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To Bathe, or Not to Bathe: Part 6 – Did the Kings and Queens of the Renaissance Period Bathe?


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Myself  .By T.V. Antony Raj

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Information and opinions about the attitudes toward  bathing in the 16th century are quite mixed among historians. The general consensus seems to be that bathing was quite popular as a social ritual. In fact, the Catholic Church allowed bathing, but warned against excessive indulgence in the habit.

In the first volume of his “Geschichte des deutschen Volkes seit dem Ausgang des Mittelalters” (“History of the German people since the end of the Middle Ages“) the 19th century German Catholic priest and historian Johannes Janssen wrote details on the popular use of baths in Germany during the Middle Ages. According to him, German men bathed several times each day. Some German spent the whole day in or about their favorite springs. The mid 16th-century German merchant Lucas Rem wrote in his diary that in 1511, he bathed 127 times from May 20th to June 9th.

Queen Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth, c.1575-1578. Painting attributed to Nicholas Hilliard. Anglesey Abbey.
Queen Elizabeth, c.1575-1578. Painting attributed to Nicholas Hilliard. Anglesey Abbey.

Queen Elizabeth I (7 September 1533 – 24 March 1603) was Queen of England and Ireland from November 17, 1558 until her death. Sometimes called The Virgin Queen, Gloriana, or Good Queen Bess, the childless Elizabeth was the fifth and last monarch of the Tudor dynasty.

Queen Elizabeth I boasted that she bathed once a month, “whether I need it or not”?

James I, her successor, seems to have washed only his fingers.

King Louis XIV of France

King Louis XIV of France by Hyacinthe Rigaud (1701).
King Louis XIV of France by Hyacinthe Rigaud (1701).

King Louis XIV (September 5, 1638 – September 1, 1715) of France known as Louis the Great (Louis le Grand) or the Sun King (le Roi-Soleil), was a monarch of the House of Bourbon. He became King of France and Navarre at the age of four in 1643 after the death of his father, Louis XIII. His reign spanning 72 years and 110 days is the longest of any monarch of a major country in European history.

The palace of Versailles (French: Château de Versailles) was once the most lavish largest home in the world. It was the home of the French royal family along with hundreds of their courtiers and servants. It was created by Louis XIV (1638 – 1715) of France. The court of Versailles was the center of political power in France from 1682, when Louis XIV moved from Paris. For more than 30 years, the King’s obsession was to enlarge and enhance his residence. Now, three million people visit it every year, hoping to get a glimpse of the royal lifestyle of the 17th century.

Today, when looking at the gleaming golden palace, it is difficult to believe that life at Versailles in the 17th century was quite dirty. There were no bathrooms as we would know them. “Then how did…?”

Well, there were decorative commodes for the royalty and the courtiers in each room. The commoners simply relieved themselves in the hallways or stairwells. The royal dogs were not house-trained and the servants never bothered to remove the dog poo lying on the floors. The chimneys did not exhaust well and everything inside the palace was covered with soot.

I want to share the following excerpt from the interesting article titled “A History of Humanity’s Disgusting Hygiene” by Helen from Fife, Scotland writing under the pseudonym Seeker7.

‘Garde Loo’ and Other Toilet Habits

The romantic scene of a towering castle surrounded by the pristine sparkling waters of a moat is not strictly true. Especially when we talk about toilets from hundreds of years ago.

In Tudor houses they were called ‘privies’. Many were basically a bowl with a slab of wood and a hole carved in the top. This would be set into a recess or cupboard-like area called a garderobe.

The castles were not much better. The slab of wood often just covered a hole in the floor that took waste products straight into the moat – now you know why there are no picturesque paintings of some cute rustic fishing in a castle moat.

Peasants did not have the luxury of any form of toilet no matter how crude. They were forced to relieve themselves where they could and then bury any waste matter. Washing your hands after doing your business was not practiced by anyone.

Of course, rich or poor, neither had toilet paper. Poor people would use leaves or moss to wipe their bottoms. If you had a bit more money then you would use lambs wool.

