The war against the bath: when being clean meant just changing your shirt

In the 16th century, the concept of hygiene changed radically and the dirt of the Late Medieval epoch gave way to a “powder-puffed” dirt that will cease only at the beginning of the 19th century.

Nico Zardo

The history of hygiene does not follow a linear path: ithas witnessed periods of great consideration and periods of substantial abandonment, and only in the first decades of the 20th century didit take on the image that we know today. The Greeks attributed great importance to hygiene, so much so that they retained that a goddess, Hygieia, presided over health and over virtuous and balanced behavior. The Romans were masters in reclaiming swamps, in building aqueducts, public latrines and thermal water systems. In the period of their greatest splendor, each Roman citizen had could use up to 1000 liters of water a day.

During the first centuries of the Middle Ages, care for the spirit clearly prevails and only after the 12th century was the body, its image, its cleanliness reconsidered, thanks also to influences of Arab origin. In the subsequent centuries, public baths became diffused, the so-called “stufe”, assiduously frequented not only for hygienic needs but also for social rendezvous and often for sexual encounters. In the 16th century, the concept of hygiene radically changed, and the cleanliness of the Middle Ages gave way to dirt, of which mankind will free itself only starting from the beginning of the 19th century.


WITH THE BLACK PLAGUE THAT DEVA STATED EUROPE BETWEEN 1347 AND 1351, PEOPLE BEGA N TO FEEL THAT PUBLIC BATH S CONSTITUTED PLACES FOR CONTAGION. So they were dissuaded from going there at least during the periods of the epidemic, but this brought scarce results. In a thirty-year span oftime syphilis, imported by Christopher Columbus upon his return from the West Indies and diffused starting in 1495-96 by the Spanish and French armies (the French pox), slaughtered the population in Europe, killing 20 million people1 and deeply changing the modalities and habits of inter-personal relations.

The desire to fight such diseases (the plague, with different degrees of intensity, will return periodically until the 18th century2) and the fear of contamination increasingly put the blame on public baths that in the course of the century also became the object of counter-reformist and reformist sex phobia focus.

Water and steam baths were considered dangerous because they entailed the exposure of the body to air and exercised an almost mechanical action on the pores that, by opening up, let the infected air enter the body. It was retained that a woman can become pregnant by immersing herself in the baths where men had previously bathed. Baths for therapeutic use remained acceptable as it was thought that they could be beneficial to cure gallstones or yellow jaundice or to prepare the body for bleeding interventions by dampening it3.


ONLY THE HANDS AND THE MOUTH ARE STILL WASHED WITH WATER , often diluted with vinegar, alcohol or wine. Protection for the body - considered impermeable to air and water - isconcentrated on clothing that must be adherent, almost a second skin, made of satin and silk that let the unhealthy air just glide off. The poorer classes who cannot afford precious fabrics use hemp and oilcloth. Newborns, after their very first bath out of the womb, are dusted with powders and ointments to make them impermeable and resistant to disease, and then wrapped in tight swaddling that is changed a couple of times a day. This practice, however, causes crooked legs, inflammations and often serious diseases.

Perfumes per force become part of the toiletries that men and women use to cover up unpleasant odors and are considered useful for a disinfectant action. It is important to have a clean “aspect” and so the aristocracy begins to dress above all in white and change clothing more frequently.

The practice of taking a bath, considering the debilitating risks that it was retained to cause, was an operation to be performed rather infrequently and using great precautions. In 1610, when the messengersent by Henry IV, king of France, to the residence of minister Sully to summon him to court, finds Sully intent on taking a bath, he recommends that he not leave his home for fear that the sudden exposure to the air may cause him harm. The king, informed of this situation, tells Sully to stay put and orders that he wait for him the next day at home, well covered so that the bath does not entail grave consequences!

The Journal de la santé published by court physicians reveals that from 1647 until his death in 1715, Louis XIV had taken just one bath. He only cleaned his face every two days with a cotton swab immersedin ethyl alcohol.


THE “ANNUA L” BATH , PRACTICED BY THE MORE VIRTUOUS FEW, WAS TA KEN PREVA LENTLY IN THEMONTH OF MAY or for weddings taking place in June. It became customary for brides, in order to contrast their own and other people’s “aromas”, to be adorned with a bouquet of perfumed flowers - atradition practiced still today, although few know its origins. At that time, parasites were considered an integral part of the “natural” scenery, so much so that mutually removing one’s lice was considered a gesture of kindness or respect. It was thought that the presence of flees and lice stemmed from an excess of bodily fluids, from neglected transpirations that could be controlled by keeping clothes clean andchanging them often4. In cities and towns, the streets were a receptacle for inhabitants’ wastes: dirty water, wastes from artisan activities, every type of trash ended up in rivers that were often areas wheredrinking water was taken from, or water to wash clothes and dishes, so it is of no surprise that periodically, plague and cholera epidemics exploded, decimating the population.


BETWEEN THE 16TH AND 17TH CENTURIES, A WAY OF CONCEIVING CLEANLINESS WAS BORN THAT HAD ALMOST NOTH ING TO DO WITH WATER . The newways focused on keeping the most visible parts of the body clean, like face and hands, drying sweat by rubbing the skin with a cloth and a perfumed sponge and then dusting it with perfumed powders. These behaviors do not follow health precepts but rather to behavior manuals that suggest entrusting intimate apparel with the task of absorbing sweat and body secretions. Basically, instead of washing the body, the clothing is washed and from an element up until now cached under long medieval costumes, slowly but surely it begins to emerge from underneath external clothing to decree through its clear visibility the formal acceptance of the person based on the candor of his or her shirt.

