kybalova and Herbenova, The Pictorial Encyclopedia of Fashion). In the Wheel of Time world, Haral Luhhan wore a nightshirt:

The burly blacksmith's ash-smeared nightshirt hung to his boots, the angry red welt of a burn across his chest showing through a ragged tear.

- The Eye of the World, Out of the Woods

but most people appear to sleep naked, in their underwear, or in their day clothes as Perrin’s experience in the Wolf Dream shows:

“I was asleep in Tar Valon, Great Lord. I am asleep in Tar Valon!
Where is this place? Have I gone mad?”
Some of the men around him wore ornate coats full of embroidery, others plainer garb, while some seemed to be naked, or in their smallclothes.
“I, too, sleep,” a naked man nearly screamed. “In Tear. I remember lying down with my wife!”
“And I do sleep in Illian,” a man in red and gold said, sounding shaken…
His [Ba’alzamon’s] finger pointed out the man who had spoken of Tar Valon, a fellow dressed like a merchant, in plainly cut clothes of the finest cloth.

- The Dragon Reborn, Daughter of the Night

The main characters sleep in their underwear unless they are sleeping rough in the wild. A notable exception is Faile, who had a thick woollen nightdress on hand (for winter?), which she wore as a signal to Perrin that lovemaking was temporarily off the schedule when she was disappointed at his lack of mind-reading skills in Lord of Chaos, Thorns. In contrast, her rival for Perrin’s attentions, Berelain, wore a negligĂ©e style nightdress to seduce Rand in Tear in The Shadow Rising, Whirlpools in the Pattern.

When in settled areas, the characters change their shifts and stockings for clean ones every day. This would be oftener than most people did in the 17th and 18th centuries.


Laundry in the Wheel of Time world has progressed beyond cleaning clothes in rivers and beating them against rocks and spreading them on bushes or grass to dry, except perhaps in the poorest regions. The rebel Aes Sedai camp has scrub boards, washtubs, laundry kettles and washing lines (see photo left). Elayne assumes that the Borderlanders’ camp in Andor is similar, with wooden paddles being used to agitate the clothes in the kettles (Winter’s Heart, To Surprise Kings and Queens).

In A Crown of Swords, Diamonds and Stars, Merana likens Cadsuane’s questioning to being put through a laundress’ mangle. This consists of two long rollers in a frame through which wet clothes are cranked to express the excess water and is an invention of the 18th century, as is the scrub board (see photo right).

The silk-washing scene in Malden in Crossroads of Twilight, Traps, shows the hard labour of pre-Industrial Revolution laundry and the trouble luxury fabrics are to wash in a world without dry-cleaning. For example, only raw silk and China/Habutai silk can be hand-washed without special modern preparations and only with a mild shampoo. Morgase and co had laundry soap, which is too harsh, and so had to wash their silk without any soap. The scene also shows how wasteful with water and luxury-loving the Shaido became. Furthermore, laundry maids ranked low in the domestic hierarchy—an extreme change in circumstances for two Queens and the cousin of a Queen, as they were well aware. And the tedium, discomfort and drudgery of hand-washing in bulk—without rubber gloves—were understated, if anything!


In the 17th and 18th centuries, baths were not a daily occurrence, and were often taken for ‘medicinal purposes’ when something triggered the need for it, such as when ill, injured or infested with lice, or when wet and chilled as Elayne was in Knife of Dreams. This was partly due to not having running water (and therefore bathrooms) in houses. It takes quite a bit of trouble to draw water from a well or cistern, heat large quantities of it over a fire, and transport it to the bedroom/dressing room to the bathtub. For this reason, baths were not routine, but were an event, just as Jordan makes Elayne’s bath in Crossroads of Twilight.

There were no nice hot showers. Some cities had public steam baths; Samuel Pepys’ wife, Elizabeth visited one in London in February 1665, only the one visit in 9 years. Most people washed from a basin on a washstand in their bedrooms most days, just as many characters do in the books. However, the White Tower, with its stronger links to the Age of Legends and better building design, apparently has retained the custom of daily baths (The Great Hunt, Practise and Crossroads of Twilight, Secrets).

