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A European in the Orient: Part 3 – Did Marco Polo Really Travel to the Far East?


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Marco Polo (Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Marco Polo (Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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Marco Polo died at his home in Venice on January 8, 1324. Before his death, friends and readers of his book visited him and urged him to admit that his book was a fiction. Marco would not relent. He told them:

I have not told half of what I saw!

​Marco Polo has been long regarded as the earliest and most distinguished of European travelers of all times for traversing Asia from one extremity to the other. He surpassed every other traveler of his time in the extent of the unknown regions he visited, as well as in the amount of new and important information he had collected. His description of the Chinese imperial court and the Chinese empire under the most powerful of the Asiatic dynasties, and tales of the adjacent countries in the Far East, forms a grand historical picture not painted by any other traveler of his period.

Authenticity is important in any travel narrative, otherwise it altogether becomes a worthless romance. A profound ignorance veiled  Europe when the Polos returned from the East. Doubts of the authenticity of Marco’s tales arose since most of the regions he had traversed were wholly unknown at that time. And his discoveries far transcended the knowledge of his age. Also, many editions of Marco Polo’s travelogue proliferated in an age when printing was unknown. The narratives varied from one another, often corrupted to a great extent.

Even now, some argue that Marco Polo never reached China, but cobbled together secondhand accounts of what he had heard. They say there are inaccuracies in the tales. They point out that he never mentioned the basic elements of Chinese culture, such as drinking tea, the use of chopsticks, the Chinese characters, or the tradition of foot-binding.

Responders to such skeptics have stated that if the purpose of Marco Polo’s stories of travels was to impress others with tales of his high esteem for an advanced civilization, then it is possible that Polo shrewdly would omit those details that would cause his readers to scoff at the Chinese with a sense of European superiority. Marco lived among the elite Mongols. Foot-binding was almost unknown among the Mongols and was rare even among Chinese during Polo’s time.

Some observers, who have only a cursory view of the history of China, say he never mentioned the Great Wall in his book. These people are ignorant of the fact that the Great Wall, familiar to us today, is a Ming structure constructed, about two centuries after Marco Polo’s travels in China, to keep out northern invaders.

New Evidence

It is odd that Marco Polo never produced a single map to accompany his narrative accounts in the ghostwritten book. Hence, scholars have long debated its the veracity. Now, there is new evidence in favor for this historical puzzle of whether Marco Polo did indeed visit China and the Far East. The proof is in the form of a curious collection of fourteen little-known maps and related documents purported to have belonged to the family of Marco Polo.

In the 1880s, Marcian Rossi, an Italian, immigrated to the United States. He brought along with him a collection of sheepskin vellum he said were of the 13th and 14th century. There were 14 little-known maps and related documents detailing Marco Polo’s journey to the Far East. These  documents bear the signatures of the three daughters of Marco Polo — Fantina, Bellela and Moreta.

The existence of these parchments came to light only in the 1930s, when Marcian Rossi contacted the Library of Congress. He explained that Marco Polo had bestowed the documents upon a Venetian Admiral, Ruggero Sanseverino, and that they had been passed down through generations of the Rossi family. But the collection did not undergo exhaustive analysis.

Are the maps forgeries or facsimiles?  They created a problem for the historians of cartography. Did Marco Polo’s daughters, whose names appear on some of these artifacts, preserve in them geographic information about Asia as told by their father? Did they inherit the maps created by him? Did Marco Polo entrust the maps to a Venetian admiral who had links to Rossi’s family line? Or, if the maps have no connection to Marco Polo, who made them, when, and for what purpose?

While some historians discounted the 14 parchments as mere fantasy, forgeries, or facsimiles, others wanted a balanced, detailed study of the documents.

Benjamin B. Olshin, a historian of cartography and a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, spent more than a decade studying the artifacts. He translated the Italian, Latin, Arabic and Chinese inscriptions found therein. All but one of the original documents, a map Marcian Rossi donated to the Library of Congress, remain in the possession of Rossi’s great-grandson Jeffrey Pendergraft in Texas. Olshin is the first scholar in decades to see those originals.

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Marco Polo's 'Map with Ship' (Credit: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)
Marco Polo’s ‘Map with Ship‘ (Credit: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)

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The map donated by Marcian Rossi to the Library of Congress, dubbed “Map with Ship,” is a curious one. It has an illustration of a Venetian sailing vessel and a sketch of what appears to be outlines of Japan, Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, the Bering Strait, the Aleutian Islands and the coastlines of present-day Alaska and British Columbia. The map was not a navigational aid because it lacks longitude and latitude reference lines.