Louis Savot, physician and architect (1579-1640), in 1624 publishes a work on the reconstruction of castles and homes (L’architecture françoise des bastimens particuliers) where he states that, differently from our ancestors, we can do without providing a space for bathrooms in new buildings, because keeping the body clean is today entrusted to clothing: “l’usage du linge... nous sert aujourd’hui à tenir le corps net plus commodément, que ne pouvaient pas faire les étuves et bains aux anciens”.


THE LINEN SHIRT BECOMES A FOUNDAT IONAL ELEMENT OF CLOTH ING BOTH FOR MEN AND WOMEN. It is also a symbol of one’s personal hygiene and takes on its own feature of elegance: it appears around the neck and wrists, fluffs out of the doublet at the point where the sleeves are fastened to the shoulders, deliberately shows through the cuts practiced in the vests. Its candor thus becomes an indicator of the elegance and cleanliness of the wearer (the word “linen” brings this concept to mind), and also of his or her social status. If the wealthy classes can afford extremely fine linens, whiter but terribly expensive, the poorer echelons must be happy with hemp, less expensive but having a more yellowish color. Often, it is not even the entire shirt that gets changed but just the “external elements” such as necklines and cuffs that can be detached from the rest of the garment and are often very refined and luxurious thanks to lace and embroidery.


In a society where cleanliness consists mainly in changing this intimate apparel, the laundry becomes an important element for hygiene.Washing clothes is women’s work or it is entrusted to specialized laundresses and men who work at fountains or on “bateaux lavoirs” (laundry boats) that after the first quarter of the seventeenth century began to populate riverbanks.


IN THE MID 18TH CENTURY WE BEGIN TO NOTICE A NEWAPPROA CH TO THE BATH . This of course does not mean that baths have become a habitual practice or that their aim was necessarily cleanliness. Besides a personal pleasure, immersion in water is recognized as a useful therapeutic practice. Hot water is used for its emollient action; lukewarm water to alleviate states of over-excitement, to calm nerves and discomfort during times of great heat; cold water to stimulate and tone muscles. Mémoires, by Maréchal de Richelieu, reveals that in 1742 Mme. de Chateauroux, the sovereign’s favorite,obligated king Louis XV to assist at her baths. And in Architecture française by architect J.F. Blondel we find that in Paris, one home out of ten has a space dedicated to the bath.The bathtubs found on the pages of the Encyclopédie of 1751 are certainly more numerous, proving their more concrete presence -although still used by a minority of persons - in the mores of the time.


IN BOURGEOIS HOMES, THE SPA CES BEGIN TO DIFFERENTIATE : a room for toiletries is found next to the alcoves, a spare room is beginning to appear next to bedrooms. The middle bourgeoisie is discovering the bidet. And the practice of partial bathing becomes more diffused: this need marks the passage to a personal cleanliness that exceeds the mere consideration of decor and begins to concern the surface of the skin.

With the second half of the 18th century, the therapeutic experiences of the use of the bathroom develop and the diffusion of healings attributed to hot and cold baths help improve the image of this practice. In particular, also outside the field of health, cold baths - considered synonymous of virtue and strength - diffuse following the example of the classic references of the Romans and Spartans who, it is retained, got their strength from bathing in the gelid water of rivers.

In Paris in 1785 facilities for bathing in the Seine are opened, swimming schools were instituted. Military schools and colleges adopt bathing in cold water as instruments for strengthening the body. The ability to react and stimulate that the cold bath exerts on the human body induces the idea that the feeling of energy comes directly from stimulating the organism, favoring greater confidence in the actual strength of the individual5. We are still far away from our way of conceiving hygiene, but undoubtedly great steps forward are being taken to rid the person of a useless appearance in favor of a greater awareness of the body.


AT THE END OF THE 18TH CENTURY, MOST OF THE POPULAT ION THAT WAS CROWDING THE LARGE CITY CENTERS WITNESSED AN INCREASINGLY DETERIORAT ING URBA N SITUATION due to the presence of foul smelling waste on the streets, the cause of epidemics. The historical changes induced by revolutionary events and changed economic conditions led to acknowledge the health of the population as a special value to be kept into consideration and protect through legislative provisions, organized public structures and by beginning to consider the importance of the quality of the urban environment. Under the spur of illuministideas that the Napoleonic epic will contribute to disseminating in all of Europe, “hygiene” is no longer just a term to qualify health, but rather the ensemble of features and knowledge that favor its maintenance and it becomes a special discipline in medicine. At the beginning of the 19th century, the war against the bath was over and a different way of looking at hygiene and at people’s health was taking shape. •


1. G. Cosmacini, L’arte lunga (The Long Art), Editori Laterza, 2009, p. 230

2. The bacillus of the bubonic plague, spread by flees present on rats, was isolatedby the Swiss physician Alexandre Yersin in 1894.

3. G. Vigarello, Lo sporco e il pulito (The Clean and the Dirty) (trans. by D. Orati),Marsilio Editori, Venice 1987, pp. 19-21

4. G. Vigarello, op.cit. pp. 54-55

5. G. Vigarello, op.cit. pp. 150-152

  • Laundresses at the end of the 18th century in an engraving by G. Volpato (1733-1802)
  • "Woman Catching Flees" by G. de La Tour (1593-1652)
  • "La ménagerie perisienne" by G. Doré (1832-1883)
  • The sabot bathtub, analogous to the one where Marat was killed, already known in antiquity, came back into fashion in the 18th century to save water
  • "La Toilette intime ou la Rose effeuillée" by L.L. Boilly (1761-1845)
  • "Baigneurs" by H. Daumier (1808-1879)
  • "Woman in the bathtub" by E. Degas (1834-1917)
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