Baths are communal in Shienar to overcome the problem of heating large quantities of water in a cold climate (and for cultural reasons):

He had taken to bathing in the small hours of the morning, when the big, tiled pools were empty of people, after he discovered that at any other time a woman might well climb into the water with him. It could be a scullion or the Lady Amalisa, Lord Agelmar's sister herself—the baths were one place in Shienar where there was no rank—expecting him to scrub her back in return for the same favour.

- The Great Hunt, The Welcome

Among the Sea Folk, baths in fresh water are also not private, but used to cement relationships (Winter’s Heart, Among the Counsels) or show honour:

“You [Elayne] have never invited me [Zaida] to bathe with you, though it would have been courteous, but we will not speak of that.

- Crossroads of Twilight, A Bargain

Aiel wash in sweat tents as the Native Americans did, since there is not enough water in the Waste to provide for immersing people:

Not shock at walking in on her naked—in fact, when she saw that Egwene was uncomfortable, she peeled off her own clothes and sat down on the floor to talk—but at seeing Egwene sitting chest-deep in water. It was dirtying so much water that made her eyes pop.

- The Shadow Rising, Decisions

Although Aiel do buy bath salts (The Shadow Rising, Imre Stand) and do wash in water:

The Aiel did use water for washing, as well as in the sweat tents, especially for rinsing out the shampoo they made from a fat leaf that grew in the Waste, yet the dirty water was conserved and used for watering crops.

- Crossroads of Twilight, A Bargain

They would not have immersed themselves, however. And even Faile was amazed at Sevanna’s new bathing routine:

The water for Sevanna's morning bath—she bathed twice a day, now!—had not been hot enough…

- Knife of Dreams, As If the World were Fog

Bathing twice daily would be unheard of in our world in the 17th and 18th centuries. Faile, too, thinks it decadent.

The bathroom at the Stag and Lion Inn in Baerlon is probably also unusual for a common inn in the 17th and 18th centuries:

A dozen tall, copper bathtubs sat in a circle on the tiled floor, which sloped down slightly to a drain in the center of the big stonewalled room. A thick towel, neatly folded, and a large cake of yellow soap sat on a stool behind each tub, and big black iron cauldrons of water stood heating over fires along one wall.

- The Eye of the World, The Stag and Lion

Towels did not have the fluffy loop pile we know. They were made of linen, probably woven in a staggered two over, one under pattern (twill weave) which is both absorbent and durable. (Most household linen in the Wheel of Time world would be literally linen woven in this pattern, which is wrinkle resistant, although the rich slept in silk sheets (A Crown of Swords, The Festival of Birds). In Hinderstap the towels at the inn were woollen, which is cheaper (The Gathering Storm, Night in Hinterstap).

The main characters have pocket mirrors, which were expensive and highly prized in our world in the 17th century. Laras even gave Min one in her cosmetic kit (see Cosmetics section below).


A straight razor with one naked blade was usually used for shaving in the early 1800s. The blade, which was stropped before each use, folded into the handle. Blades set perpendicular to the handle (making shaving easier and safer) were not developed until the latter half of the 19th century.

Western women did not shave their legs or armpits until the 20th century when the safety razor was developed and it became fashionable for women to wear shorter skirts. For centuries previously, women’s legs were rarely seen in public. Women began shaving their armpits in 1915, following an advertisement in the United States displaying a woman's hair-free underarms and then follow-up articles in fashion magazines. Hair was often plucked with tweezers. Shaving or plucking of the genital area by both sexes was a remedy against pubic lice (see Parasites section below). In the Middle East, removing all, or almost all, body hair with a sticky and pliable toffee-like wax made from lemon and sugar is a centuries-old custom. (Sugar was a luxury in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and so would not be used for hair removal.)