However, if you were the King, then you employed someone to wipe your bottom for you. The position of royal bum wiper was officially called ‘The Groom of the Stool’ the more formal title would be read as ‘Groom of the King’s Close Stool to King (name )’. As disgusting as this job may seem to be, it was a much sought after position. Noblemen would fight hard and dirty – excuse the pun – to get their sons employed in this role, as it often resulted in, eventually, advancing to powerful roles such as Private Secretary to the King. The reason for the promotion was that the groom, who knew the King’s most intimate secrets, often became his most trusted advisor and friend.

A medieval toilet or garderobe (Source: "A History of Humanity's Disgusting Hygiene").
A medieval toilet or garderobe (Source: “A History of Humanity’s Disgusting Hygiene“).

Garderobe shafts for getting rid of waste products (Source: "A History of Humanity's Disgusting Hygiene")
Garderobe shafts for getting rid of waste products (Source: “A History of Humanity’s Disgusting Hygiene“)

A royal toilet - still on view at Hampton Court, London. (Source: "A History of Humanity's Disgusting Hygiene")
A royal toilet – still on view at Hampton Court, London. (Source: “A History of Humanity’s Disgusting Hygiene“)

 Old Edinburgh

If you ever find yourself transported back in time to old Edinburgh be prepared for the shout of ‘garde loo ‘. If you were not quick enough – or if you were disliked – you could find yourself being showered with the contents of chamber pots hurled from the tenement windows. Chamber pots were of course used to collect urine overnight.

The term ‘garde loo ‘ comes from the French garde L’eau which means ‘watch out for the water’. This is where the nickname – ‘loo’ – for the toilet may have come from. The resulting stench of chamber pot contents was ironically known as ‘the flowers of Edinburgh’ .

So what happened to all this waste littering the streets? There was, in theory, supposed to be some form of street cleaning, but this was seldom carried out effectively. The streets all year round were covered in faeces – human and animal – urine, rotting food, corpses of animals and so on. It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that an effective street cleaning regime came into force.

Old Edinburgh's narrow streets showing the tenement buildings from which chamber pots were emptied out of the windows. (Source: "A History of Humanity's Disgusting Hygiene")
Old Edinburgh’s narrow streets showing the tenement buildings from which chamber pots were emptied out of the windows. (Source: “A History of Humanity’s Disgusting Hygiene“)
During the reign of Louis XIV people seldom bathed. They believed that a grimy layer of dirt would keep one healthy. The commoners fancied strong body odour, which they adduced gave them potent sexuality. They made up their own proverb:

The more the ram stinks, the more the ewe loves him.

To combat the smells, the royalty and the courtiers changed their linen wear often, but they still stank. So, they doused themselves with heady perfumes, oils, and scented powders to mask not only their own body odour, but also to avoid inhaling the stench emanating from other persons.

Opinions differ about the bathing habits of King Louis XIV.

It is often said that the physicians of King Louis XIV advised him to bathe as infrequently as possible to maintain good health and he had only three baths in his entire life.

A few primary sources say that King Louis XIV bathed only twice in his life, when his doctors prescribed a bath. Louis they say was usually powdered from head to toe with perfumed powder several times a day since he found the act of bathing disturbing.  But the King’s reluctance to bathe did not mean that he was covered in dirt.

As there was no running water inside the buildings servants brought hot water in pails or jugs for the King to bathe or wash.

According to one source Louis XIV had several bathrooms in his suite at Versailles, one of which contained two bathtubs. One tub contained all sorts of ingredients from bran to milk. A special valet called a “baigneur” applied soap brought from Marseilles, well-known for their abrasiveness, on the body of the king. So the second tub for rinsing and was necessary.

The King suffered from gangrene but refused an amputation. One day, one of his toes was found in his sock.

A Russian ambassador to the court of King Louis XIV of France said: “His Majesty [Louis XIV] stunk like a wild animal.”

The French historian Mathieu da Vinha explains in his book, “Le Versailles de Louis XIV,” that Louis XIV had sumptuous bathrooms built at Versailles, but not to clean the body. Valets rather rubbed his hands and face with alcohol, and he took therapeutic baths only irregularly.

