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Taking the plunge – of baths and cleanliness

It is my firm conviction that mankind has always had a love-hate relationship with water. Hate because you can drown in it, love because it tastes great and because a nice soak generally leaves you quite refreshed – and clean. Small boys may be the exception. Small boys don’t seem to like the soap & water combo all that much – but maybe that’s the soap rather than the water.

baths soapwortAs all of us who read The Clan of the Cave bear know, even caveman had a thing about keeping clean. As per Ms Auel, the intrepid heroine Ayla did not only battle isolation and survival. She also took some time out to find some soapwort and wash. Those of us who’ve had a closer encounter with soapwort will know it doesn’t exactly lather like modern-day shampoo, but there is a soapy feeling to it. I suppose those early humans had low expectations: it wasn’t as if hot showers abounded.

Now, had any of us dropped 50 000 years back in time, we would not have been impressed by the hygienic standards of the time. Not so much because people didn’t wash, but because what they wore rarely saw a dunking. That’s the problem with pelts – they’re not easy to launder, and as a side effect they tend to attract lice and fleas and other little creatures that rather like the idea of living in close proximity to the food store (the human wearing the pelt) and in comfy warm quarters (the pelt itself).

Anyway: time passed. Mrs Cavewoman upgraded to Mrs Living-in-a-hut-woman. Gone were the pelts, in came woven fabrics such as linen and wool. Easier to keep clean, and now that humanity had upgraded to Standard A in civilisation, people, I imagine, quickly established washing procedures. Off went the daughter to fetch water from the river, and then faces and hands were carefully washed – sometimes feet as well. Now and then, these our distant forbears probably bathed in the river or the sea, but as yet there were no such conveniences as a bathtub – or a shower.

By the time the Old Testament was written, bathing was an established practice. Take, for example, the story of Susanna. This beautiful young lady attracted more than her share of male ogling, but being a most virtuous wife, she generally ignored the cat-whistles. Besides, she rarely left the house other than adequately covered. But. Susanna liked her baths, and she generally took them outdoors in her garden, which leads me to assume they had still not got round to inventing bathrooms.
In Susanna’s case, she had a very secluded garden. Depending on which painted depiction you choose to study, you will either conclude Susanna’s husband, Joachim, was very rich, what with the fountains and the obviously huge grounds, or not so rich, what with nothing but a small pool.

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Gerrit von Honthorstus – Susanna & the Elders

One very hot day, Susanna was happily soaking in the water, unaware that two of her unwanted admirers – elders, no less – had sneaked into her garden to spy on her. Upon seeing her in the nude, these two Peeping Toms were overcome with lecherous thoughts and approached her, threatening to accuse her of adultery unless she let them have their way with her. Susanna refused. The spurned elders hastened off, telling everyone they’d just caught Susanna in flagrante in her garden, under a tree.

This was unacceptable, the elders thundered, and as the legal system back then had several drawbacks, one of them being a bias against women, soon enough poor Susanna was fighting tooth and nail to defend herself from these unfounded accusations. A losing battle, I might add, and people were already laying up sizeable heaps of stones in gleeful anticipation of her stoning when Daniel entered the scene. (Yes, this is the same Daniel as the Daniel of lion-pit fame, but at a somewhat younger age) After listening for a while, Daniel suggested the elders be questioned one by one rather than together. Immediately huge inconsistencies appeared, and soon enough it was the elders who had the law breathing down their neck while Susanna could go back to her bathing. Except I don’t think she wanted to…

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Georg Pauli – Odalisque in a Roman bath

Well, after that rather depressing bath story, let us hop forward to the true connoisseurs of bathing – the Romans. It’s probably because of their fondness for pristine togas that the Romans went all wild and crazy about their baths. Or maybe it’s because of the aqueducts – piping all that water around stirred a craving to use it. Whatever the reason, wherever the Romans went, they built baths – sometimes on the truly grand scale, such as the Baths of Caracalla, at others of a more modest size. Accordingly, Mrs Roman Matron was very clean – she had no excuse not to be.

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M Domínguez Sánchez – the suicide of Seneca

From Roman times come some of the earlier “death in the bath” cases. Other than Emperor Commodus, who was strangled to death in his bath, we also have Seneca, famous stoic philosopher & teacher and advisor to Nero. As an old man, he was accused of having conspired to kill Nero (which, IMO, should be considered as doing society a favour rather than a crime) and was therefore ordered to kill himself. Seneca opted for slashing his wrists in his tub, but whether due to age, too shallow cuts, or general infirmity, his was a slow, painful death, blood staining the bathwater pink.