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The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps by Benjamin B. Olshin
The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps by Benjamin B. Olshin

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Olshin has detailed the results of his intensive research in his book, “The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps.” The book is the first credible book-length analysis of these parchments. It is a balanced, detailed, and a non speculative work of cartographic scholarship, not another ‘who discovered?’ sensation. Olshin charts the course of the documents from obscure origins in the private collection of the Italian-American immigrant Marcian Rossi in the 1930s. He describes the investigations by the Library of Congress, J. Edgar Hoover, and the FBI for their authenticity. Olshin describes his own efforts to track down and study the Rossi maps.

After a  thorough tracing of Marcian Rossi’s ancestry, Olshin asserts that Rossi’s explanation that Marco Polo had bestowed the documents upon a Venetian admiral, Ruggero Sanseverino, and that they had been passed down through generations of the Rossi family was credible.

Olshin describes himself as an “evidence guy” and makes no claims that the document “Map with Ship,” depicts Alaska for certain although there are similarities. Olshin also admits, the authenticity of the ten maps and four texts is not settled. The ink on the parchments remains untested. A radiocarbon study of the sheepskin vellum of one key map, the only one subjected to such analysis, dates it to the 15th or 16th century, making it at best a copy.

Regardless of the origin of the documents, Olshin offers insights into Italian history, the age of exploration, and the wonders of cartography. He then takes his readers on a fascinating journey to the early legendary lands of the Chinese.

Alessandro Scafi said in Times Literary Supplement (UK):

“Olshin plays with the idea that Marco Polo’s relatives may have preserved geographical information about distant lands first recorded by him, or even that they may have inherited maps that he made. If genuine, Olshin argues, these maps and texts would confirm that Marco Polo knew about the New World two centuries before Columbus, either from his own experience or through hearing about it from the Chinese … Fascinating material … Olshin himself admits that there is no hard evidence to support his thrilling speculations. Including translations of every annotation and inscription, Olshin’s study and description of the fourteen parchments are exhaustive. His analysis, however, leaves many questions open … A fascinating tale about maps, history and exploration.”

The parchments in the Rossi collection may not only back up Marco Polo’s claim that he journeyed to the Orient, but also could reveal he might have set foot on the North American continent, 200 years before Christopher Columbus. It is purported that Columbus carried a well-worn copy of “The Travels of Marco Polo” with him on his historic 1492 voyage. It is conjectured that the travels of Marco Polo inspired Columbus to seek a westward sea route to the riches of East Asia, but instead landed in the New World.

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A European in the Orient: Part 2 – The Book “The Travels of Marco Polo”


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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When Niccolò, Maffeo, and Marco Polo,  arrived in Italy they found the Republic of Venice at war with the Most Serene Republic of Genoa, that had one of the most powerful navies in the Mediterranean.

Marco Polo joined the Venetians in the war. He commanded a galley equipped with a trebuchet, a type of catapult that used as a siege engine in the Middle Ages. The Genoans captured Marco in a skirmish in 1296, off the Anatolian coast between Adana and the Gulf of Alexandretta, and imprisoned him.

While spending several months in prison between 1298–1299, Marco became a friend of a fellow prisoner Rustichello da Pisa, an Italian writer of romance. Marco told Rustichello about his time in Asia. Rustichello soon committed his stories to paper in Old French. The romance writer also incorporated into it tales of his own as well as other collected anecdotes and current affairs from China.

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Le livre des merveilles du monde. Marco Polo
Le livre des merveilles du monde. Marco Polo

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After his release in 1299, Marco Polo and Rustichello da Pisa together turned the written notes into a travelogue titled “Livre des Merveilles du Monde” (Book of the Marvels of the World) or “Devisement du Monde” (Description of the World). In Italian the account appeared as “Il Milione” (The Million) or Oriente Poliano and was published later in English as “The Travels of Marco Polo.

Marco Polo was not the first European to reach China.

Marco Polo was the first to leave a detailed popular chronicle of his experience in medieval China to the world, but he definitely was not the first European to travel to the Far East.

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John of Plano Carpini's great journey to the East. His route is indicated, railroad track style, in dark blue. From the "Historical Atlas" by William R. Shepherd, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1923 (2nd edition)
Giovanni da Pian del Carpine’s great journey to the East. His route is indicated, railroad track style, in dark blue. From the “Historical Atlas” by William R. Shepherd, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1923 (2nd edition)

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During the time of the great Mongol invasion of eastern Europe, the Battle of Legnica on April 9, 1241, proved disastrous. The loss threatened to cast European Christendom under the rule of Ögedei Khan, the 2nd Khagan of the Mongol Empire.

Four years later, with the dread of the Mongols still on the mind of the people in eastern Europe, Pope Innocent IV, dispatched the first formal Catholic mission to the Mongols. It was partly to protest against the latter’s invasion of Christian lands, partly to gain trustworthy information about Mongol armies and their intention for the future. The Pope chose 65-year-old Friar Giovanni da Pian del Carpine to head this mission.