“Louis’s washing consisted of rubbing his face with cotton soaked in diluted, scented alcohol and dipping his fingertips in a bowl – washing in water was considered dangerous to one’s health.”

Some have contradicted the above and have said that in reality Louis XIV was an incredibly clean King and bathed regularly in a large Turkish bath in his palace. He disinfected his skin with spirits or alcohol because perfumes  gave him headaches. He changed his clothing, especially his underwear, three times a day and was so clean that he was almost fussy about it.

After 72 years on the throne, Louis died of gangrene at Versailles on September 1, 1715, four days before his 77th birthday.

Peter the Great

Peter the Great by Paul Delaroche.
Peter the Great by Paul Delaroche.

Peter I or Pyotr Alexeyevich (June 9, 1672 – February 8, 1725) was the Tsar of Russia from May 7, 1682 until his death on February 8, 1725. He gave himself the title “Peter the Great” though he was officially known as Peter I.

Peter the Great, was a widely traveled, educated, and cultured person in his own way.

Some writers say that, however educated Peter was he never understood nor followed a proper practice of hygiene. He did not find it wrong or embarrassing with urinating on the shiny palace walls.

According to these writers, Peter was not a regular bather. He washed himself on occasions using the natural mineral spring bath.

To end this series of “To Bathe, or Not to Bathe” articles, I list below “Ten Weird Facts About Grooming In The Past” which I came across in Seeker7’s article “A History of Humanity’s Disgusting Hygiene.

Ten Weird Facts About Grooming In The Past

  1. Eyebrows that did not look fashionable were often masked by tiny pieces of skin from a mouse.
  2. Ceruse was the foundation make-up of choice for both men and women, that gave the famous smooth, pale look. However, it contained lead that seeped into the body through the skin leading to poisoning. This make-up also tended to crack and had a strong odour.
  3. Although the men wore linen drawers, the women wore no knickers at all.
  4. The reason why so many marriages took place in June was that most people had their yearly bath in May so they were still fairly clean when June arrived. However, as a precaution brides carried bouquets of flowers to cover up any odious smells. June weddings and carrying bouquets are still traditional today but most wedding parties smell a lot nicer.
  5. When people took their bath it was the man of the house who had the privilege of the tub filled with clean water. The sons of the house were allowed next, then the wife, the rest of the females and the babies were last.
  6. Houses in the past did not have the protective roofing we have today. It was not unusual for bugs, pests and droppings to fall onto your clean bedding from the roof. So four poles and a canopy was invented to keep the bed clean and this is where the origin of the canopied and four poster beds come from.
  7. A 17th century publication by Peter Levens gives clear instructions to men on how to cure baldness and thinning hair by making the following mixture – a strong alkaline solution containing potassium salts and chicken droppings to be placed on the area to be treated. In addition if men wanted to remove unwanted hair from any area of the body they should make a paste that contains – eggs, strong vinegar and cat dung. Once beaten into a paste, this should be placed on the areas where the hair is to be removed. Why they didn’t just shave is not documented.
  8. When Mary Queen of Scots returned to her native Scotland from France she was astounded and not a little put out that the men continued to wear their hats while sitting down to eat at her banquets. It was then pointed out to the young Queen that this was not a sign of disrespect to her but necessity. The men kept their hats on in order to prevent not only their long hair from touching the food but head lice from falling into their plates.
  9. In the 16th century some members of the church condemned using forks to eat as against the will of god. One put out minister remarked: “God would not have given us fingers if He had wanted us to use forks.”
  10. The use of condoms goes back many thousands of years. They went out of favour after the decline of the Roman Empire but re-emerged in the form of linen condoms in the 16th century – perhaps due to the fear of the disease syphilis. The church condemned condoms as a way for the devil to encourage elicit sex. One incensed churchman raged that “the use of these foul things allows people to play filthy persons greater than ever.”

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To Bathe, or Not to Bathe: Part 5 – Did the Kings and Queens of the Early Renaissance Period Bathe?


