Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Katherine Ashenburg, The Dirt on Clean; An Unsanitized History

Katherine Ashenburg, The Dirt on Clean; An Unsanitized History, North Point Press, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2007.

For the aristocratic seventeenth-century Frenchman, it meant that he changed his linen shirt daily and dabbled his hands in water but never touched the rest of his body with water or soap. For the Roman in the first century, it involved two or more hours of splashing, soaking and steaming the body in water of various temperatures, raking off sweat and oil, with a metal scraper, and giving himself a final oiling—all done daily, in company, and without soap. (1)

Sometimes the other is, suspiciously, too clean—which is how the Muslims, who scoured their bodies and washed their genitals, struck European for centuries. (2)

Twenty years ago, airplanes, restaurants, hotel rooms and most other public indoor spaces were thick with cigarette smoke. Most of us never noticed it. Now that these places are usually smoke-free, we shrink back affronted when we enter a room where someone has been smoking. The nose is adaptable, and teachable. (3)

She cleaned her house ferociously but not her body, or not very often. (It was a northern European habit I would later read about, when travelers from other European countries, as far back as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, would marvel at the cleanliness of Swiss, German and Dutch houses and even streets, but note that it did not extend to their bodies.) /
I had to learn that my grandmother’s smell was not “good,” as determined by twentieth-century North American standards. My natural, uncultivated reaction was that it was neutral or better. (4)

The ancient Egyptians went to great lengths to be clean, but both sexes anointed their genitals with perfumes designed to deepen and exaggerate their natural aroma. (6)

Napoleon and Josephine were fastidious for their time in that they both took a long, hot, daily bath. But Napoleon wrote Josephine from a campaign, “I will return to Paris tomorrow evening. Don’t wash.” (6)

At least until the mid-eighteenth century, Europeans from the lowliest peasant to the king shunned water. Instead, they convinced themselves that linen had admirable cleansing properties, and they “washed” by changing their shirts. (12)

The manly rigour of cold-water bathing suited the gymnasium’s spirit and reassured those Athenians who brooded about the weakening and feminizing effects of hot water. /
And brood they did. The playwright Aristophanes makes fun of the perennial tug-of-war between austerity and luxury in his fifth-century comedy The Clouds. … That kind of no-frills upbringing, he insists, produced the hairy-chested men who fought at the battle of Marathon. These days, boys who indulge in hot baths shiver in the cold and waste their time gossiping like sissies. /
A Greek’s position on hot-water bathing spoke volumes about his values, and one of the most enduring debates in the history of cleanliness centres on the merits of cold versus hot water. Edward Gibbon, the eighteenth-century chronicler of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, was convinced that hot baths were one of the principal reasons Rome weakened and fell. Victorian men, influenced by their classical Greek studies, believed that the British Empire was built on the bracingly cold morning bath. It’s a prejudice with staying power, as indicated by the modern German expression for a man short on masculinity—a Warmduscher, or warm-showerer. Plato, who in The Laws reserves hot baths for the old and ill, would have sympathized with those judgments. (24-5)

The Greek appreciated water, but the Romans adorned it. In their gymnasiums, the Greeks bathed as a necessary conclusion to exercise. The Romans reversed the priorities: they exercised because it made their baths even more enjoyable. (28)

Roman men adopted the Greek habit of bathing after work, which meant about two or three in the afternoon, corresponding to the eighth or ninth hour in the Roman time scheme. (The Roman workaday began early in the morning, certainly by six o’clock, and was effectively over by mid-afternoon.) In the Republic, when the sexes were more reliably segregated for bathing than they were in the Empire, women would have either separate bath chambers or separate hours, usually in the morning. (30-31)

A mixture of animals fats and ashes sounds neither clean nor pleasant, but that is how soap was made for most of human history. Clay cylinders dating from about 2800 B.C., discovered during excavations in Babylon, contain a soapy substance, and the writing on the cylinders confirms that fat and ashes were boiled together to produce it. What actually got washed with soap is less clear. The Egyptians, whose soap contained milder vegetable oils as well as animal fats, used it for washing their bodies. The Greeks and Romans did not: they preferred coating themselves with sand and oil and scraping it off with a strigil. Although soap, probably made with olive oil, was a regular part of the Turkish bath, or hamam, that aspect of washing did not travel to Europeans were still boiling animal fats and ashes together to make a soap that was used to wash clothes and floors but was too harsh for bodies. (32)

But for men and women who lived in Rome’s dark apartment blocks, without water of toilets or much space, an afternoon at the bathhouse was a delight. (38)

Besides, poverty was not always a disadvantage at the baths. Far from making everyone equal, nudity imposed its own hierarchy, one that frequently favoured the toned body of the poorest freedman or slave over that of the indulged, unexercised rich man. (38-40)

