To Bathe, or Not to Bathe: Part 3 – Don’t Bathe Water Is Your Enemy!

Myself  .By T.V. Antony Raj


King Philippe VI of France  (1293 – 22 August 1350)
King Philippe VI of France (1293 – 22 August 1350)

In 1348, Philippe VI of France asked the medical faculty of the University of Paris to investigate the origins of the Bubonic plague. Their far-reaching opinion began with a disastrous conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars that caused disease-infected vapours to rise out of the earth and water to poison the air. They declared that susceptible people who breathed in the noxious air became ill and died.

Who were susceptible?

Some people susceptible to infection recognized in Greek and Roman times were: the obese, the intemperate, and the over-passionate. Now, the medical faculty added a new one that struck fear in the hearts of the medieval people – hot baths, which had a dangerous moistening and relaxing effect on the body. They said that once heat and water created openings through the skin, the plague could easily invade the entire body.

During the next two hundred years, whenever the plague threatened, the cry went out: “Bathhouses and bathing, I beg you to shun them or you will die.” Even so, some resisted the idea of refraining from bathing.

In 1450, during an outbreak, Jacques Des Pars, the physician to Charles VII, called for the closing of the Paris baths. This infuriated the bathhouse owners, and he fled to Tournai to avoid their wrath.

By the first half of the sixteenth century, it was common knowledge that French baths would be closed during eruptions of the plague.

Thomas Moulton was a Dominican friar, who called himself a doctor of divinity of the order of friar preachers. Around 1531, he published a small octavo treatise in England titled “The myrrour or glasse of helth.” It was a manual purported to help avoid the pestilence and maintain good health. The book became one of the best-selling medical books of the Tudor period. In it, he says:

use no baths or stoves; nor swet not too much, for all openeth the pores of a manne‘s body and maketh the venomous ayre to enter and for to infecte the bloude.”

Ambroise Paré (1510–1590) by Michiel Jansz. van Miereveld (Photo credit: The Royal College of Surgeons of England)
Ambroise Paré (1510–1590) by Michiel Jansz. van Miereveld (Photo credit: The Royal College of Surgeons of England)

Ambroise Paré (c. 1510 – December 20, 1590) was a French barber surgeon. He served kings Henry II, Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III. Paré is considered one of the fathers of surgery and modern forensic pathology. As an anatomist, he invented several surgical instruments. He pioneered surgical techniques, battlefield medicine and treatment of wounds. In 1545, Paré published his first book “The method of curing wounds caused by arquebus and firearms.”

In 1568, Ambroise Paré, warned about water coming into contact with an unsuspecting victim. He wrote, voicing a now common opi‭nion:

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 and similar statements 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.

The learned professors of the day said that even when a plague did not threaten, water posed a threat to the bather because of the pores in the body. Through water, one might contract syphilis or diseases, yet unnamed and unknown. They warned that women can even become pregnant from sperm floating in the bath water. Not only could spurious matter enter the body through water, but the all-important balance of the four humours – black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood – could become unstable through pores opened by moisture.

This resulted in lower class citizens, particularly men, to forgo bathing. They restricted their hygienic routine to rinsing their mouths, washing their hands and infrequent washing parts of their 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, the aristocrats, and the royalty 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.

In the medieval periods, worries about the body’s vulnerability affected fashion as well as hygiene. According to the professors, since the pores might be vulnerable even when dry and not heated, clothing should be smooth, tightly woven and fitted. Taffeta and satin for the wealthy, oil-cloth and jute or hemp sacking for the poor. Cotton and wool were too loosely woven. Fur offered too many places for poisons to lodge. People wore shifts, shirts, collars, coifs, kerchiefs, etc., made of linen. They thought that linen worn next to the skin enabled it to absorb sweat, and remove dirt from the body.

To combat body odour, the men and women belonging to the royalty and the aristocracy changed their linen wear often. Even then, they still stunk. So, they doused themselves with heady perfumes, oils, and scented powders to mask the stench emanating from their bodies.

In 1526, Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, a Dutch Renaissance humanist and a classical scholar wrote:

Twenty-five years ago, nothing was more fashionable in Brabant than public baths. Today there are none, the new plague has taught us to avoid them.

Before the medieval period, water had furnished comfort, pleasure, companionship, temptation, and cleanliness. Now, during the medieval period, on much of the Continent, water was considered an enemy to be avoided at all costs. The two centuries that followed Erasmus’ lament would be among the dirtiest in the history of Europe.

As the plagues recurred somewhere in Europe almost every year, the fears about a too permeable skin lasted until the beginning of the eighteenth century.

In 1538, François I of France had the French bathhouses closed. In 1546, Henry VIII of England officially banned all public baths in Southwark. In 1566, the States-General of Orléans closed the French bawdy houses, which included any operating bathhouses.

Sadly, the best medical advice of the period, probably doomed many people. Dirtier the people were, they were more likely to harbour Pulex irritatu, the flea now believed to have carried the plague bacillus from rats to humans.

In most of Europe, the complete lack of personal hygiene lingered until around mid 19th century.


Next →  Part 4 – Bathing in Medieval Europe

← Previous: Part 2 – The Bubonic Plague





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