Thursday, 1 December 2011

Why were our ancestors happy to give up baths for 600 years?

Whenever I imagine living in some past era, the thing that I can’t help worrying about  (apart from the fact that I’d have been long dead by this age) is how badly everyone must have stunk. I don’t mean a bit of a pen and ink as a result of not bathing for a week – I'm talking about really obnoxious, disgusting, aggressive stinking.

 And I don’t mean peasants or the urban poor: I mean kings and courtiers and writers and composers and artists and scholars - the very people one would have been fascinated to meet.

I guarantee none of us would have been able to concentrate on what they were saying for a moment, because, next to them, a polecat would have smelt like a fresh sea breeze scented with honey.

According to Bill Bryson’s utterly engrossing At Home: A Short History of Private Life, some time in the Middle Ages the notion set in that bathing opened the pores to all sorts of diseases, most notably the plague. So, as he puts it, everyone gave up washing themselves for 600 years, until Queen Anne went to try the waters at Bath in attempt to cure her gout, after which the idea of not walking around reeking like a sewer gradually gained traction. Very gradually, mind you.

When Europeans first started visiting India, the locals were apparently appalled at their smell. King Louis XIII was almost seven before he had his first bath. Pepys only notes his wife once having a bath in the nine and a half years he kept his diary. In fact, mad people were the only ones we can be sure  bathed regularly,  as being immersed in water was an established part of the treatment.

The question that’s been troubling me since reading the relevant section on "The Bathroom" in Bryson’s insanely readable book is how our ancestors manage to produce such a wonderful civilisation of arts and letters when they must been itching like mad all the time. For instance, James Boswell was noted for the pungency of his body odour – how did he manage to concentrate long enough to produce the Life of Johnson while his skin was crawling because of its utter filthiness? Didn’t any of the many prostitutes he visited ever say “Crikey, kind sir! You don’t half pong something rotten! Mind if I stuff decaying meat up me ‘ooter while you ‘as your way with me to take me mind orf it?”

It’s not as if no one was repelled by this: Swift’s writings reveal that he certainly was.

Given that experience must revealed that the plague – and sundry other maladies – afflicted the filthy and the not quite so filthy in equal measure, didn’t it occur to any of these extraordinarily intelligent and refined people that the theory upon which the whole of Europe had based its personal hygiene regimen might, just possibly, be open to question? And when they had their annual or bi-annual bath (which, of course, many didn’t bother with) why didn’t that invigorating, tingling, mind-clearing, joyous sensation of feeling truly, spendidly  clean simply overwhelm them with the desire to experience it again as soon as possible? Even with the fuss and bother of arranging a bath in those days (bath-houses across Europe had been closed because they were believed to spread syphilis), wouldn’t once a fortnight have struck the well-off as a reasonable interval between feeling physically terrific? And after they’d had one of their rare baths, didn’t anyone ever say to them, “Gosh, you smell nice!” - from which they might have inferred that smelling nice was A Good Thing?

I hate the modern habit of sneering at the past – sniggering at the beliefs and habits of a European culture which produced Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Bach and the King James Bible strikes me as unwarranted, given the shocking tawdriness of our own culture. But we all know how disgusting and distracted we tend to feel if, for any reason (illness, travel, Arctic exploration) we can’t bathe or shower for a day: after 48 unbathed hours, sitting down and concentrating on any sort of task would be out of the question. The mystery is, how were our ancestors able to produce myriad cultural glories when they must have been climbing the wall?

It's a puzzle, and no mistake.


  1. The Romans were a jolly clean lot by all accounts. How did not one but two of their more successful generals manage to get close to a woman who bathed in ass's milk?

    This business of the outdoors being malevolent. I think it was in Scruton's book on Kant where I read that the great man liked to go out for a limp after lunch, walking was good for him, he thought, even if it meant breathing in all that polluted air. And he liked to have company. So some student would be deputed to walk with him. In silence. Opening your mouth was dangerous, according to Immanuel, when outdoors.

    Taking the air in through his nose was OK but not through his mouth? This, from Kant himself? What about the transcendental unity of inspiration, I think one might have wanted to ask him on return from one of his walks?

  2. Great article, Scott! I've read a couple of Bryson's books, and will now add that one too.

    Having read social history as an undergraduate, it's a subject I've often thought about myself. People's breath is another thing must have been an absolute shocker. The toothbrush hadn't yet been invented and sweets were already plentiful. In fact, Queen Elizabeth was well known for her rotten teeth. I wonder if people kissed in those days! And what about women's menstrual cycles?

    The past tends to get romanticised, particularly by Hollywood. I remember watching Barry Lyndon (1978 - a must see if you haven't already seen it) and noticing how Lady Lyndon seemed to spend half her time in the bath surrounded by attendants. But how untrue that scene was in reality!

    I'm not surprised Indians found Europeans bad-smelling, because you couldn't find a stronger contrast than between Asia and Europe. Having travelled extensively in Asia, cleanliness is almost an obsession everywhere, even in the poorest communities. Indians, for example, have always done ritual bathing in the river, and there are even whole yoga treatises on cleansing the body, both external and internal. And even now, in the poorest slums, they'll still manage to soap themselves and chuck a few buckets of water over themselves at some point in the day. Thailand is another country where no girl would dream of not having at least two showers a day, regardless of her social and economic status.

    Of course, the heat of the tropics is probably an important factor. Common sense dictates that you wash when in such climates. It's a pity Europeans weren't endowed with the same. Take for example the British Raj, the idiots still wore all their full military paraphernalia even in that heat!

    Interestingly, though, I discovered that Tibetans don't like washing either. They believe that it drains the vital energy of the body. I actually went to Tibet in 1987 and was shocked at the general lack of hygiene. Most toilets were just huge latrines. Yet I didn't notice even a single fly. The only explanation I can think is that at that altitude certain insects and bacteria can't survive.

    Anyway, thank God we did finally see the light!

  3. Thanks for the Kant anecdote, Mr. Moss - as you say, it would have been fascinating to quiz one of the most brilliant, rational, logical men who every lived how the hell he ended believing anything quite as cosmically stupid!

  4. Oddly enough, TropicalRob, bad breath is still quite prevalent today - especially in pressurised jobs where people whizz around and sometimes don't have time to eat. I was always surprised by how many immaculately-groomed people in broadcasting had breath that could fell an ox. Politicians certainly weren't. The thing about bad breath is that you usually don't know you've got it - it's hard to test, and it's almost impossible to find a way of pointing it out to someone without being offensive.

    Interesting about the Tibetans - I must remember to cancel my holiday there!

    As for British colonials, I can imagine there being a number of reasons for remaining fully togged-up, no matter how punishing the heat (i.e. giving in might have been taken as a sign of weakness by the locals, or as a sign that you were "going native" by your colleagues). But I wonder what they did in freezing cold countries like Canada - did they refuse to wear furs? I doubt it. Hmm.