It’s a good thing there aren’t any scratch and sniff history books. Sure, the smell of Martha Washington’s cookies or the hanging gardens of Babylon would make nice pages, but the number of historical olfactory transgressions probably outnumber everything pleasant. Of course the Ancient Romans had public baths to keep everyone smelling like roses, and although they introduced the practice to much of Europe dark days eventually fell. Tubs were drained, Mr. Bubble became a wanted criminal, and the rubber ducky lost his status as man’s best friend . . .
One glorious spring day in the year of our Lord 1610, the King of France, Henry IV, sent an envoy to Maximilien de Bethune, duc de Sully. Tra-la-la, tra-la-la, sang the envoy, as he walked along in the warmth of the sunshine. Tr-la-la, tra-la-la, but in rolled clouds black as death when he found the Duke. “Holy soap on a rope,” the envoy shouted, “You took a BATH? What were you thinking?”
“I was feeling sullied,” said the Duke of Sully sadly sulking.
Not knowing how to handle the situation the messenger returned to the king and explained the dilemma.
“Well, what do you think?” the king asked his doctor, “Could the Duke die from this dangerous disposition?” Admitting the possibility, the doctor advised the Duke not leave his house until the peril had passed.
Now the king, because he liked his faithful minister, sent his envoy back with a new message. “Because of the risk of your recent recreation, I recommend you stay confined in your quarters. I THE KING shall grace you with a visit. Do nothing foolish I pray you, but remain in your jammies, tightly wrapped in warm blankets. You will suffer my displeasure if you are not wearing your night cap and those fuzzy bunny slippers I gave you last Christmas.”
And so it was that the king who was known to smell of “sweat, stables, feet and garlic,”¹ went to visit his freshly bathed duke. What the king thought of the dukes unusual smell we may never know. I’m sure he breathed a sigh of relief, however, when the dukes smell finally returned to normal.
In today’s culture of soap, body-wash, and deodorant, fearing a bath sounds silly. But at the time of Henry IV and his duke things were very different.
It was during the plague of the 1300s that mass aversion to bathing began. People were dying at alarming rates. Desperate for an answer, Philip VI asked doctors at the University of Paris to identify the source of the disease. The doctors did some research and a couple of power point slides later, they presented their findings to the king. The cause, it turned out, was simple enough.
There was an unfortunate alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars and it happened to be under the sign of Aquarius. Aristotle had warned a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter would bring disaster while Albert the Great predicted a plague with the alignment of Jupiter and Mars. Throw in the moistness of Aquarius and disease was bound to spread faster than grass on a chia head. All this ruckus in space caused noxious gasses to be released on earth. Carried by the wind, the vapors brought doom to any susceptible bodies that were in its path. What caused someone to be susceptible? Obesity and over indulgence in all things delightful for one. Nothing shocking there, but the doctors added one more thing: baths.
The problem with bathing, the doctors said, is that it opens your pores. Might as well put up a welcome home sign for that nasty plague—open pours are open doors. Now this got people thinking. Even in plague-less times should a person take a bath? Why risk exposing yourself to any sickness? So what if you’re not dead in a few days—disease is disease—ain’t nobody got time for that.
So, the idea that blocked pours were happy pores began to prevail, and the best way to keep your pours blocked was to stay dirty and grimy.
By the 1500’s it was accepted that people were just not going to be clean, and I don’t mean just the common folk either. As we saw with Henry IV, kings and queens were just as dirty as the rest of the world. According to notes kept by the doctor of the French court, the tushie of little Louis XIII born in 1601 didn’t touch bath water until he was nearly 7, and England’s James I is said to have only ever washed his fingers.
What’s a few bugs among friends? And that B.O.? Well it’s really just the smell of nature. Anyway, it was the wrappings that mattered most. Velvet and silk covered a multitude of sins, but what really made a person fresh and clean was linen.
In the 17th century nothing said cleanliness like a freshly washed and starched linen undershirt. Linen was thought to have the power to whisk away dirt, sweat, and toxins. The rubbing of the linen against the skin would automatically make a person spic and span. If you wanted to be really clean, you’d change your shirt several times a day, and the finer the gentleman the more shirts he owned. Now, take a look at Louis XIV for example, there was a clean guy. He changed his shirt three times a day, AND after exercising. Whatever smells came from the body would be complemented with large quantities of perfume and powder.
The love affair with dirt, you see, was not worldwide. The Japanese loved to visit the sento, or public bath house. Bathing had always been part of their religious and medical practice, but by the 1600’s the Japanese just really liked the idea of being clean. They loved it so much, it became quite a popular subject for the art of the day.
The Turks were another culture that enjoyed being clean. Their bath houses, called hammams were at least partly influenced by the early Roman baths. When Europeans had all but forgotten the joys of a luxurious soak, it was the Crusaders who brought it back. They had enjoyed a little dip in the hammams during their travels and decided to continue the custom once they returned home. Some Europeans who visited the Levant, however, thought the Turkish standard of cleanliness was a little over the top. They would bathe several times a week and made a habit of washing their hands and faces. Stranger yet, they kept their private parts constantly clean.
In Europe all the exiled bath supplies could find refuge in Germany. Giving up the bath didn’t hold much water there, or most of Eastern Europe. Although some towns closed their baths, others left theirs open in order to make use of more traditional healing methods. When bath houses did eventually close, it wasn’t so much from a fear of disease, but a lack of wood to heat the water.
Ironically what brought the return of bathing was water itself. Although a dip in the tub was unforgivable, visiting hot springs was altogether different. Because of their mineral content, springs were believed to have restorative powers if used properly. Doctors were available to guide you through a regime of drinking and bathing, and a well balanced diet was offered to assist in stabilizing ones health. Admittedly it might not have been the waters that held the attraction as much as the society. Afternoons in a French spa were filled with leisurely activities, but while they were getting tucked into bed early their counterparts in other countries were just beginning to party. With all the pampering and partying going on it was just too much fun to miss. If you had the money, it was worth whatever watery risk you might encounter.
Eventually the threat of plague ended, peoples opinions changed and the fun of a nice bath could no longer be ignored. The English got the idea that bathing in the cold waters of the sea could cure practically anything, and by the 18th century, doctors were assuring people that water, any water, was good. Things were changing in France too. Louis XV who was heir to the stinky Louis had tubs in his private rooms, and he actually used them. With the dawn of the revolution—which was all about change—the dirty greasy look was on the way out. Obviously being clean worked out for them, well most of them anyway. It didn’t work too well for Jean-Paul Marat, an influential radical during the revolution. He was assassinated in the tub. Oh well, I guess nothings perfect.