The mission started on Easter day April 16, 1245, from Lyon, where the Pope then resided. Giovanni bore a letter “Cum non solum” dated March 13, 1245, from the Pope to Ögedei Khan, the Mongol Emperor. Another friar, Stephen of Bohemia, accompanied Giovanni, broke down at Kaniv near Kiev. Another Minorite, Benedykt Polak, appointed to act as interpreter joined Giovanni at Wrocław.

Their journey was perilous. The Papal legate wrote that they were, “so ill that we could scarcely sit a horse; and throughout all that Lent our food had been nought but millet with salt and water, and with only snow melted in a kettle for drink.

Friar Giovanni and his companions rode an estimated 3000 miles in 106 days. By the time they reached their destination Ögedei Khan was dead.

On August 24, 1246, Giovanni and his companions witnessed the formal enthronement of Güyük Khan as the Third Khagan of the Mongol Empire. The new emperor refused the invitation to become a Christian, but demanded that the Pope and rulers of Europe should come to him and swear  their allegiance to him.

When Güyük Khan dismissed the expedition in November, 1246, he gave them a letter to the Pope, written in Mongol, Arabic, and Latin. It was a brief imperious assertion of the Mongol emperor’s office as the “scourge of God.”

Later on, other Catholic emissaries followed. In the 1250s, William of Rubruck, traveled east on a quest to convert the Mongols to Christianity. These early missionaries were largely inspired by the myth of Prester John (Latin: Presbyter Johannes), Christian patriarch and king popular in European chronicles and in the tradition of the 12th through the 17th century.

The accounts about this mythical king vary. They are just a collection of medieval popular fantasy. One such account depicts him as a descendant of the Three Magi, ruling a kingdom full of riches, marvels, and strange creatures. Polo mentions the fictional monarch in his book, and even asserts that Prester John fought a great battle against the Mongol ruler Genghis Kahn.

A Lombardian surgeon also had reached the city of Khanbaliq in 1303. A merchant named Petro de Lucalongo, had accompanied the monk John of Montecorvino to Khanbaliq in 1305.

In his work “Histoire de l’Empire Mongol,” Jean-Paul Roux,  a French Turkologue and a specialist in Islamic culture says that a person named André de Pérouse had mentioned that there was a small Genoese colony, in the harbor of Zaytun in 1326. Andolo de Savignone was the most famous Italian resident of the city. In 1336, Toghon Temür, the 15th Khagan of the Mongol Empire and the 11th Emperor of the Yuan dynasty sent him to the West to buy “100 horses and other treasures.

In 1339, a Venetian named Giovanni Loredanoto returned to Venice from China during the reign of  Emperor Toghon Temür.

A tombstone with the name of Catherine de Villioni, daughter of a Dominici, who died in 1342 during the reign of Toghon Temür was discovered in Yangzhou.

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An illuminated manuscript on Marco Polo's fascinating and adventurous travels (Source: facsimilefinder.com)
An illuminated manuscript on Marco Polo’s fascinating and adventurous travels (Source: facsimilefinder.com)

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Well-known master artists of the medieval times steeped the manuscripts like the one shown above in enchanting colors.

The Travelogue, “The Travels of Marco Polo” soon spread throughout Europe in manuscript form.  It gave the curious Europeans in the Middle Ages craving to know more about the marvels of the Orient,  the first comprehensive look into the inner workings of the Far East, including China, India, and Japan. Rarely have secular topics had such an intense echo.

The Travelogue is divided into four books:

Book One describes the lands of the Middle East and Central Asia that Marco Polo traveled through on his way to China.

Book Two describes China and the court of Kublai Khan.

Book Three describes some of the coastal regions of the East: Japan, Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, India, and the East Coast of Africa.

Book Four describes some of the then-recent wars among the Mongols, and some of the regions of the Far North, like Russia.

No authoritative version of Marco Polo’s book exists. The early manuscripts differ much from one another. Also, inadvertent errors and discrepancies crept in during the process of copying and translating.

The published editions of the travelogue either rely on single manuscripts, or a blend of many versions. For example, the popular translation published by Penguin Books in 1958 is the handiwork of R.E. Latham, who blended several manuscripts together to make a readable whole.

A.C. Moule and Paul Pelliot based their  1938 English translation on a Latin manuscript found in the library of the Cathedral of Toledo in 1932, and is 50 percent longer than other versions.

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Probable view of Marco Polo's own geography drawn by H. Yule, 1871. (Source: The Book of Ser Marco Polo. London, 1871, vol. I, p. cxxxv)
Probable view of Marco Polo’s own geography drawn by H. Yule, 1871. (Source: The Book of Ser Marco Polo. London, 1871, vol. I, p. cxxxv)

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Some published editions carry notes to clarify, as exemplified in the English translation by Henry Yule.

