Medieval Harrogate was a small rural settlement and healthcare options for locals were limited. Two hospitals in Ripon provided food and lodgings for the poor, and a third cared for lepers and blind priests. Fountains Abbey acquired an infirmary in the 13th century, with a hall, chapel, kitchen and latrine block, but it only served the abbey community.
The leper hospital boasted relics of Mary Magdalene, but Harrogate had a more local saint with a reputation for healing miracles. Robert of Knaresborough was a hermit who lived in a cave beside the River Nidd at the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries. During his lifetime and long after his death his chapel attracted pilgrims and the poor. His tomb was said to produce an oil with medicinal properties.
Even before the discovery of Harrogate’s spring waters in the 16th century, the benefits of bathing and drinking clean water were widely appreciated. People of all kinds seem to have bathed for cleanliness, enjoyment and relaxation both at home and in communal bathhouses.
There were reasons why people may have abstained from bathing from time to time. At times of plague, those writing on the subject suggested that making the pores of the skin open in warm water made it easier for bad air to enter the body and cause sickness.
It is a common misconception that medieval people avoided drinking water altogether. Although alcohol may have been the drink of choice, water from wells and springs was drunk and used in cooking, and there are specific instances where drinking water from a clean source might be recommended by a physician. There also seemed to have been a general awareness that contaminated water posed health risks.