In Seanchan society, removal of head hair is a sign of increased social status. In our world, the Ancient Egyptian nobility had shaven heads, although they then wore wigs. More recently, a shaven head is a sign of increased purity or religious dedication in many societies. In Cairhien, military officers shave the front of their scalps as the Samurai did (it is also the Celtic tonsure); and the Shienaran soldiers shave their whole scalp except for a topknot similar to the khokhol, a Cossack hairstyle, or the scalp lock of Native American warriors. (The Samurai also had styles of topknot.)

In Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, head hair was removed from women as a punishment for prostitution. This is similar to Faile’s desire to have Berelain shaved bald (The Path of Daggers, Changes) and the Aiel maiden’s shaving of Isendre (The Fires of Heaven, Memories of Saldaea) for attempting to seduce a man already in a relationship. European men in the 17th and 18th centuries found that cutting their hair short and then wearing a wig made keeping clean and parasite free easier (see Parasites section below).


Teeth were often bad in earlier centuries due to poor dental hygiene, especially in countries like England where eating sugary food was popular for those who could afford it. We have seen a few people with poor or no teeth in the Wheel of Time world, such as Old Cully (A Crown of Swords, Insects), but most have had quite good teeth.

In our world the first bristled toothbrushes originated in China around 1600 AD. They were first made in England around 1780 by William Addis with handles of cattle bone and heads of pig bristles. Toothpicks of silver or gold were probably more popular than brushes.

Some people in the 17th century used chewsticks: a pencil-sized twig which had one end pointed for use as a toothpick and the other end chewed into brush-like fibres. This is what Nynaeve uses:

Dipping a split twig into a small dish of salt-and-soda on the washstand, she [Nynaeve] began scrubbing her teeth vigorously.

- The Fires of Heaven, The Price of a Ship

A salt and soda mix is the usual toothpaste or toothpowder in the Wheel of Time world. In the 18th century in our world, bicarbonate of soda was the basis for most toothpowders, but abrasive ingredients such as brickdust, crushed pottery and crushed cuttlefish bones were also added and caused considerable damage to tooth enamel. Even worse, sugar was often added to make the toothpowder taste better.


While there were no deodorants and no tissues in the 17th and 18th centuries (perfume and handkerchiefs were used instead), there were cosmetics for those who could afford them, the simplest being rice flour, though they also:

applied white powder made of ground alabaster to their skin, and a variety of lotions and ointments containing lemon juice, milk of almonds, white wine, white of egg and oil of tartar, honey, beeswax, rose petals, herbs, asses’ milk and the ground jawbones of hogs…

A lip colouring made of cochineal, white of hard-boiled eggs, green figs, alum and gum arabic would have done no damage to the skin. But other preparations were highly dangerous…

- Christopher Hibbert, The English: A Social History

For example, face powder was also often made from white lead, although the less poisonous zinc oxide became widely used by the nineteenth century. Red lipstick could be coloured with madder, red ochre or mercuric sulphide and eye shadow with lead or antimony sulphides.

The use of powders and ointments containing heavy metals was very bad for the skin, eventually marking it with blemishes. To hide these, and smallpox scars, it became fashionable for both men and women to wear patches on the face:

The patches varied in form and design from simple spots, stars, or crescents to elaborate animals, insects, or figures. Patches had their own tacit language: a patch at the corner of the eye could indicate passion, one at the middle of the forehead could express dignity.

- Encyclopaedia Britannica

Ituralde, the fashion-conscious Domani general, wears such patches (Knife of Dreams, Prologue).

For softening and moisturising skin, cold cream, water beaten into lard or almond oil, was used.

Urine from the animal of choice was also used to improve the complexion. Samuel Pepys' wife decided to try the urine of puppies (‘puppy-dog water’), for instance, in March 1664 (Diary of Samuel Pepys). This may have been less foolish than spending a hundred bucks on a small pot of modern-day moisturiser, since the ‘active’ ingredient in urine is urea, and urea creams are inexpensive, effective and regularly recommended by dermatologists. Other, nicer smelling (?), recipes were rosewater mixed with wine, or a decoction of the rinds of lemon.