To date, approximately 150 manuscript copies exist in various languages.

After his release from prison, Marco Polo returned to Venice. He married and raised three daughters. During the next 25 years, he carried on the family business.

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A European in the Orient: Part 1 – The Adventures of Marco Polo


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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A 13th-century travelogue titled Livre des Merveilles du Monde (Book of the Marvels of the World) or Devisement du Monde (Description of the World) introduced Europeans to the geography of the Orient and the ethnic customs of its indigenous peoples.

The book described the travels of the Italian merchant traveler Marco Polo between 1276 and 1291, through Asia: Persia, China, Indonesia, Burma, Tibet, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India, and his experiences at the court of Kublai Khan, the fifth Khagan (Great Khan) of the Mongol Empire. The book described Cathay (present-day China) in great detail and its abundance of riches. Though Marco Polo was not the first European to have visited the Far East, he still became famous after the publication of the book.

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Marco Polo (Credit: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)
Marco Polo (Credit: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)

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Marco Polo was born in Venice on September 15, 1254 to a wealthy Venetian merchant named Niccolò Polo. Marco’s father and his uncle Maffeo Polo being merchants had established trading posts in Constantinople, Sudak in Crimea, and in a western part of the Mongol Empire in Asia.

In 1264, the Polo brothers joined up with a diplomatic mission sent by  Hulagu, the ruler of Il-khanate to his brother Kublai Khan, both grandsons of Gengis Khan. They reached the seat of Kublai Khan, the leader of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, in Dadu (present day Beijing, China) in 1266.

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Kublai Khan, Emperor of China. The 5th Khagan of the Mongol Empire. The First Emperor of the Yuan dynasty.
Kublai Khan, Emperor of China. The 5th Khagan of the Mongol Empire. The First Emperor of the Yuan dynasty.

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Kublai Khan, the Mongol Emperor, received the Polos well and expressed his interest in Christianity. He then sent them back to Italy with a Mongol named Koeketei as an ambassador to Pope Clement IV. They carried a letter from the emperor requesting the Pope to send 100 educated people to teach Christianity and western customs to his people. He also requested oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulcher. The emperor also gave them  the paiza, a golden tablet a foot long and 3 inches (7.6 cm) wide, to signify certain privileges and authority, allowing them to acquire lodging, horses and food throughout  his dominion.

Koeketei left in the middle of the journey, leaving the Polos to travel alone to Ayas in the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. From that port city, the Polos sailed to Saint Jean d’Acre, capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Pope Clement IV died on November 29, 1268. The long sede vacante between the death of Pope Clement IV, and the election of a new pope delayed the Polos from fulfilling Kublai Khan’s request.

In 1269 or 1270, Teobaldo Visconti, then papal legate for the realm of Egypt suggested that the brothers return to Venice and wait for the nomination of the new Pope.

Niccolò Polo once again saw his son Marco, now a teenager, who had been living with his aunt and another uncle in Venice since the death of his mother at a young age.

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Niccolò Polo and Matteo Polo remitting a letter from Kublai Khan to Pope Gregory X in 1271.
Niccolò Polo and Matteo Polo remitting a letter from Kublai Khan to Pope Gregory X in 1271.

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In 1271, Theobald Visconti was elected as Pope Gregory X. He received the letter from Kublai Khan brought by the Polo brothers.

The Polo brothers left Venice on their second voyage to the Orient along with a 17-year-old Marco. Unable to recruit the 100 people that Kublai Khan had requested to teach his people, the Polos left with only two Dominican friars:  Niccolò de Vicence and Guillaume de Tripoli. They set sail to Acre.

At Acre they joined a caravan of merchants travelling to the Persian port of Hormuz. Soon, bandits attacked their caravan using the cover of a sandstorm to ambush them. The marauding bandits killed many members of the caravan and enslaved the rest, but the Polos managed to escape to a nearby town.

Marco reveled in the adventure, but the two monks after getting a taste of the hard journey ahead of them, soon turned back for home.

When they reached Hormuz they wanted to sail straight to China, but the ships in Hormuz were not seaworthy, so they continued overland through the Silk Road.

The journey was challenging and at times they had to traverse harsh terrain. In what is now Afghanistan, Marco fell ill. He had to retreat to the mountains to recuperate from the illness.

Crossing the Gobi desert, proved long and, at times, arduous. Marco told later: “This desert is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end. And at the narrowest point it takes a month to cross it. It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat.

In 1274, three and a half years after leaving Venice, when Marco was about 21 years old, the Polos reached Kanbaliq or Dadu, the capital of the Yuan dynasty (present day Beijing). Kublai Khan who welcomed them into his summer palace known as Xanadu, a grand marble architectural wonder. The Polos presented the sacred oil from Jerusalem and the papal letters to the Mongol Emperor.