Après nous, le déluge, said Louis XV (or his mistress) in the 18th century, with no reference whatsoever to the fall of the Roman Empire. And yet, it is a most appropriate description of the chaos that engulfed the former civilised world of the Romans when the Pax Romana came to an end, the proud empire trampled underfoot by the barbarian tribes. Out went the bathwater – quite often with the baby in it – and the sophisticated life of the Romans fell into oblivion, ushering in what is often called the Dark Ages.
Personally, I don’t think the Dark Ages were all that dark. Soon enough, centres of learning popped up, towns were built and fledgling countries saw the light of the day. By the first millennium, civilisation was thriving – man is nothing but resilient. And the bath, dear people, never went out of fashion. It just became rarer, what with the effort required to lug hot water in buckets from the hearth to wherever the bathtub was situated.

baths medieval-bath-3-650x487There is a tenacious misconception that medieval people were extremely filthy, but the distinction of being truly dirty belongs to the people of the 16th and 17th century – and onwards. In medieval times, people did wash. The higher up the hierarchy, the more probable you bathed at regular intervals, and even if you didn’t change your underwear on a daily basis, you probably picked up clean linen once a week. (Well, assuming you were relatively well off. Cleanliness was a social divider – as it was well into the 20th century here in Europe)

Medieval people without castles and the servants required to draw a bath could always visit a bathhouse. Originally, these establishments were precisely that: places where you could take a bath. Men and women would disrobe and wash, and in the early 14th century there were more than thirty public bathhouses in Paris, close to twenty in London. Of course, the church was a bit wary about all this socialising in the nude, and one church writer recommended that if a man had seen his wife (!) and other women naked in a bathhouse, he should fast for three days as a penance.

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Having a good time in the stews

Soon enough, the bathhouses began offering other services – food, drink, gambling, the odd blood-letting and carnal entertainment. The reputation of the bathhouses went downhill fast, and soon enough only disreputable women visited the “stews” – generally to ply their trade.

The bathhouses disappeared rapidly in the early 16th century. Various reasons have been put forward for this: some say it was because of the Reformation and the assumption that putting naked men and naked women in a bathhouse would automatically lead to lewd sin – probably a correct assumption, and the fiercely devout Protestants were far more intolerant of human weaknesses than the Catholic Church, this due to lack of experience. There is also the emergence of syphilis – the dreaded pox – which made it that much easier to argue for closing the bathhouses. Plus, by the time the 16th century rolled around, larger towns suffered from a shortage of clean water. Bathhouse clients did NOT want to bathe in the polluted waters of the Thames…

Poor water quality was to remain a major issue for the coming centuries. Bathing was even considered dangerous, and with the advent of perfume it became considerably easier to hide bad body odour (Hmm…) I’d wager our modern sensibilities would find it far more painful to navigate the famous Hall of mirrors at Versailles under Louis XIV than a medieval feast in Westminster Hall.
This, however, does not mean that people did not enjoy being clean. I imagine a hot bath has always offered comfort to those who were weary or heart-sore or generally in need of relaxation. Accordingly, I am quite convinced that those who could indulged in the odd soak – if nothing else by plunging into the cold waters of a nearby lake.

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J-L David, La Mort de Marat

At times, taking a bath was taking a major risk. Even if you’d ensured the water supply was uncontaminated, even if you’d arranged for a private little moment so as to soothe your ailing skin condition, bathing came with the risk of leaving you very vulnerable. Ask Jean-Paul Marat, the French Revolutionary hero who in 1793 was assassinated in his bath by the young Charlotte Corday. Now, in all fairness, one could argue Marat had it coming, what with his uncompromising attitude to the somewhat more moderate elements in the new French republic. Still, to be skewered by a long blade while in your tub seems an unnecessarily violent end to a man who always spoke up for the weak and oppressed. But at least he died clean…

As late as the early 19th century, clean water to wash in had to be carried into some of the larger European cities, and accordingly “washing” was rarely a bath, more of a damp washcloth that was swiped over face, hands and forearms. Plus the neck. In general, the hygienic standards of the 19th and early 20th century were pretty dismal – even if public bathhouses saw a resurgence in the late 19th century. In fact, I’d wager these our relatively close forebears were far dirtier than our medieval ancestors, and as to the Romans, they’d have fainted in horror at all the grime.

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Anders Zorn – bathing outdoors

These days, we are all very clean. Perhaps too clean, what with daily showers or baths. Where our great-grandmothers would wash their hair every fortnight at best – and in between they’d sprinkle their tresses with flour and brush out the excessive grease – we shampoo more or less every day. Sweating is an issue – except at the gym – and we prefer the artificial scents of perfumed soaps, deos and body lotions to our own scents. Unfortunately, I’d say. Next time you’ve taken a swim in a lake or the sea, dry in the sun and then smell your clean skin. Nice, isn’t it? Much, much better than anything Dove can come up with!

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