To Bathe, or Not to Bathe: Part 1 – That Was the Question in Europe!

Myself  .By T.V. Antony Raj


Around the world, the need for cleanliness gave rise to public centres for bathing. According to the historians, the Indus Valley Civilization had the earliest public baths.

The 'Great Bath', Mohenjo-daro, in Sindh, Pakistan. (Source:
The ‘Great Bath‘, Mohenjo-daro, in Sindh, Pakistan. (Source:

In 1926, archaeologists found the “Great Bath” among the ruins of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization at Mohenjo-daro in Sindh, Pakistan.  Housed inside a large, elaborate building the public used it for bathing. It had stairs leading down to the water at both ends. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Great Bath was built in the 3rd Millennium BC.

Ancient Bath in Dion - ΑΡΧΑΙΟ ΛΟΥΤΡΟ ΣΤΟ ΔΙΟΝ (Source:
Ancient Bath in Dion – ΑΡΧΑΙΟ ΛΟΥΤΡΟ ΣΤΟ ΔΙΟΝ (Source:

The history of public baths in Greece begins in the sixth century BC. The Greeks used small bathtubs, washbasins, and foot baths for personal cleanliness. The earliest such findings were in the palace complexes at Knossos, Crete. Luxurious alabaster bathtubs excavated at Akrotiri, Santorini date from the mid-2nd millennium BC.

The Greeks built public baths and showers in their gymnasiums for relaxation and personal hygiene.

Bathing in Greece grew into a ritualized art. Cities in ancient Greece honoured sites where “young ephebes (adolescents) stood and splashed water over their bodies.”

In Greek mythology the gods blessed certain natural springs or tidal pools to cure diseases. The Greeks established bathing facilities around these sacred pools for those desiring healing . Supplicants left offerings to the gods and bathed at these sites hoping for a cure.

The Roman Baths (Thermae) of Bath Spa, England. The entire structure above the level of the pillar bases is a later reconstruction. (Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0)
The Roman Baths (Thermae) of Bath Spa, England. The entire structure above the level of the pillar bases is a later reconstruction. (Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0)

In ancient Rome, the need for cleanliness gained much importance. One of the daily activities practiced across a variety of social classes was bathing. In many contemporary cultures bathing was a private activity conducted in the confines of one’s home. But in Rome, bathing was a communal activity that took place mostly in public facilities called the Thermae (Greek: θερμός thermos, meaning “hot”) and the balnea (from Greek βαλανεῖον balaneion, meaning “baths”) for bathing.

The state-owned large imperial bath complexes called Thermae filled the need for communal cleanliness. In some ways, these resembled modern-day spas. The largest of these, the Baths of Diocletian, could hold up to 3,000 bathers. Fees for both types of baths were quite reasonable, within the budget of most free Roman men.

The balneum was a small private bathhouse. But some balnea were public in the sense that they were open to the populace for a fee.

Although wealthy Romans might set up a bath in their own houses, they often frequented the Thermae, because they were not only facilities for bathing, but were also centres for meeting and socializing as well. A catalogue of buildings in Rome from 354 AD documented 952 baths of varying sizes in the city.

During the 1st century BC, a Roman architect, and civil engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio discussed the design of baths in his multivolume work “De Architectura” published as “The Ten Books on Architecture“.

The Romans built their public bath around three principal rooms: the caldarium (hot bath), the tepidarium (warm bath) and the frigidarium (cold bath). Some Thermae also featured the sudatorium (steam bath), a moist steam bath, and the laconicum (a dry steam), bath much like a modern sauna. An aqueduct, stream, or an adjacent river supplied water to the bathhouses built in forts, town houses, and private villas. A log fire heated the water channelled into the hot bathing rooms.

Before the Middle Ages, public baths were common in Europe. The public bathed regularly. During the 4th and 5th centuries, the Catholic Church advocated bathing to keep oneself clean and healthy. At the same time, the Church forbade people from attending public bathhouses for pleasure. It also condemned women going to bathhouses that had mixed facilities.