The Polos spent the next 17 years in China under the patronage of Kublai Khan. Niccolo and Maffeo were granted important positions in Kublai Khan’s Court. The Mongol Emperor took a liking to Marco, an engaging storyteller. Marco’s immersed himself into the Chinese culture and mastered four languages. He served as an official in the salt administration and made trips through the provinces of Yunnan and Fukien. At one stage, he was the tax inspector in the city of Yanzhou.

Marco Polo marveled at the use of paper money in the Mongol empire, an idea that had not reached Europe at that time.

Kublai Khan employed Marco Polo as a special envoy.  He sent Marco to Burma, India, Tibet and other far-flung areas hitherto never explored by Europeans. Marco was promoted again and again for his work. He served as governor of a Chinese city. Later, Kublai Khan appointed him as an official of the Privy Council.

The Polos asked permission on many occasions to return to Europe, but Kublai Khan liked them so much that he would not agree to their departure.

In 1291, Kublai Khan entrusted the Polos with their last duty. It was to escort the Mongol princess Koekecin to her betrothed, the Il-khan Arghun of the breakaway state of the Mongol Empire in Persia, ruled by the Mongol House of Hulagu.

The Polos departed from the southern port city of Quanzhou with a caravan of several hundred passengers and sailors. They sailed to Sumatra, Ceylon and India. They visited Mylapore, Madurai and Alleppey in India. Marco Polo nicknamed Alleppey as the “Venice of the East.”

The journey was harrowing due to storms and disease. Many perished. By the time they reached Il-khanate in Persia in 1293 or 1294, only 18 people, including the princess and the Polos, were still alive.  They came to know that Il-khan Arghun to whom the princess was betrothed had died. They left the Mongol princess Koekecin with the new Il-khan Gaykhatu. The Polos then moved to Trebizond . From there they sailed to Constantinople and then reached Venice in 1295. They had travelled almost 15,000 miles (24,000 km).  The Polos returned to Venice with thier fortune converted in gemstones. In Venice, the Polos struggled to converse in their native tongue. Above all, they were unfamiliar to their family.

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Marco Polo's Route (Source: httpdepts.washington.edu)
Marco Polo’s Route (Source: httpdepts.washington.edu)

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To Bathe, or Not to Bathe: Part 4 – Bathing in Medieval Europe


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Myself  .By T.V. Antony Raj

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We all stink. No one smells.
– Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – August 20, 1153)

Antiquity, the Medieval period, and the Modern period are the three traditional divisions of Western history. In European history, the period 5th to the 15th century is known as the Medieval period or the Middle Ages. It began with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and merged into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The Medieval period is itself subdivided into the Early, the High, and the Late Middle Ages.

In European history, the Early Medieval Period (or Early Middle Ages) lasted from the 5th century to the 10th century. This period has been labeled the “Dark Ages,” due to the relative scarcity of literary and cultural output, especially in Northwestern Europe. However, the Byzantine Empire or Eastern Roman Empire, continued to survive. And, in the 7th century, the Islamic caliphates conquered regions of former Roman territories.

The High Medieval Period (or High Middle Ages) was the period of European history around the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries (c. 1001–1300). During this period, the population of Europe increased and brought about great social and political change from the preceding era.

The Late Medieval Period (or Late Middle Ages) was the period comprising the 14th and 15th centuries (c. 1301–1500). It preceded the onset of the early modern era and, in much of Europe, the Renaissance.

The great social and political change from the High Medieval Period in Europe came to a halt in the early 14th century. A series of calamities such as the Great Famine of 1315-1317 and the Black Death reduced the population to around half of what it was before. The prosperity and growth in Europe came to a halt. Along with depopulation came social unrest and endemic warfare. France and England experienced serious peasant uprisings: the Hundred Years’ War, the Jacquerie, the Peasants’ Revolt, as well as a century of intermittent conflicts.

The Hundred Years’ War was a series of wars waged from 1337 to 1453 between the House of Plantagenet, rulers of the Kingdom of England, and the House of Valois for control of the Kingdom of France.

The Jacquerie was a popular revolt by peasants in northern France in the summer of 1358.

The Peasants’ Revolt, also called Wat Tyler’s Rebellion or the Great Rising, was a major uprising across large parts of England in 1381.

To add to the many problems of the period, the Western Schism shattered the unity of the Catholic Church. By and large, these events are sometimes called the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages.

Despite these crises, the 14th century was a period of great progress in arts and sciences.

Icon of St. Gregory the Great by Theophilia (Source: theophilia.deviantart.com)
Icon of St. Gregory the Great by Theophilia (Source: theophilia.deviantart.com)

Pope Gregory I (c. 540 – 12 March 604), commonly known as Saint Gregory the Great, was Pope from September 3, 590 until his death in 604.