An Arab gardener in A Thousand and one Nights accounted quite simply for the dirtiness of the Christians: “They never wash, for, at their birth, ugly men in black garments pour water over their heads, and this ablution, accompanied by strange gestures, frees them from all obligation of washing for the rest of their lives.” Of course, the Arab’s claim that baptism absolved Christians from further cleansing was partly a joke, but it suggests how Christians were seen by medieval Muslims. (49)

Hindu once asked him about the Christian teaching on personal hygiene. … The Hindu’s surprise was justified, for Christianity’s unconcern with cleanliness is unusual among world religions. There is no single obvious reason for that omission. There is no single obvious reason for that omission. The first Christians were Jews, people who were expected to be clean for reasons of health as well as out of respect for others. But their laws were much more specific about ritual purity than about physical cleanliness. Jews were obliged to wash away in a ritual bath the pollution caused by immoral acts, such as adultery, homosexuality and murder, as well as by innocent activities and conditions such as sexual intercourse with their spouse, contact with the dead, genital discharges and childbirth. During the time of Christ, that web of obligatory purifications was tightening and expanding. /
The Jesus who appears in the gospels was either rebellious or indifferent when it came to some of the most important of these impure states. In the course of his healing, he touched the dead, as well as people with leprosy-like condition… (51)

In Luke’s version of the story, it is Jesus who sits down to eat without washing, shocking his Pharisee host (Luke 11:37-54). Jesus’ response in both accounts is to belittle the custom the accuse the Pharisees of hypocrisy. A man is not defiled by what goes into him, he says in Mark’s gospel, only by what comes out of him. (52)

Scholars have advanced various reasons to explain Jesus’ indifference to ritual purity. His thinking may have been influenced by his origins in a rural, Galilean branch of Judaism that was relatively unconcerned with ritual purity. …for he does not seem to have believed that the innocently “impure,” menstruating women or men with a discharge, for example, needed purification. Nor were the morally culpable absolved, in Jesus’ view, by immersing themselves in a ritual pool—they also had to repent. As a further complication, the speech and actions of the Jesus we meet in the gospels may well have been doctored to suit the attitudes of the early Church. (53)

…Jewish purity laws, especially at the time of Christ, emphasized the body’s importance: the purity of impurity of the body at any given moment was a significant matter. Within a few hundred years of Christ’s death, Christianity had gone in a different direction. It discounted the body as much as possible, devaluing the flesh so as to concentrate on the spirit. (54)

In 1518, Colet, the head of St. Paul’s School, London, furnished only urinals for the boys who went to his prestigious school. “For other causes,” he wrote, the boys should go down to the River Thames. (78)

German and Swiss nonchalance about nudity shocked travelers from Mediterranean counties. In 1414, a sophisticated Florentine writer and collector of ancient manuscripts named Gian-Francesco Poggio journeyed to the Swiss baths of Baden, near Zurich. He describes a prosperous city in a valley, where the central square was ringed with thirty magnificent buildings, all public or private baths. To the Italian’s amazement, although segregated into a men’s section and a women’s naked bathers were clearly visible to those of the opposite sex. In this Edenic scene apparently innocent pleasure, bathers “contemplate, chat, gamble, and unburden the mind, and they stay while the women enter and leave the water, their full nakedness exposed to everyone’s view.” Windows had been cut into the grilles that nominally separated the sexes, so that bathers on both sides could admire and even touch one another. Torn between surprised laughter, lascivious thoughts and admiration, Poggio marvels at husbands who take no offence as their wives are touched by strangers, and at men who mingle in the nude or near-nude with female relatives or friends. (82)

At the French court, where the daily dressing of the monarch was a minutely choreographed ceremony, aristocrats perfumed themselves so as not to smell their neighbours. The sixteenth century had not been notably fastidious, even at the highest level: Elizabeth I of England bathed once a moth, as she said, “whether I need it or not.” But the seventeenth century raised the bar: it was spectacularly, even defiantly dirty. Elizabeth successor, James I, reportedly washed only his fingers. The body odour of Henri IV of France (1553-1610) was notorious, as was that of his son Louis XIII. He boasted, “I take after my father, I smell of armpits.” (99)

…clogged pores remained not just the norm, but the goal. The reigning medical authorities remained faithful to the medieval belief that blocked pores, in particular, sealed the body off from infection. And infection lay in wait all over Europe, as plagues recurred through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One hundred thousands Londoners died in the Great Plague of 1665. A third of Stockholm’s population perished in the plague of 1710-11, as did half of the population of Marseilles in 1720-21. (100)

