Here’s an important revision of the history of hygiene, from Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life:

It would not be easy to find a statement on hygiene more wrong, or at least more incomplete, than this one by the celebrated architectural critic Lewis Mumford in his classic work The City in History, published in 1961:

For thousands of years city dwellers put up with defective, often quite vile, sanitary arrangements, wallowing in rubbish and filth they certainly had the power to remove, for the occasional task of removal could hardly have been more loathsome than walking and breathing in the constant presence of such ordure. If one had any sufficient explanation of this indifference to dirt and odor that are repulsive to many animals, even pigs, who take pains to keep themselves and their lairs clean, one might also have a clue to the slow and fitful nature of technological improvement itself, in the five millennia that followed the birth of the city.

In fact, as we have already seen with Skara Brae in Orkney, people have been dealing with dirt, rubbish, and wastes, often surprisingly effectively, for a very long time — and Skara Brae is by no means unique. A home of forty-five hundred years ago from the Indus Valley, at a place called Mahenjo-Daro, had a nifty system of rubbish chutes to get waste out of the living area and into a midden. Ancient Babylon had drains and a sewage system. The Minoans had running water, bathtubs, and other civilizing comforts well over thirty-five hundred years ago. In short, cleanliness and generally looking after one’s body have been important to a lot of cultures for so long that it is hard to know where to begin.

The ancient Greeks were devoted bathers. They loved to get naked — gymnasium means “the naked place” — and work up a healthful sweat, and it was their habit to conclude their daily workouts with a communal bath. But these were primarily hygienic plunges. For them bathing was a brisk business, something to be gotten over quickly. Really serious bathing — languorous bathing — starts with Rome. Nobody has ever bathed with as much devotion and precision as the Romans did.

The Romans loved water altogether — one house at Pompeii had thirty taps — and their network of aqueducts provided their principal cities with a superabundance of fresh water. The delivery rate to Rome worked out at an intensely lavish three hundred gallons per head per day, seven or eight times more than the average Roman needs today.

To Romans the baths were more than just a place to get clean. They were a daily refuge, a pastime, a way of life. Roman baths had libraries, shops, exercise rooms, barbers, beauticians, tennis courts, snack bars, and brothels. People from all classes of society used them. “It was common, when meeting a man, to ask where he bathed,” writes Katherine Ashenburg in her sparkling history of cleanliness, The Dirt on Clean. Some Roman baths were built on a truly palatial scale. The great baths of Caracalla could take sixteen hundred bathers at a time; those of Diocletian held three thousand.

A bathing Roman sloshed and gasped his way through a series of variously heated pools — from the frigidarium at the cold end of the scale to the calidarium at the other. En route he or she would stop in the unctorium (or unctuarium) to be fragrantly oiled and then forwarded to the laconium, or steam room, where, after the bather worked up a good sweat, the oils were scraped off with an instrument called a strigil to remove dirt and other impurities. All this was done in a ritualistic order, though historians are not entirely agreed on what that order was, possibly because the specifics varied from place to place and time to time. There is quite a lot we don’t know about Romans and their bathing habits — whether slaves bathed with free citizens, how often or lengthily people bathed, or with what degree of enthusiasm. Romans themselves sometimes expressed disquiet about the state of the water and what they found floating in it, which doesn’t suggest that they were all necessarily as keen for a plunge as we generally suppose them to be.

It seems, however, that for much of the Roman era the baths were marked by a certain rigid decorum, which assured a healthy rectitude, but that as time went on life in the baths — as with life in Rome generally — grew increasingly frisky, and it became common for men and women to bathe together and, possibly but by no means certainly, for females to bathe with male slaves. No one really knows quite what the Romans got up to in there, but whatever it was it didn’t sit well with the early Christians. They viewed Roman baths as licentious and depraved — morally unclean if not hygienically so.

Christianity was always curiously ill at ease with cleanliness anyway, and early on developed an odd tradition of equating holiness with dirtiness.…

Then in the Middle Ages the spread of plague made people consider more closely their attitude to hygiene and what they might do to modify their own susceptibility to outbreaks. Unfortunately, people everywhere came to exactly the wrong conclusion.…


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