Jay Stuller of Smithsonian magazine wrote:

“Gregory the Great, the first monk to become pope, allowed Sunday baths and even commended them, so long as they didn’t become a ‘time-wasting luxury’… medieval nobility routinely washed their hands before and after meals. Etiquette guides of the age insisted that teeth, face and hands be cleaned each morning. Shallow basins and water jugs for washing hair were found in most manor houses, as was the occasional communal tub…”

Icon of St Bernard  of Clairvaux by Benedictine nun in England (Source: newclairvaux.org)
Icon of St Bernard of Clairvaux by Benedictine nun in England (Source: newclairvaux.org)

During the High Medieval Period (c. 1001–1300) the Europeans smelled terrible and they were used to it. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (born 1090), a French abbot and the primary builder of the reforming Cistercian order summed up the tolerance of the people to their stinking bodies thus: “We all stink. No one smells.

Saint Francis of Assisi
Saint Francis of Assisi

Saint Francis of Assisi (1181/1182 – October 3, 1226), Italian Catholic friar and preacher considered an unwashed body a stinking badge of piety.

In his article, “A History of Private Life,” the French historian Georges Duby, specializing in the social and economic history of the Middle Ages wrote:

Among the dominant class at least, cleanliness was much prized. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Cluniac monasteries and houses of the lay nobility continued to set aside space for bathsNo formal dinner (that is, no dinner given in the great hall with a large crowd of guests) could begin until ewers had been passed around to the guest for their preprandial ablutions. Water flowed abundantly in the literature of amusement — over the body of the knight-errant, who was always rubbed down, combed, and groomed by his host’s daughters whenever he stopped for the night, and over the nude bodies of fairies in fountains and steam-baths. A hot bath was an obligatory prelude to the amorous games described in the fabliaux. Washing one’s own body and the bodies of others seems to have been a function specifically ascribed to women, mistresses of water both at home and in the wilderness.

“Bathing and grooming were regarded with suspicion by moralists, however, because they unveiled the attractions of the body. Bathing was said to be a prelude to sin, and in the penitential of Burchard of Worms we find a full catalog of the sins that ensued when men and women bathed together… Lambert of Ardres, the historian of the counts of Guines, describes the young wife of the ancestor of his hero swimming before the eyes of her household in a pond below the castle, but he is careful to indicate that she is wearing a modest white gown. … [Public baths] were suspect because they were too public; it was better wash one’s body in the privacy of one’s own home. Scrupulous, highly restrictive precautions were taken in… monasteries. At Cluny, the custom required the monks to take a full bath twice a year, at the holidays of renewal, Christmas and Easter; but they were exhorted not to uncover their pudenda.” (p. 525)

Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor

Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor
Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor

Frederick II (December 26, 1194 – December 13, 1250), was one of the most powerful Holy Roman Emperors of the Middle Ages. He was the head of the House of Hohenstaufen. Though based in Sicily, his political and cultural ambitions stretched through Italy to Germany, and even to Jerusalem. His admirers nicknamed him ‘Stupor Mundi‘ meaning ‘Wonder of the World’ while his enemies called him an ‘Anti-Christ whore of Babylon.’

Having enjoyed discussions with Cardinal de‘ Fieschi, Frederick II admired the Cardinal’s wisdom. On June 25, 1243, Cardinal de‘ Fieschi reluctantly accepted election as Pope and took on the name Innocent IV.

The emperor was always at daggers drawn with the popes. Following the election the witty Frederick remarked that he had “lost the friendship of a cardinal, but made up for it by gaining the enmity of a pope.

At that time, the Catholic Church considered bathing a sinful act. In 1250, Pope Innocent IV passed the verdict against Frederick II of being a heathen. The first accusation on his list was the King bathed daily.

Étienne Boileau is one of the first known provosts of Paris. In 1261, King Louis IX named him provost for 10 years.

"Trades and guilds of the city of Paris: the thirteenth century" by Étienne Boileau, Provost of Paris (1261–1271).
“Trades and guilds of the city of Paris: the thirteenth century” by Étienne Boileau, Provost of Paris (1261–1271).

Around 1270, Boileau brought together the regulations for the police, industry and the trades of Paris in his book “Les métiers et corporations de la ville de Paris: XIIIe siècle” (“Trades and guilds of the city of Paris: the thirteenth century”). This work was a faithful mirror reflecting the smallest details of the industrial and commercial life of Paris in the 13th century.

Here is an excerpt from the book on the regulations governing the Guild of Bathhouse Keepers:

1. Whoever wishes to be a bathhouse-keeper in the city of Paris may freely do so, provided he works according to the usage and customs of the trade, made by agreement of the commune, as follow.

2. Be it known that no man or woman may cry or have cried their baths until it is day, because of the dangers which can threaten those who rise at the cry to go to the baths.