In The Fires of Heaven, we see a beauty kit:

Digging into Min's saddlebags, Leane pulled out the wooden box of paints and powders and whatnots that Laras had forced on Min before they set out. Min had kept meaning to throw it away, but somehow she had never gotten around to it. There was a small mirror inside the hinged lid of the box, and in moments Leane was at work on her face with small rabbit-fur brushes. She had never shown any particular interest in the things before. Now she appeared vexed that there was only a blackwood hairbrush and a small ivory comb to use on her hair. She even muttered about the lack of a way to heat the curling iron! ...Come to that, Leane actually looked different. For all of the work with brushes, there was not a hint of paint or powder on her face that Min could see, yet her lips seemed fuller, her cheekbones higher, her eyes larger. She was a more than pretty woman at any time, but now her beauty was magnified fivefold.

- The Fires of Heaven, Fanning the Sparks

Leane is not only a skilled applier of makeup, but has also been acting as beauty consultant, teaching Min how to apply makeup, and supplying cosmetics:

Lying on her bed in her shift, Elayne stifled a yawn and went back to rubbing the cream Leane had given her into her hands. It seemed to do some good; at least they felt softer…Yawning, Elayne handed her [Nynaeve] the pot of hand cream…

- Lord of Chaos, To Heal Again

It appears to be a cold cream.


Soap leaves a residue on hair, but it was still used in the 17th and 18th centuries if there were no alternatives, and would be in the Wheel of Time world as well. The hair was then rinsed with vinegar afterwards to remove the residue. Beer shampoo was effective and popular. Herbal rinses such as infusions of chamomile or rosemary were also used. The Aiel make a shampoo from the leaves of a plant (Crossroads of Twilight, A Bargain).

Min’s makeup kit includes a curling iron, which would be heated in the fire, or by Fire if used by a channeller.

Many different hair styles occur in the books: loose, braids, ringlets, pigtails (Aiel girls), short with long tail, shaven (discussed above in the Shaving section), bowl (Cairhienin common soldiers), Celtic tonsure (Cairhienin officers), topknots, Mohican (Seanchan High Lords and Ladies), wigs (bald Seanchan men), Chinese/Manchu-style pigtail (Seanchan lesser nobility). (These are all described in greater detail in the Fashions articles.) Perhaps the most unusual is the ‘tall array of curls’ (The Great Hunt, Dangerous Words) that Cairhien noblewomen wear:

[Selande’s] was not so elaborately done as that of a woman of higher rank, but it still added half a foot to her height

- The Fires of Heaven, News Comes To Cairhien

This, like their wide dresses, is a style of 18th century France (see photo right). These hairstyles took a long time to arrange and were consequently washed infrequently and were notorious for harbouring parasites.

Parasites and Vermin

Parasites are always with people. They are more of a problem in towns and cities due to the higher population density.

The biteme, a small, almost invisible biting insect, is mentioned frequently in the books. It is probably similar to the mosquito, since it buzzes around people:

It is like having a biteme buzz ‘round your head when you’re trying to think.

- The Dragon Reborn, The Price of the Ring

Intestinal worms are mentioned in the books as occurring in children, as they did in many people in the 17th and 18th centuries:

Few of the refugees lacked bruises and scrapes, and some of the children were showing signs of fevers or worms.

- The Fires of Heaven, To Boannda

Fortunately for these children, Nynaeve Healed them. Bitter herbs such as wormwood and tansy were prescribed in the 17th and 18th centuries to expel worms.