. Myself  .By T.V. Antony Raj .

The term “Renaissance” is derived from French term “re-naissance” for “re-birth”, and from the Italian term “rinascere” meaning “to be reborn.” The Renaissance period spanned roughly from the 14th to the 17th century. It was the ‘Age of Discovery’. Historians say that this period was the bridge between the Middle Ages and Modern history.

The Renaissance began in Italy in the Late Middle Ages. Later it spread to the rest of Europe as paper became available along with the invention of metal movable types. However, the changes of the Renaissance were not uniformly experienced across Europe.

The Renaissance revolutionized many intellectual pursuits. It brought about a cultural, social and political upheaval. It is perhaps best known for its artistic developments. Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo and many other notable artists made their contributions during the Renaissance period.

On the cultural front, the Renaissance gave a new lease of life to Latin and the vernacular literatures. On the political front, it contributed to the development of the conventions of diplomacy.

According to historians, the Renaissance began in Florence, Italy, in the latter part of the 14th century due to various factors: the social and civic peculiarities of Florence at the time; its political structure; the patronage of the Medici family to the artists; the migration of Greek scholars and texts to Italy following the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, etc.

King Philippe VI of France

King Philippe VI of France.
King Philippe VI of France.

Bubonic plague devastated Europe in the 14th century.  In 1348, King Philippe VI of France asked the medical faculty of the University of Paris to investigate the origins of the Bubonic plague. According to the learned professors a disastrous conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars 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.

Before the medieval period, people susceptible to infection were the obese, the intemperate, and the over-passionate. Now, the professors said that anyone who comes in contact with water was susceptible to disease. Hot baths, they said, had a dangerous moistening, relaxing effect on the body, and opened the pores in the skin which would allow the plague to enter the body.

From this, we can infer that King Philippe VI of France must have had infrequent baths.

Queen Isabel I of Spain

Isabella the Catholic, Queen of Castile and León.
Isabella the Catholic, Queen of Castile and León.

Queen Isabel I of Spain (April 22, 1451 – November 26, 1504), also known as Isabella the Catholic was the queen of Castile. She married King Ferdinand II of Aragon on October 19, 1469, and ruled both Castile and Aragon from 1479 with along with her husband.

In 1484, King John II of Portugal denied the request for aid sought by Christopher Columbus to cross the Atlantic. Two years later, Columbus was in Spain, asking for patronage from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. After at least two rejections, Columbus obtained royal support in January 1492. Although we cannot accept  the story of Queen Isabella offering to pledge her jewels to help finance the expedition, Columbus secured a limited financial support from her.

Queen Isabella had once confessed that she had taken a bath only twice in her lifetime – when she was first-born and when she got married.

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.

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

Around 1531, Thomas Moulton was a Dominican friar, who called himself a doctor of divinity published a treatise in England titled “The myrrour or glasse of helth.” It was a manual purported to help avoid the Bubonic plague and to 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.”

In the 16th century and thereafter, people believed this and similar statements that water carried diseases into the body through the pores in the skin. Most kings and queens, the members of the royal households, the aristocrats, and the commoners heeded to this advice and refrained from bathing.

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.

Some monastic orders made bathing in hot air and steam part of their regimen, while others forbade bathing except at Christmas and Easter. In certain instances, instead of tearing down the Thermae of old, the Catholic clergy converted them into chapels and churches. Many marble tubs became baptismal fonts, bathing chairs became pulpits, and the pagan springs metamorphosed into holy water.

Members of the upper classes, the aristocrats, and the royalty cut down their full body bathing habits to just a few times per year. As directed by their physicians they struck a balance between the risk of contracting a disease by bathing and emanating body stench. To combat body odour, they 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.

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

Henry IV of France

King Henry IV of France by Frans Pourbus the younger.
King Henry IV of France by Frans Pourbus the younger.

Henry IV (December 13, 1553 – May 14, 1610), also known by the epithet “Good King Henry,” was the first French monarch of the House of Bourbon.