3. No man or woman of the aforesaid trade may maintain in their houses or baths either prostitutes of the day or night, or lepers, or vagabonds, or other infamous people of the night.

4. No man or woman may heat up their baths on Sunday, or on a feast day which the commune of the city keeps. And every person should pay, for a steam-bath, two deniers; and if he bathes, he should pay four deniers. And because at some times wood and coal are more expensive than at others, if anyone suffers, a suitable price shall be set by the provost of Paris, through the discussion of the good people of the aforesaid trade, according to the situation of the times. The male and female bathhouse-keepers have sworn and promised before us to uphold these things firmly and consistently, and not to go against them.

5. Anyone who infringes any of the above regulations of the aforesaid trade must make amends with ten Parisian sous, of which six go to the king, and the other four go to the masters who oversee the trade, for their pains.

6. The aforesaid trade shall have three good men of the trade, elected by us unanimously or by a majority, who shall swear before the provost of Paris or his representative that they will oversee the trade well and truly, and that they will make known to the provost of Paris or his representative all the infringements that they know of or discover, and the provost shall remove and change them as often as he wishes.

Georges Vigarello, the French historian and sociologist, published his book “Concepts of Cleanliness: Changing Attitudes in France since the Middle Ages” in October 2008. In this lucid work he examines how attitudes to and perceptions of human cleanliness, health and hygiene manifested in the history of bathing. He says the use of water for cleanliness has been by no means constant in the Middle Ages. The medieval idea of visible purity, effectively meant the face and the hands only. On pages 21-22, Professo Vigarello says:

“A crier patrolled the streets of thirteenth-century Paris to summon people to the heated steam-baths and bath-houses. These establishments, already numbering twenty-six in 1292 [Riolan, Curieuses Recherches, p. 219], and with their guild, were a familiar feature of the town. They were commonplace enough for it not to be shocking to offer a session in a steam-bath as a tip to artisans, domestic servants, or day-labourers. ‘To Jehan Petit, for him and his fellow valets of the bedchamber, which the queen gave him on New Year’s Day to visit the steam-baths’… What they would find was a steam-bath, with in addition, according to price, a bath in a tub, wine, a meal, or a bed. Naked bodies sweated and were sponged down side by side in the steam from water heated by wood fires. Baths were taken in a room, often separate, crammed with heavy round iron-bound bathtubs. A steam-bath did not necessarily involve immersion, though a bath could be had. There were, for example, six bathtubs at Saint-Vivien in 1380, with three beds and sets of bedding. [C. de Beaurepaire, Noveaux Melanges historiques, Paris, 1904, p. 94]…”

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


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Myself  .By T.V. Antony Raj

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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.

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To Bathe, or Not to Bathe: Part 2 – The Bubonic Plague


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Myself  .By T.V. Antony Raj

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In the 13th century, Mongol conquest caused a decline in farming and trading in China. However, by the beginning of the 14th century, China recovered on the economic front. Starting in 1331, many natural disasters and plagues led to widespread famine. A deadly plague arrived soon after. It killed an estimated 25 million Chinese and other Asians in the next 15 years before it reached Constantinople in 1347.

Map of the spread of the Black Death.
Map of the spread of the Black Death.

The disease may have travelled along the Silk Road with Mongol armies and traders or it could have come via ship. In his book “The Epidemics of The Middle Ages,” J.F.C. Hecker says that by the end of 1346 reports of plague had reached the seaports of Europe:

“India was depopulated, Tartary, Mesopotamia, Syria, Armenia were covered with dead bodies”.

Jani Beg was a khan of the Golden Horde from 1342 to 1357. He commanded a massive Crimean Tatar force that attacked the Crimean port city of Kaffa in 1343. In February, an Italian relief force lifted the siege. In 1345 Jani Beg again besieged Kaffa. His assault was again unsuccessful due to an outbreak of the Bubonic plague among his troops. The Mongols catapulted their infected corpses over the city walls to infect and weaken the defenders.

The Genoese traders and sailors fled Kaffa, taking the plague by ship into Sicily. From there, according to the traditional theory promulgated by historians, oriental rat fleas living on black rats that infested merchant ships carried the disease. The plague spread throughout the Mediterranean and Europe. It invaded Italy, Spain, France, England, Germany, Austria and Hungary, sometimes travelling two and a half miles a day.

In the 14th century people called the catastrophe either the “Great Pestilence”‘ or the “Great Plague”. Contemporaries to the plague referred to the event as the “Great Mortality”. Swedish and Danish chronicles of the 17th century described the events as “black” for the first time; perhaps to refer to the sense of gloom or dread that accompanied the plague. The Latin phrase “atra mors” meaning “black death” first appeared in a book on Danish history by J.I. Pontanus published in 1631. He wrote about a disease that occurred in 1348: “Vulgo & ab effectu atram mortem vocatibant.” This may have been a mistranslation as atra can mean black, brooding or terrible. Even so, the name “Black Death” spread through Scandinavia and then Germany. In England, it was not until 1823 that the medieval epidemic was first called the Black Death.

