Saturday, 6 February 2010

On water and germs

(Men bathing, 17th century Italy)

As winter approached in Canada this year, everyone caught "swine flu" (H1N1) nerves. Like many, I felt uneasy in crowds, and I think I would have felt uneasy in a crowded public pool or sauna, as well. There is something a wee bit intimate about sharing hot, steamy air, and hot, steamy water during a health scare. Our instinct is to retreat.

Imagine a world where at least one-third of the population dies horribily over the course of a short four years. This is what happened after the Black Plague came to Europe in 1347. Twenty-five million people died during that first outbreak. Other outbreaks continued sporatically for 350 years, often with devastating effects. The fearful Plague was never far from the minds of men and women in 17th century Europe (which may help account for the profound spiritualism of the period). 

Needless to say, fear of getting sick was uppermost in most people's minds. Theories abounded about how to avoid it. In 1348, the medical facultiy of the University of Paris concluded that the Plague was caused by an unfortunate conjunction of Saturn, Jupitoer and Mars, causing infected vapours to rise up out of the earth and waters. The obese, intemperate and over-passionate were most at risk.

Also at risk, they claimed, were people who took hot baths, because hot water opened the pores of the skin, allowing the Plague to enter.
Not only could bad things enter the body through water, but the all-important balance of the four humours could also be upset through pores opened by moisture. [The Dirt on Clean, page 95]
Soon water immersion was believed a threat in a number of ways to a person's health ... and so began the end of personal bathing for several centuries — the dirtiest in the history of Europe.

In 17th century France (my period), the aristocracy rarely bathed, washing only their hands and feet, and face, on occasion. They believed that a linen chemise cleansed them better, drawing sweat away safely. The King and his brother changed their linen chemise three times a day and were thus considered clean.

(Right) The Sun King's son, Le Grand Dauphin, had his hair combed for the first time at seven months, and his first bath at the age of almost seven.

Ironically, many bathed (clothed) in the rivers and lakes (not the ocean, however, which was still considered too fearful). Also, the aristocracy regularly went to mineral water spas, for reasons of health. This practice began to change water's reputation as a promoter of disease to a promoter of health — but even so, very slowly.

We still have a long way to go to achieve the standards for personal cleanliness set long ago by the Romans, who went to the baths for two to three hours a day.

Reference: The Dirt on Clean; An Unsanitized History, by Katherine Ashenburg.

Sandra Gulland, Author of the Josephine B. Trilogy and Mistress of the Sun