The past was a rather smelly place, part 1

Dirty peasants from Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Monty Python's dirty peasants

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading a bit on the history of hygiene and have found my attachment to modern concepts and standards of cleanliness and hygiene solidly reinforced. Not too surprisingly, it turns out the past was pretty darn smelly. Just how darn smelly varied, of course, depending on where and when you look. Much of the literature on the history of hygiene focuses on the Western world and although research within the last few decades demonstrates an increased effort on the part of historians to incorporate more comparative, global approaches language still presents barriers to comprehensive, global studies of hygiene. But how about an overview of cleanliness and hygiene in the West, from the Greeks and Romans to the mid-twentieth century? To save your eyes (and your patience) I’ll write this in two parts. Part one (below) spans from the Greeks and Romans to the seventeenth century.

Water plays a large role in current Western standards of cleanliness and hygiene, but attitudes about the use of water for cleansing the body fluctuated quite a bit over time. The Greeks were averse to the notion of hot baths, believing hot water robbed the body of vigor and strength. Warm, cold, and steam baths, however, were considered acceptable and served as healthy supplements to cleaning the body with oil and a scraper called a strigil. Bathing took place primarily within public bathhouses that were often either free of charge or priced to be affordable for members of all levels of society. The well-to-do could pay extra for more luxurious treatments and services such as massages, hair plaiting, personal attendants, and a steady supply of wine and snacks. Many followed a trip to the baths with a trip to the brothel, which was often situated either within or directly above the bathhouse. Beauticians and healers also positioned themselves near the bathhouses. The Romans shared the Greek’s passion for bathhouses, although the Romans were known to engage in a series of bathing exercises that utilized hot as well as warm and cold water. Both cultures viewed the bathhouse as a space of social equalization–in no small part due to the nudity it required.

Enter Christianity, one of the few major world religions with no scriptural dictates regarding cleanliness and hygiene. Jesus was known to touch the sick and the dead (people in traditionally “impure” states) and rebuked the Pharisee for washing his hands prior to eating. Early Christians tended to associate the Greek and Roman baths with hedonism and sin, leading many early Christian hermits and saints to reject bathing altogether. Once Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, thanks largely to Constantine I, the bathhouses were modified to separate the sexes and eliminate personal attendants. The purpose of the bathhouse also changed: it became socially unacceptable to bathe in order to clean oneself, relax, socialize, and indulge. Early Christians were told to bathe strictly for purposes of cleanliness and health–and only when absolutely necessary. Virgins and monks in particular were told to avoid bathing for fear the water would ignite their passions. By the ninth century most of the bathhouses in the West were abandoned, although those in the Byzantine Empire held out a bit longer. Arab Muslims, who cleansed their bodies several times per day before prayer, regarded Christians as some of the filthiest, foulest-smelling creatures in the world.

As Europe witnessed increased stability during the High and Late Middle Ages, the Church began to relax its attitudes toward personal hygiene. Improved infrastructure and trade made luxury goods more attainable and domestic life, in turn, somewhat less austere. Many Christian Crusaders returned to Europe with an affinity for Turkish baths, and even the clergy began to think being filthy might not be such a virtue after all. Some public bathhouses made a comeback, although their popularity waxed and waned in tandem with outbreaks of the plague (which many interpreted as God’s retribution for sinful behavior in the bathhouses and elsewhere). Yet the regularity of bathing and standards of personal cleanliness did not return to their former levels, as most in the West had come to see dirt as promotive of health.

Dirt, so the common view of the time went, protected the body by sealing off the skin’s pores and keeping all manner of harmful illnesses at bay. Most Europeans by this time washed only the portion of the body that was visible–the hands and face and, occasionally, the feet. To bathe by immersing oneself in water would be to invite sickness and perhaps even death. This view was popular through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and led to the promotion of the changing of linen as a safe alternative to bathing. Clean linen, in the form of men’s undershirts and women’s chemises, became the new standard of cleanliness and good personal hygiene. It even became fashionable for European men and women to show a bit of their linen undergarments in their everyday dress. The display of clean linen became a display of gentility, even if one still reeked to high heaven.

My next post will summarize the history of Western hygiene from the mid-seventeenth century through the mid-twentieth. Stay tuned.

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