I don't normally let a short story get to me, but one I finished reading yesterday is still bugging me. I won't mention the title or author's name as they're actually irrelevant to my point here. It's not that the story was particularly bad in terms of writing style or plot. I probably would have enjoyed the thing if it hadn't been for one small problem: the author had no idea what he was talking about.
Line many stories, the tale centered upon a person from a primitive culture being taken to a more developed one. This is all well and fine, except that instead of learning what primitive human cultures are/were really like, the tale's author simply repeated every myth about "naked savages" he'd ever read or seen in movies regardless of whether they made sense. Ugh! I did laugh when he actually used the phrase "naked savage" when the main character saw himself in a mirror, but it wasn't a good laugh so much as a shocked laugh of disbelief.
So where's the medieval angle here? Well oddly enough, most of the myths the author perpetuated are often applied to medieval European culture as well. There seems to be some need in humanity to assume that life in any given time of the past must have been shorter, simpler, and nastier than it is now. I'll address some of the specific myths in the story from the viewpoint of a historian and medievalist, but the answers pretty much apply to all human cultures.
Some cultures do indeed bathe more than others, but if a human is going to live long enough to breed then it must maintain some level of hygiene. Medieval Europeans bathed, and it was more than once a year. No, they probably didn't smell like roses or lemons, but neither do some of the people I deal with on a daily basis. They did understand the importance of washing their hands, cleaning their teeth, and the like. Dirt and sweat are one thing, filth and vermin are another.
Not everyone lived their entire life on the edge of starvation. Yes, there were periods of famine in the middle ages, but there were also time were people had enough to eat. While they didn't have modern agriculture or preservation techniques, they were generally capable of getting enough food from their lands and storing enough of it to get through the winter.
While the sum of human knowledge has increased, the level of human intelligence has not changed for many thousands of years. In other words, medieval people were just as smart as modern people, but they didn't have as much information as we do. There were geniuses and idiots in ancient Rome, and they were much like their modern counterparts.
Live was not simpler in medieval Europe. The merchants there/then had already invented things like insurance and stock futures. They had bank accounts, brokers, overseas manufacturing, fraud, cartels, and everything else we expect from modern business. People - even in the working or farming classes - didn't spend all their time at work. They had fashion trends, theater, religious debates, wedding celebrations, and even fast food. It seems that humans will always make things as complicated as possible given their environment in order to keep from being bored. (Don't believe me? Check out Polynesian cultures)
So yes, I'm sure there were some people in medieval Europe who were stupid and filthy, who worked all of their waking hours, and lived their entire lives on the edge of starvation. However I'm also sure that I could find such people living in modern cities as well. Their lives are not (and were not) typical.