Mindful of these dangers, the English philosopher and essayist Francis Bacon (1561-1626) designed a twenty-six-hour bath that would limit the penetration of the body by the bad, or “watery,” part of the exercise while encouraging its “moistening heate and virtue.” He achieved this delicate balance, or so he believed, first by sealing the body with oil and salves before immersion. Then the bather sat in the water for two hours. Emerging, he wrapped himself in a waxed cloth impregnated with resin, myrrh, pomander and saffron, which was intended to close the pores and harden the body, which had grown soft in the water. After twenty-four hours, the bather removed the cloth and applied a final coat of oil, salt and saffron. /
In Bacon’s extraordinary recipe, water is something to be used reluctantly and with elaborate precautions, but at least it does play a part. More often, particularly in the seventeenth century, water was avoided altogether, except for a cursory washing of hands. The mouth might be rinsed quickly, and the face wiped with a dry cloth. The head and hair should be washed “only with a greatest caution,” according to Jean Liebault, the author of a popular French work about the beautification of the body first published in 1582 and reprinted in 1632. Instead of washing, he recommended that before bed the hair be rubbed with bran or powder, which would be removed in the morning with a comb. (101)

Muslims, he explains, have a religious obligation to bathe often, especially before going to the mosque, “to wash themselves clean from their manifold sins which they commit daily.” Either their religion is strangely scrupulous, he implies, or they are extraordinarily sinful—or both. (103-4)

The poor lacked the means to wash thoroughly, but the aristocrats’ doctors forbade it. Since the most expensive medical opinion held that bodily secretions furnished a layer of protection, kings and queens bathed as infrequently as the poorest peasants. (105)

For the seventeenth century, clean linen was not a substitute for washing the body with water—it was better than that, safer, more reliably and based on scientific principles. White linen, learned men believed, attracted and absorbed sweat. … According to Savot’s reasoning, which he shared with his age, the Greeks and Romans needed baths because they failed to understand the cleansings properties of linen. (106-7)

In the eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson defended a friend, the poet Christopher Smart, who was sent to a madhouse. One of the charges against Smart was, as Johnson put it, that “he did not love clean linen.” To which Johnson, whose poor grooming was notorious, added that he himself “had no passion for it.” (107)

The linen in question for both men and women was a smock-like shirt, or chemise, that reached to the knees. (Since Englishwomen did not wear underpants until the eighteenth century, the smock was their only underwear. Women on the Continent were wearing silk or linen under-breeches at least by the sixteenth century. (108)

But cool water had never been considered as dangerous as hot water. To immerse yourself in hot water, you had to be foolhardy, German—or ill. Recommending that sick people plunge themselves into a substance considered unwise for healthy people sounds paradoxical, but it was a case of desperate remedies. Because water could infiltrate a healthy body and disturb the balance of its humours, doctors and patients hoped that a carefully designed and monitored bath might also restore the humours’ equilibrium in a diseased body. (114)

One of the first important post-classical recommendations for this daunting practice appears in John Locke’s in 1693 treatise on the rearing of a boy, called Some Thoughts Concerning Education (128)

In 1701, another doctor, Sir John Floyer, published The History of Cold Bathing, which made much more extravagant claims for immersion in cold water. … it “excites the drowsy Spirits to contract all their Tubes and membranous Vessels , by which all sensation is more lively, and all Actions of the Body more strong, and the Stupid Mind is powerful excited.” /
In addition to exciting the stupid mind, there was something patriotic and bracingly northern about bathing in frigid water. “A cold regimen suits cold countries,” Floyer writes, connecting the practice with the longevity and energy of northern cultures. (129)

The History of Cold Bathing was addressed to an audience that could cope with learned allusions and the odd Latin quotation. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, pitched his Primitive Physick: or, an Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases at the fold level. … Cold bathing was a key prescription, and he filled a page in listing the conditions, including blindness and leprosy, it had been known to cure. /
In a sermon he delivered in 1791, Wesley adapted a Hebrew proverb into an English phrase that became a standard of mothers and schoolteachers: “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Although now used mostly as a prod for children who need to shower or clean their fingernails, the cleanliness Wesley referred to was that of dress. Similarly, Primitively Physick rarely concerns itself with personal hygiene. Houses, clothes and furniture should be “as clean and sweet as possible,” but for bodies, he recommended only frequent having and foot washing. (131)

People waded and swam in rivers and lakes but not in the sea. For hundreds of years, it had been terrifying—vast, unpredictable and the supposed home of horrific monsters. As the eighteenth century progressed, a different attitude emerged. It owed much to a new sensibility, voiced with particular eloquence in Edmund Burke’s 1756 treatise Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, which glorified what was dark and alarming. At least since the Renaissance, people had found the sea ugly because it frightened them. Now people began to find the sea sublime, for the same reason—because it frightened them. Gingerly at first, they began to visit seaside villages, peering at the fishermen, their boats and their gear while they worked up the stomach to gaze the sea. Where the fisherman’s houses had turned their backs on the water, now prosperous people started to build residences that looked out on it. (132)


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