In 1568, when Henry IV was a teenager, Ambroise Paré, the French royal barber-surgeon warned about water coming into contact with the human body. He declared:

“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.”

Thereafter, people believed this and similar statements that water carried diseases into the body through the pores in the skin. Most kings and queens, the members of the royal households, the aristocrats and the commoners heeded to this advice and refrained from bathing.

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. To combat body odour, they 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.

During the reign of Henry IV, bathing, and certainly in hot water, was considered a veritable health risk.

The king did not believe in bathing or using perfumes to mask his body stench. He usually wore soiled linen, and people had great difficulty in not closing their nostrils against the stink that emanated from his person. His body odour has been described as “stinking of sweat, stables, feet and garlic.”

He usually wore soiled linen, and people had great difficulty in not closing their nostrils against the stench that emanated from his person. His body odour has been described as “stinking of sweat, stables, feet and garlic.” He did not believe in bathing or using perfumes to mask his body stench.

One day when the King heard that the Duc de Sully had taken a bath, he turned to his own physician, André du Laurens, for advice. The physician told the king that the poor man would be vulnerable for days. So Henry IV sent a message to Sully informing him that he should not venture outside his residence, or he would endanger his health. Sully was told that the king would visit his home in Paris so that he would not come to any harm as a result of his recent bath.

The veritable womanizer, the ‘Good King’ Henry of Navarre had many mistresses outside wedlock such as: Charlotte de Beaune Semblançay, Marie Touchet, Diane d’Andoins, Gabrielle d’Estrées, Catherine Henriette de Balzac d’Entragues, to name a few.

Gabrielle d'Estrées
Gabrielle d’Estrées

Once, he sent a billet-doux (sweet letter) to Gabrielle d’ Estrées, one of his many mistresses. The letter conveyed the following: “Do not wash yourself, my sweetheart, I’ll visit you in three weeks.”

King James VI and I

King James VI and I. Portrait by Daniel Mytens, 1621.
King James VI and I. Portrait by Daniel Mytens, 1621.

King James VI and I (June 19,1566 – March 27, 1625) was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots and a great-great-grandson of Henry VII, King of England and Lord of Ireland. James succeeded to the Scottish throne at the age of thirteen months, after his mother Mary abdicated in his favour.

King James sponsored the translation of the Bible named after him: the Authorized King James Version.

Sir Anthony Weldon (1583–1648) was an English 17th-century courtier and politician, purported to have authored: “A Description of Scotland” and “The Court and Character of King James I.” However, this attribution has been challenged and so it is unclear whether Weldon was the author of either of these works.

The label “the wisest fool in Christendom,” is often attributed to Henry IV of France, but it was possibly coined by Weldon, to describe the paradoxical qualities of King James.

In “The Court and Character of King James I,” Weldon wrote:

“A very wise man was wont to say that he believed him the wisest fool in Christendom, meaning him wise in small things, but a fool in weighty affairs.”

It is said that the wisdom of King James did not include personal hygiene. The king wore the same clothes for months on end, even sleeping in them on occasion. He also wore the same hat seven days a week, until it fell apart. Moreover, King James refused to wash or bathe because he believed it was bad for his health.

King Louis XIII of France

King Louis XIII King of France and Navarre by Philippe de Champaigne.
King Louis XIII King of France and Navarre by Philippe de Champaigne.

Louis XIII (September 27, 1601 – May 14, 1643) was a monarch of the House of Bourbon.

According to meticulous notes kept by Jean Héroard, the French court physician, King Louis XIII of France born in 1601, was not given a bath until he was almost seven years of age.

He boasted, “I take after my father, I smell of armpits.”

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Next → Part 6 – Did the Kings and Queens of the Renaissance Period Bathe?

← Previous: Part 4 – Bathing in Medieval Europe 

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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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Next →  Part 4 – Bathing in Medieval Europe

← Previous: Part 2 – The Bubonic Plague

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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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Next →  Part 3 – Don’t Bathe Water Is Your Enemy!

← Previous: Part 1 – That Was the Question in Europe!

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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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Next →  Part 2 – The Bubonic Plague

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