There are three types of human lice: head, body and pubic. There are very few mentions of lice in the series, although they certainly were common in the 17th and 18th centuries:

So to my wife’s chamber, and there supped and got her cut my hair and look at my shirt, for I have itched mightily these six or seven days; and when all came to all, she finds that I am lousy, having found in my head and body above 20 lice, little and great…

- Diary of Samuel Pepys, 23rd January 1669

In Knife of Dreams, As If All the World Were Fog, Perrin described the tiny village of Brytan as a collection of flea-riddled hovels and said that:

Fleas and lice in hordes made those [hovels] uninhabitable, even for hardened soldiers seeking shelter from the cold, and the barns were putrid ramshackle affairs that let the wind howl through and harbored worse vermin than the houses.

- Crossroads of Twilight, The Forging of a Hammer

Fleas are a commonplace parasite judging by Leane’s comment when she tried on the bracelet of Moghedien’s a’dam while stilled:

And I tried to make her feel a fleabite on her ankle.

- Lord of Chaos, Prologue

This implies that their presence is a matter of course, as they were in the 17th and 18th centuries. Elizabeth Pepys scolded her servants for not checking the beds for fleas in September 1664 (Diary of Samuel Pepys).

Fleas, of course are often bad news, especially if they occur with rats and there are rats wherever there are people, whatever the century or world:

There were always rats in grain barns, and cats to hunt them.

- Crossroads of Twilight, In So Habor

Rats are now rampant in the Wheel of Time world, even in places that were formerly warded against them:

Nothing moved except for a rat that went scuttling away with a faint click of claws on the floorstones.
That almost made her [Alviarin] smile. Almost. The Great Lord’s eyes riddled the Tower, now, though no one seemed to have noticed that the wardings had failed.

- Crossroads of Twilight, A Mark

Rats are more than spies for the Dark One; rats, or more properly the fleas on rats, are carriers of disease, notably the plague, which is spread from rats to humans and then human to human via fleas, especially in hot weather. The dangers of fleabites were completely unknown in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Plague occurred regularly in the 17th century; the last large outbreak was in the summer of 1665. Plague would very probably have occurred in the Wheel of Time world had the Bowl of Winds not been found and used to restore the seasons, since hot weather is an especial danger. As Tarmon Gai’don approached, and the Dark One strove to weaken the Pattern with pestilence, and famine exacerbated by vermin such as weevils, the characters hear news of plagues and contagious sicknesses.


We see a variety of arrangements in the series; none of them like our toilets. In the real world, the flush toilet (water closet) was invented in 1596 by John Harrington in England, but not adopted on a wide scale for 200 years until household plumbing was improved.

In the books, people travelling or working outdoors would go behind a tree or shrub. In the military camps, latrines or pits are dug some distance from the tents for hygiene:

He [Perrin] knew he could not save himself if that happened; the only times they [the Whitecloaks] freed his hands were when he was fed and for visits to the latrine pit.

- The Eye of the World, Rescue

Unwatched, the men [Whitecloaks] would bury horse-dung under a few shovels of dirt to be done with it quicker, and dig latrines where they would not have to walk far in the cold.

- Crossroads of Twilight, Prologue

Houses and farms would each have a privy or outhouse, a small shed enclosing a seat over a deep pit (which eventually fills):

The Mayor, digging a new privy behind his house, had found rotted leather sacks full of gold, so none would go hungry.

- The Dragon Reborn, Within the Weave

The ‘necessary’ that Tuon was searching for in the inn in Maderin (Knife of Dreams, A Hell in Maderin) was probably a privy.

At night, or if it was a long walk to the privy, chamber pots are used: pots of thick white pottery, with or without lids, that are emptied daily (or when full) into pits, middens, privies or sewers and then cleaned by servants:

"Pay special attention to the chamber pots," Nynaeve said [to Moghedien] without turning around. "I want them clean this time."

- Lord of Chaos, Questions and Answers

To drive that home, two Accepted, five novices and near a dozen serving men and women were spending what would have been their free hours hauling kitchen garbage and chamber-pot emptyings out to the woods and burying them.

- Lord of Chaos, Under the Dust

The book slid from her lap as she [Tuon] stood and bent to snatch up the lidded white chamber pot.

