"Wash your hands!" We've been told this since we were little kids, and in a time of pandemic it's especially important. We assume (rightly) that soap is a crucial ingredient of the process. Did medieval people have soap? Yes indeed, though not our kind of soap, in handy wrapped bars or even decorative shapes, smelling delicately of verbena or sandlewood.
The ancient world had not been big on soap, although they knew about it. Athletes had cleaned up after exercise by smearing themselves with oil and sand, then scraping off the sand with little scrapers, taking the sweat with it. You can buy "olive oil soap" today, but it's not the same.
Soap is made from mixing rendered fat or oil with a "base" (a base as opposed to an acid, think back to high school chemistry). Medieval people cooked down (rendered) the fat from meat, which we often throw away, and mixed it with lye made from mixing water with wood ash. This made a powerful soap, good for dissolving dirt and killing bacteria (although they didn't know about bacteria, they recognized that cleanliness was healthier). Soap usually didn't come in bars but was soft, more like liquid soap (but no handy pump-top dispensers), and had no delicate fragrance. Lard-based soap could become more or less solid, though oil-based soap stayed more or less liquid. This was the normal soap in Europe and the US until the mid-nineteenth century.
(One may note that lard, made from pig fat, is often still recommended for pie crusts, and you can buy it at the grocery store. But I digress.)
This pre-modern soap would not be described as "gentle on your hands." Farm families could and did make their own. In medieval cities, however, soap-making could be a skilled profession, even sometimes a guild, with the different soap-makers promoting soap that came in balls rather than as a thick liquid (making it more convenient), even scented with minced lavender leaves or the like.
Between the difficulty of heating up enough hot water for a bath and not wanting to scrub too much lye-based soap on your delicate parts, medieval people did not bathe as often as the modern model. They valued cleanliness, but some things are just not easy.
© C. Dale Brittain 2020
For more on health and hygiene in the Middle Ages, see my book, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available in paperback or as an ebook from Amazon and other on-line booksellers.