When public sex was a part of bathtime

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British bathing habits were brought to you by the Italians, Muslims and the mucky-pups who worked up a froth down the stews.

The denizens of medieval Europe have a reputation of smelling so bad, one sniff of an Anglo-Saxon armpit would strip the enamel from your back teeth. And this reputation is not entirely without merit. With no sewerage system, waste thrown into the streets, along with offal and other accumulated filth, walking down any medieval street would have been an eye watering affair. Of course, they would have grown accustomed to niffs that would have your modern day germaphobe crossing themselves with Toilet Duck, but as St Bernard wrote, ‘where all stink, no one smells’. So, where did we learn the art of bathing?

German bath house, 1682.

German bath house, 1682.

The British learnt a great deal about bathing from the Romans, who turned up on our shores in AD43 armed with cutting edge weaponry and loofahs at the ready. Not much is known about British bathing habits before this happy event, but the Romans were in no doubt that the Brits were a mucky lot. Diodorus Siculus described the Britons as ‘complete savages’ and Pliny the Elder was perplexed as the British custom of painting themselves blue, dressing up in animal skins and fighting each other in the bollocky buff. Having spent some time in Italy during the Six Nations rugby tournament this year, and been witness to the England vs Italy match, I can confirm that the Italians continue to be baffled by this time-honoured British custom.

Public bathing continued to be popular across Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire (C.476 AD). But, the early Christian Church quickly pulled the plug on the communal soak. As the Christian faith clamped down on sexual freedoms, attitudes to bathing in the nip changed considerably. Not only did public bathing involve nudity (gasp!), but heat was believed to inflame lustful senses. Many monks, hermits, and saints saw washing as a sign of vanity and sexual corruption; filth was synonymous with piety and humility.

Early Christian militants emphasized spiritual cleanliness over physical cleanliness, even viewing the two as inversely proportional; you could literally stink to high heaven. Saint Godric (1065-1170), for example, famously walked from England to Jerusalem without ever washing or changing his clothes. Ulrich, an abbot of Cluny, France and Regensburg, Germany (1029 – 1093) admitted the monks “only bath twice a year, before Christmas and before Easter.” Of course, just because a saintly squad of hard-core soap dodgers shunned the shower, does not mean that every medieval citizen felt the same; but whatever the early medieval washing rota was, by the ninth century, the Roman bath infrastructure had fallen to rack and ruin throughout Christendom.

It was the crusaders that brought the art of the rub-a-dub-dub back to medieval Europe. Whilst the Christians were busy working up a stench that could be weaponised, cleanliness remained essential throughout the Muslim world. Medieval Arab doctors were far more advanced than the west and understood the importance of cleanliness and hygiene. Medieval cities of Mecca, Marrakech, Cairo, and Istanbul all had their water and bathhouses supplied by well-maintained aqueducts.

The Kitab at-Tasrif (C.1000) by Al-Zahrawi is a medical encyclopaedia that devotes entire chapters to cosmetics and cleanliness; Al-Zahrawi gives recipes for soap, deodorants, facial creams and hair dyes. Conversely, for all their ‘spiritual purity’, the crusaders stank. The medieval Arabian author of A Thousand and One Nights was one of many writers appalled at European hygiene; “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 the obligation of washing for the rest of their lives.” Happily, the Muslim habit of regular bathing seemed to rub off on the marauding crusaders, and along with the art of perfumery, public bathhouses began to become popular throughout medieval Europe once more.

If you had the money you could pay for servants to fill your own tub, but most folk used the communal baths. By the thirteenth-century there were thirty-two bathhouses in Paris and eighteen in London. The baths were very social spaces. Not only could you have a soak with your mates, but communal feasting in the baths was extremely popular by the fifteenth century. (The next time one of your friends suggests a spa day, do bring a few rounds of cheese sandwiches to hand out in the sauna; it’s a shame we’ve let this custom die.) Far from stinking up the place, bathing was extremely popular in the later Middle Ages. Even the monks of Westminster Abby hired a bath attendant on the princely sum of £1 per year. However, there is no denying that the bath houses were also very sexually charged places.

So closely associated are sex and bathing, numerous slang phrases for sex (and sex work) are derived from the medieval bath houses; ‘lather’, as in ‘to lather up’ was sixteenth-century slang for ejaculation. The word ‘bagnio’, meaning a brothel, derives from the Latin ‘balneum’, meaning ‘bath’. Likewise, a medieval word for a brothel was a ‘stew’, which also derives from the bathhouses, where you could literally stew yourself in the hot water and whatever else was floating in there. In the twelfth century, King Henry II officially recognised the Southwark area of London as a red-light district; it was no coincidence that this was also the area of the city with the highest concentration of bathhouses.

But, the fun was not to last. Public bathhouses went into steep decline across Europe in the sixteenth-century. Elizabethan medical advice suggested bathing weakened the body, and that cleaning the skin left it open to infection. Periodic outbreaks of plague and the arrival of syphilis in the fifteenth century certainly burst the bubble bath. As people became cautious about bathing, washing the body was replaced with wearing linen shirts; linen was thought to draw out and absorb sweat. Bathing would not come back into vogue until the eighteenth century with the rise of the spa.

Far from living in a ditch, eating twigs and rubbing themselves with sewage, the citizens of the Middle Ages actually smelt quite good; certainly better than the people of the Renaissance who believed bathing would make them ill. Medieval lovers valued clean bodies, sweet breath, regular scrubbing and an array of perfumes. Sex was very much a part of the culture of communal bathing; at worst it was tolerated, at best it was fully embraced and enjoyed. The medieval period was undeniably grubbier than our own; but, they embraced cleanliness as fully as they could.

So, the next time you’re reaching for your Matey Bubble-bath, please remember that British bathing habits were brought to you by the Italians, Muslims and the mucky-pups who worked up a froth down the stews.

A version of this story first appeared on our sister title, i