- Crossroads of Twilight, A Fan of Colours

For someone used to the high standard of living and hygiene of the Age of Legends, emptying and cleaning a chamber pot must be an appalling job. The chamber pots are usually kept under the bed:

He [Mat] was almost disappointed to discover that the chamber pot under the bed [in the Tarasin Palace] was only plain white pottery.

- A Crown of Swords, Bread and Cheese

In cities with canals or rivers, untreated human waste is tipped into the water as was (and sometimes still is) done in our world:

He [Domon] crossed the Bridge of Flowers, over one of the city's many canals, into the Perfumed Quarter, the port district of Illian. The canal smelled of too many chamber pots, with never a sign that there had ever been flowers near the bridge.

- The Great Hunt, Leavetakings

The better designed cities (or those on higher ground), such as Cairhien, Tar Valon and Caemlyn, have sewers:

Norry could make a riot sound as lifeless as a report on the state of the city's cisterns or the expense of cleaning the sewers.

- Winter’s Heart, The Streets of Caemlyn

No one liked sewers, yet they were one-third of the life's blood of a city, the other two being trade and clean water. Without the sewers, Tar Valon would become prey to a dozen diseases, overwhelming anything the sisters could do, not to mention even more malodorous than the rotting garbage must have made the streets already. Though trade was cut to a trickle for the moment, the water still came in at the upriver end of the island and was distributed to watertowers throughout the city, then to fountains, ornamental and plain, that anyone was free to use, but now it seemed the sewer outlets on the downriver end of the island were nearly clogged.

- Knife of Dreams, The Dark One’s Touch

The contents of chamber pots (and other household waste water) could be emptied into the household cesspool connected to the sewer, or houses could have latrines—a seat-less hole in the floor—connected by a vertical drain to the cesspool.

There are no pigs roaming free in the villages, towns or cities in the Wheel of Time world and therefore human waste is properly contained or disposed of. Those houses (or tenements) in the cities without a sewer connection probably have their waste collected by nightsoil carts to be disposed of elsewhere, as was done in our world. Animal dung is certainly collected in this way:

A full dung cart, swarming with flies and scarcely narrower than the alleyway, was just rumbling by.

- The Fires of Heaven, Heading West.

Human urine was used in industrial processes such as tanning, dyeing and bleaching.

Paper would be too valuable to use as toilet paper as it was for most in the real world in the 17th and 18th centuries. The materials most commonly used for wiping oneself were broad leaves, grass, hay or rags. Since there is a lack of leaves in the Aiel Waste, the Aiel probably use corn husks or even cobs from the maize they grow, as was done in the early American West. The Sea Folk may wash themselves with sea water and cloth or sponge.


The Wheel of Time world has an apparently 100% effective, side-effect-free herbal contraceptive tea:

"She [Elayne] should have drunk that heartleaf tea," she [Min] babbled. "She'll get with child from this."

- Winter’s Heart, A Lily in Winter

Heartleaf and its possible real-world equivalents are described in the Herbs and Other Medicines article. The women’s control over their fertility, plus the empowerment resulting from women being the ones who can channel, is perhaps why there is almost no prostitution in the Wheel of Time world. There is no mention of sexually transmitted diseases either.

In the real world, the usual methods of contraception in the 17th and 18th centuries were abstinence, withdrawal prior to ejaculation, douching, and condoms of linen, leather or animal intestine (see animal intestine condom, right). Condoms were used as protection against sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea or the deadly syphilis as much as for contraception. They were effective: James Boswell caught gonorrhoea more than ten times (some were recurrences) in the 18th century, each time when he did not use a condom (James Boswell's journal). (He was either a slow learner or far too trusting; take your pick).

Asian women may have used oiled paper as a cervical cap, and Europeans may have used beeswax to seal their cervix as contraceptives.

