An Unsanitised History of Washing
Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
This a a fascinating, entertaining, and constantly surprising history of ideas about cleanliness and washing. Katherine Ashenburg's account begins with the Greeks and Romans and takes us up to the present day. It is concerned mainly with America and Europe though there are a few references to other cultures such as Japan.
The fondness of the Greeks and Romans for the baths is well known. The early Christians, however, were uncertain about the value of cleanliness, and indeed some prominent saintly writers made a positive virtue of dirt. This ambivalence continued into the early Middle Ages.
Attitudes to washing and bathing during the Middle Ages were therefore variable. Initially, washing was largely confined to the hands and public baths disappeared, at least in western Europe. But the Crusaders encountered the practice of bathing in the East and reimported it to Europe on their return. Public baths, often with mixed nude bathing, became very popular, particularly in Germany and Switzerland. Visitors from south of the Alps, who were more prudish, were often shocked by what they encountered in the north.
A contemporary illustration shows men and women, attired only in turbans, eating and drinking in two-seater tubs. while another couple has gone to bed in an adjoining room. Monks are also taking part, attended by young bath maids in diaphanous gowns. The distinction between baths and brothels seems to have become somewhat obscure at this time. All this puts the Middle Ages in a different light from how I had pictured them previously.
Unfortunately, the happy state of affairs depicted in these accounts came to an end with the Black Death. It was believed that the infection entered the body through the pores and bathing was therefore extremely perilous. Almost all the public baths were closed in the early sixteenth century. The idea that the pores should be kept sealed as much as possible persisted for centuries after this.
In the next few centuries washing, and especially bathing, was thought to be excessively dangerous. Most people never washed their bodies at all, relying on changes of linen to make themselves 'clean'. On the rare occasions when a bath was thought to be advisable it was attended with elaborate and lengthy precautions.
Even in the eighteenth century, attitudes were changing only slowly. But by the nineteenth century medical views of the desirability of keeping the pores closed were now reversed; opening them was held to be the goal. By mid-century people were again taking baths regularly and the Christian view now revered cleanliness as next to Godliness. But warm baths were suspect for many; cold baths were thought to be more virtuous.
The twentieth century saw the greatest increase in washing, with the widespread availability of baths and showers in private houses. Body odours became more socially unacceptable than ever, particularly in the USA, where soap and deodorants were marketed intensively and very successfully. Ashenburg is clear that all this has now gone too far, and there are signs of a backlash.
The dominant idea I was left with after reading this book is the extraordinary variety of theories about health that people have held, without any basis in fact. One wonders what later generations will make of our opinions.
14 August 2008
%S An Unsanitised History of Washing
%A Katherine Ashenburg
%I Profile Books
%G ISBN 978 1 84668 095 3
%K history, sociology
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