Illustration of the Black Death from the Toggenburg Bible (1411)
Illustration of the Black Death from the Toggenburg Bible (1411)

However, in the late-stage of the disease, the festering lumps in the groins, armpits and necks of its victims blackened due to subepidermal hemorrhages. And, the extremities would darken with a form of gangrene, acral necrosis.

The disease arrived in London in the fall of 1348 and took a catastrophic toll. According to a report from the time, one cemetery in East Smithfield alone received more than 200 bodies a day.

The disease is commonly believed to be Bubonic Plague, a bacterial infection marked by pain, fever, swollen lymph nodes called buboes. The plague was the most catastrophic pandemic the world has yet known. It peaked in Europe in the years 1346–53. It killed at least one out of every three Europeans. During the time of its first visit, an estimated 75 to 200 million people had died – almost 30 to 60% of Europe’s total population. In total, the plague reduced the world population from an estimated 450 million down to 350–375 million in the 14th century. It is clear that several existing conditions such as war, famine, and weather contributed to the severity of the Bubonic Plague.

Boccaccio the author of The Decameron has described the plague’s attack on individuals and society shortly after it devastated Florence. He gives a dispassionate, almost clinical account of the disease. In spite of prayers, processions and last-minute attempts at sanitation, it spread through Florence unchecked. The doctors and priests stood helpless. Patients died on the third day after the appearance of the fatal swollen lymph nodes, some of which were as big as apples. Anyone who had so much as touched any object handled by the sick person risked infection.

The plague’s effect on the able-bodied members of society confounded Boccaccio. He watched as a panic-stricken populace rapidly sloughed off the civility. And, something worse than barbarism took its place. Brothers fled from sick brothers, wives from their husbands and even mothers from their own children.

The women did not observe the time-honoured lamenting in the houses of the dead persons. The men would not congregate at the threshold of the houses of the dead persons. En masse burial of corpses in common burial pits took place without ceremony or attendants.

Another Florentine observer, Marchionne di Coppo Stefani, wrote that every morning, when the burial pits held a fresh influx of dead bodies, the gravediggers shovelled more earth on them. Next morning they added more corpses and then more earth, “just as one makes lasagna with layers of pasta and cheese.”

The governments of Europe were in a quandary. The medical fraternity was at a loss to explain what caused the disease or how it spread. Many believed only God’s anger could produce such horrific calamity. People resorted to astrologers. People considered the earthquakes and the poisoning of wells by Jews as possible reasons for the emergence of the plague.

Pope Clement VI sought the insight of astronomers for an explanation for the occurrence of the plague. Johannes de Muris, a French astronomer, mathematician, was among the team of three who drew up a treatise explaining the plague of 1348. They said the conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars in 1341 caused the plague.

The Pope’s physicians advised him that surrounding himself with torches would block the plague. However, he soon became skeptical of this recommendation and stayed in Avignon supervising sick care, burials, and the pastoral care of the dying.

Even though there was so much death around him the Pope never contracted the disease.

The cities ran out of ground for cemeteries. So, Pope Clement VI consecrated the entire Rhone River for the bodies to be thrown into it and considered as buried in holy ground.

Renewed religious fervour and fanaticism bloomed in the wake of the Black Death. People blamed various groups such as Jews, friars, foreigners, beggars, pilgrims, lepers and Romani, for the crisis.  They singled out lepers and other people with skin diseases such as acne or psoriasis, and exterminated throughout Europe.

When popular opinion blamed the Jews for the plague and pogroms erupted throughout Europe, Pope Clement VI issued two papal bulls on July 6, 1348 and on September 26, 1348. The second bull named Quamvis Perfidiam, condemned the violence and said those who blamed the plague on the Jews had been “seduced by that liar, the Devil.” He urged clergy to take action to protect Jews as he had done.

Even after the papal bulls, there were many attacks against Jewish communities. In February 1349, the citizens of Strasbourg murdered 2,000 Jews. In August the citizens of Mainz and Cologne the exterminated Jewish communities. By 1351, the Christians destroyed 60 major and 150 smaller Jewish communities.

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


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Myself  .By T.V. Antony Raj

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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: studyblue.com)
The ‘Great Bath‘, Mohenjo-daro, in Sindh, Pakistan. (Source: studyblue.com)

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: panoramio.com)
Ancient Bath in Dion – ΑΡΧΑΙΟ ΛΟΥΤΡΟ ΣΤΟ ΔΙΟΝ (Source: panoramio.com)

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.

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