A lot of women spent a lot of time pregnant in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Pregnancy and Birth

Medical care during pregnancy and birth during the 17th century was given by female midwives. It was not until after a surgeon attended a mistress of Louis XIV in 1663 that male midwives, “accoucheurs”, were accepted. In the Wheel of Time series, midwives are female (possibly even in Amadicia):

"Pity he can't learn my craft, but no one would buy herbs from a man. Or have a man midwife." Melfane laughed uproariously at that ridiculous notion.

- Knife of Dreams, The Importance of Dyelin

It is the rise of skilled male Healers such as Flinn, that may change attitudes.

Elayne’s midwife examines Elayne’s urine daily, even tasting it. One obvious disease that would show in the urine is diabetes of pregnancy, which would result in sweet-tasting urine. Liver disease results in orange or brown urine, kidney disease, foamy or red urine and white urine can signify infection. Examination of urine (uroscopy) for color, consistency, smell, and sometimes taste, has been used regularly since ancient times and was still performed during the 18th century, as was examination of faeces.

Examination of Elayne’s eyelids would indicate whether she was anaemic (this is still done). Elayne’s heart is checked with an early stethoscope, as was the babies’ hearts after the quickening, the first movements of the baby able to be felt, occurred (usually around 16‒20 weeks for a first pregnancy). The Wise Ones also use simple stethoscopes (Lord of Chaos, An Embassy) and do not rely on Healing for medical care, but practise preventative medicine with diet, herbs and exercise:

"No midwife?" Nadere said incredulously. "Who tells you what to eat and drink? Who gives you the proper herbs? Stop looking daggers at me, woman. Melaine's temper is worse than yours could ever be, but she has sense enough to let Monaelle govern her in these things."

- Knife of Dreams, A Different Skill

Another preventative measure is for Elayne to bask naked in sunlight for a while each day, which would ensure her body makes adequate amounts of vitamin D.

Elayne’s midwife has (correctly) forbidden alcohol, which certainly would not have happened in the 17th and 18th centuries, since plain water was often unsafe to drink and alcoholic drinks were consequently very popular. (Coffee and tea also became popular in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, respectively). Other ‘modern’ advice given to Elayne is to read to, and have music played to, her unborn babies. Elayne is also weighed daily, which would have been atypical (Knife of Dreams, The Importance of Dyelin).

From the comments about the necessity of keeping sewers in good running order for public health and Nynaeve’s insistence on washing hands between patients (The Eye of the World, Out of the Woods), the Third Age seems to have retained an understanding of the causes of infection from the Age of Legends. This was not known in our world until the 19th century.

Birth was usually at home in the 17th and 18th centuries, which was a good thing, since hospitals were dangerous hotbeds of infection due to the lack of infection control. Limited pain killers or intervention were used, just as in the Wheel of Time world:

“Since you ask questions, what would you do to ease birthing?” [asked Nynaeve].
Mother Guenna snorted. “Apply warm towels, child, and perhaps give her a little whitefennel if it was an especially hard birth. A woman needs no more than that, and a soothing hand.”

- The Dragon Reborn, Following the Craft

Would that this were true.

Childbirth was dangerous to women in the 17th and 18th centuries and it remained so, despite several advances, until well into the 20th century, with both deaths and injuries occurring. Maternal death affected all social classes, and in Europe one in 200 pregnancies (0.5%) ended in the death of the mother. In developing countries, maternal mortality is still a major problem and can be as high as 1% in areas with poor health care. The causes are sepsis, haemorrhage and hypertensive disease —the same causes that were common in Europe prior to the mid 20th century.

Obstetric intervention originally consisted of extraction of the baby, usually by the breech, to save the mother's life in obstructed labour. Forceps were introduced in the 17th century and reduced this problem to a degree.

A Swiss sow gelder, Jacob Nufer, is believed to have performed the first caesarean section of early modern times in 1500 on his wife after she had been in labour for several days. She survived and subsequently had more children. There were no further caesareans with survival of the mother in Europe until Mary Donally operated in 1738 in Ireland, although indigenous healers in Africa had performed caesareans for many years. All these operations were performed without anaesthesia or antiseptics. The developments of asepsis (sterile operating environment) and anaesthesia in the 19th century paved the way for the more regular and safer usage of caesarean section.

