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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

13 June 2008

To Bathe or Not To Bathe... That Is the Question


As I see it, the fiction writer's dilemma is (1) choosing which of conflicting pieces
of information to regard as "true" and (b) knowing when to quit researching. I found amazingly little definitive information on medieval bathing...though I didn't go as far afield as libraries in other cities via inter-library loan. So... here's what I did find.

Society for Creative Anachronism. In 13th century Paris, twenty-six bathhouses, run by a guild, offered steam and tub baths for various prices. A stool would be provided to assist the in climbing out of the deep bath, and one or more servants are usually pictured standing by as well.

By the end of the 14th century, it was common recorded that people of all classes bathed in France, Italy, Saxony, Bohemia and Germany. The lack of cleanliness and horror of bathing often associated with the Middle Ages dates only from the Renaissance, when the morality of public bathhouses came more and more under suspicion, and when it was also widely believed that immerson in water facilitated the spread of epidemics.

However, in medieval times, it became increasingly fashionable to have your bath drawn in the privacy of your own home.

Wikipedia: With the decline of the Roman Empire, the public baths often became places of licentious behavior, and such use was responsible for the spread rather than the cure of diseases. A general belief developed among the European populace was that frequent bathing promoted disease and sickness. Medieval church authorities encouraged this belief and made every effort to close down public baths.

People continued to seek out a few select hot and cold springs, believed to be holy wells, to cure various ailments... Bathing procedures during this period varied greatly.

Life in a Medieval City: (Joseph and Frances Gies, chapter "A Burgher's Home"): Perhaps once a week a wooden tub for bathing is set up, and servants lug up buckets that have been heated over the kitchen fire. In the interval between baths members of the household may take shampoos.

Life in a Medieval Castle: Gies, chapter "The Castle as a House"): Baths were taken in a wooden tub, protected by a tent or canopy and padded with cloth. In warm weather, the tub was often placed in the garden; in cold weather, in the chamber near the fire. When the lord traveled, the tub accompanied him, along with a bathman who prepared the baths.

In some important thirteenth-century castles and palaces there were permanent bathrooms, and in Henry III's palace at Westminster there was even hot and cold running water in the bath house, the hot water supplied by tanks filled from pots heated in a special furnace. Edward II had a tiled floor in his bathroom, with mats to protect his feet from the cold.

and...in the chapter "A Day in the Castle": After washing in a basin of cold water, they donned outer garments....

Life in Medieval Times: (Marjorie Rowling, chapter on "Women and Wives"): Another popular place was the public bath. By the first half of the thirteenth century these had been reintroduced to the main cities of Europe through the influence of returned Crusaders. Built on the Moslem pattern, these included hot steam baths; they were also patronised by both men and women as social clubs. These finally became so disreputable that, by 1546, they were suppressed in England, though they continued in France and other countries until a later period.

The Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages: (Norman Cantor, ed.): Cleanliness and Perfumes: People in the Middle Ages placed a high value on cleanliness. Bathing was common; it was more elaborate for the rich than for the peasantry, but most people bathed regularly. Public baths were common, especially in the larger towns. In some places, people recognized the curative powers of mineral waters and took medicinal baths.

History of Hydrotherapy website: During the Middle Ages, bathing of the whole body was an activity in the more moneyed families. The poverty of the medieval age meant it lacked adequate places for the practice of hygiene. Pitchers and sponges were used to clean the body.... Later, the domestic apparatus of the bourgeois home was gradually modernized, yet the majority of bourgeous domiciles possessed neither the space nor the infrastructure adequate for equipping a room with a permanent hot tub.

Hygiene was thus consigned to portable inventions. Gradually, the upper classes began to promote the need for hygiene among the lower classes. Still, the task was not an easy one, given that soap was a luxury product beyond the means of many families.

Medieval bathhouses had plain round or oval wooden tube made of oak or walnut... the shape not unlike the average modern tub built in this way to allow several people to bathe at once. Hot water was scarce so whole families and their guests bathed together or at least in quick succession. There are many pictures of communal hot tubs, some with a tray across the top holding food. There seems to have been neither inhibitions about bathing with the opposite sex nor any feelings of encroachment on privacy. [Wow! This suggests several sexy scenes.]

Blogger's caveat: Somehow I don't find this website description credible, though I have seen a picture of a bathing scene: tub holding two persons with a tray across the top holding food.

Dr. Stephen Mark Carey: This Assistant Professor of German at Georgia State University says: There are two recent books which might be of interest: (1) Virginia Smith's book "Clean", a history of personal hygiene and purity (2007; Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780199297795 and (2) Sophie Albert's "Laver, monder, blanchir: discours et usages de la toilette dans l'occident medieval" (2006: Paris: PUPS, ISBN 2840504480 9782840504481)

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6 Comments:

Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Great post! "Shampoo" (the massage, not the soap for hair) comes to us via India. It, along with the idea of a Turkish bath or a hammam was introduced to Enland in the 18th century.

From Wikipedia:

The word 'shampoo' or champi was popularized in England in 1785 by Mr Dean Mahomed who was the first Indian writer to be published in English with his book The Travels of Dean Mahomet. He opened a public bath in Brighton and also became assistant to Sir Basil Cochrane at his vapour bath in Cochrane Square, London.

He became known as the "shampooing surgeon" as he introduced the Indian therapeutic massage of shampooing and made it popular in Brighton and fashionable amongst the London clientele. I n September 2005, Mr Mahomed was honored with a commemorative wall plaque in London for his other initiative, which was opening London's first curry house.

11:54 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

In addition to, the recommendations by Dr. Carey, I would add Volume 2 of _A History of Private Life: Revelations of the Medieval World_ edited by Georges Duby. This volume covers roughly 1100 - 1500, but tends to focus around 1400 +/-50. There are about a dozen pages through out that discuss bathing practices including a good number of images of public and private baths with and without mixed genders.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in the daily life of (mainly) late medieval (continental) Europe. Using the evolving notion of privacy and the individual, it touches on views of the self, the body and it's relation to others influenced architecture, family relations, fashion attitudes and medicine.

The only thing it lacks are footnotes (though it has a bibliography of mostly French sources).

4:07 PM  
Anonymous Louisa Cornell said...

Fascinating post as usual! And thanks for the great references. My research book wish list is beginning to look like War And Peace. Unabridged!

7:42 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Hi Lynna,

In addition to the costliness of soap and servants to prepare your bath, by the middle ages, wood was already scarce and out of reach by non-land owning (most of the population).

I've read the Duby, book Scott. It's fascinating. I get the impression that people would have been cleaner in the middle ages if they could have been. Baths were generally reserved for the wealthy, could an did bathe regulalry.

9:04 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I love this post, Lynna, because I love to put bathing into my novels -- which aren't medievals -- so perhaps I'm less accurate. Whatever.

And your post also makes me think of the sauna scene in Bergman's The Virgin Spring.

10:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another book you can look at is "The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History" by Katherine Ashenburg. It's a history of bathing in the West from Roman times to the present.

Linda Banche

9:28 AM  

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