Saint Ephraim, metropolitan of Kyiv and All Rus', Bishop of Pereyaslav (modern Ukraine). (Source - Kyiv Caves Lavra, Ukraine)
Saint Ephraim, metropolitan of Kyiv and All Rus’, Bishop of Pereyaslav (modern Ukraine). (Source – Kyiv Caves Lavra, Ukraine)

Before he became a monk, Saint Ephraim II of Pereyaslav, was the treasurer and steward of household affairs (1054–1068) at the court of the Iziaslav Yaroslavich, the Grand Prince of Kiev. Weighed down by the noisy and bustling life at that time he became a monk. After the year 1072, Ephraim appointed as bishop in Pereyaslav built stone walls around the city like the Greek. He adorned the city with many beautiful churches and public buildings. He also constructed free hospices and public bathhouses for the poor and travelers.

During the Early and the High Middle Ages, the Catholic Church imposed more restrictions. It discouraged bathing naked on moral grounds and disapproved excessive bathing. Eventually, the public bathing culture of antiquity fell into disuse in Europe.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, the returning Crusaders, from Turkey and the Arab world, who had enjoyed warm baths in the Middle east, reintroduced Roman style public baths in Europe. Once again, the public baths became popular in medieval Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France and to a lesser extent in England. During the reign of Henry II, from 1154 AD to 1189 AD, bathhouses, called ‘bagnios were set up in Southwark on the river Thames.

In due course, most of these public baths degenerated into brothels and were closed down at various times. The Medieval Catholic Church proclaimed that public bathing led to immorality, promiscuous sex, and diseases.

The disease “Black Death” was the most catastrophic pandemic the world has yet known. It claimed an estimated 75 to 200 million people and peaked in Europe in the years 1346–53. The plague killed at least one out of every three Europeans. The aftermath of the plague created a series of religious, social, and economic upheavals, which had profound effects on the course of European history. It took 150 years for Europe’s population to recover. The plague recurred occasionally in Europe until the 19th century.

In 1538, François I of France had the French bathhouses closed.  In 1546, all public baths were officially banned in England by Henry VIII due to their negative reputation.

Ambroise Paré (c. 1510 – December 20, 1590) was a French barber-surgeon. He served kings Henry II, Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III. Considered as one of the fathers of surgery and modern forensic pathology, he pioneered surgical techniques and battlefield medicine and treatment of wounds. He was also an anatomist and invented several surgical instruments. In 1568, Ambroise Paré, warned about water coming into contact with an unsuspecting victim:

Steam-baths and bath-houses should be forbidden because when one emerges, the flesh and the whole disposition of the body are softened and the pores open, and as a result, pestiferous vapour can rapidly enter the body and cause sudden death, as has frequently been observed.

This statement caused the medical fraternity in Europe to unanimously believe that water and infected air carried diseases into the body through the pores in the skin. Hence, they advised people not to bathe.

This resulted in lower class citizens, particularly men, to forgo bathing. They restricted their hygienic routine to rinsing their mouths,  washing hands and infrequent washing parts of the face. They believed that washing one’s entire face was dangerous as it would weaken the eyesight and cause catarrh. Members of the upper classes cut down their full body bathing habits to just a few times per year. They struck a balance between the risk of contracting a disease by bathing, and emanating body stench.

During the reign of Louis XIV people believed that a grimy layer of dirt would keep one healthy. They thought the grime would clog the pores on the skins and help to keep away the water from entering one’s body. Throughout the 17th century, people washed little. They wore shifts, shirts, collars, coifs, kerchiefs, etc., made of linen. It was thought that linen worn next to the skin had special properties that enabled it to absorb sweat, and remove dirt from the body. Working class people used cream, grey or beige linen not having the resources to keep their linen white.

To combat body odour, the rich used scented rags to rub the body and heavy use of perfumes to mask their stench. The royalty and the aristocracy changed their linen wear often. Men wore small bags with fragrant herbs between the shirt and waistcoat, while women dusted fragrant powders over their entire body. Even then they still stunk. So, they doused themselves with heady perfumes, oils, and scented powders to mask the stench emanating from their bodies.

A wardrobe full of fine linen smocks or undershirts to enable a daily change was the height of hygienic sophistication. Jean Racine (1639 – 1699), the French dramatist, Molière (1622 – 1673), the French playwright actor, owned 30 pieces each.

This complete lack of personal hygiene in most of Europe lingered until around mid 19th century.

Russians were not so fastidious about bathing. The Europeans considered them perverts. The Russians took regular baths at least once a month.


Next →  Part 2 – The Bubonic Plague