Besides obstructed labour and haemorrhage, another risk to the mother was the streptococcus infection puerperal (childbed) fever. Once contracted, puerperal fever was incurable until the development of sulphonamide antibiotics in 1935.

In the series, a long-lasting effect of the Shadow-induced famine and poor nutrition will be pelvic deformities caused by rickets leading to a higher rate of difficult and fatal births.

As well as considerable neonatal and maternal deaths, there was often damage done to mother and/or baby during birth. The ‘village idiot’ was not necessarily a result of inbreeding, but may have had a premature or difficult birth.

However dangerous for the mother, childbirth was, and is, well over 20 times more dangerous for the baby. Infant mortality rates were as high as 20‒30% prior to the 20th century and were still 7% in the UK in 1935:

In the late 16th/early 17th centuries over 12% of all children born would die within their first year…Approximately 2 per cent of babies born in the Elizabethan period died before the end of their first day of life. Death claimed a cumulative total of 5 per cent within the week, 8 or 9 per cent within a month, and 12 or 13 per cent within a year, with a slightly higher rate of infant mortality in the later seventeenth century."

- Carolyn Freeman Travers, Dead at Forty

There is a high infant mortality rate in the Wheel of Time world:

"My babes and I are safe." Elayne laughed, hugging back. "Min's viewing?" Her babes were safe, at least. Until they were born. So many babies died in their first year. Min had said nothing beyond them being born healthy.

- Knife of Dreams, A Different Skill

Twins are especially at risk. To have both born healthy and strong was not at all common.

Since there is large scale use of contraception and large groups of women not interested in having families, a greater percentage of women in the Wheel of Time world are menstruating at any one time than would be usual in the 17th and 18th centuries. Menstruation is the final section in this article, so anyone squeamish can stop reading now.


Menstruation was less frequent in the 17th and 18th centuries than now. Women started menstruating later, frequently in the mid to late teens, were pregnant more often, breast-fed their children more (which usually stopped menstruation) and were more likely to be under-nourished or sick (which can stop menstruation).

Elayne refers to the menstrual cycle as courses:

Why, her courses had shifted by more than a week to match the other woman’s!

- Winter’s Heart Prologue

Her comment that she and Birgitte synchronised cycles is valid; this is quite common for women living in the same household.

There were no disposable pads or tampons in the 17th and 18th centuries. Tampons did not become common in Europe until the 20th century and disposable pads were not available until then either.

Most women made their own pads from several layers of absorbent cloth sewn together; old household linen was popular. The pad was attached to a belt (shown left) with loops, pins or clasps. They were bulky, but this didn’t show since most women wore loose clothing. The upside was that there were less fungal diseases or toxic shock; the downside that there were more leakages.

Used pads were soaked in a bucket of cold water for some time, and then boiled in a laundry vessel once the blood stains were completely gone, otherwise heat sets the iron in the blood and the stain doesn’t come out. They took a long time to dry because of their thickness. The pads would be washed and re-used many times. If you want to see what such items looked like, the Powerhouse Museum of Sydney, Australia, has an online archive. It is believed that some women from poor or rural areas that did not wear underpants may have not used pads either, but just bled freely.


Written by Linda, January 2006 and updated March 2014

Contributor: smallcatharine


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much. Excellent material and presented in a lively and interesting style. It is useful to me in my research of 18th century Europe. Thank you!

Tk421 said...

I must point out, that it's entirely possible for 17th century-like technology level to have bras. )

Linda said...

Yes I am aware of that find. However the style of clothing at that time (shift, then kirtle, with or without corset, under a gown) offered better breast support than any bra. This is what over over 95% of women wore.

More to the point, the women characters in the series didn't wear either bra or corset. Only the shift and gown.