Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Bath & The Mirror: Religious Power Play?

This Paris exhibit, "The Bath and The Mirror" sounds fascinating! Interesting, though, that this exhibit seems to offer physical refutation to an article about the history of bathing published in The Smithsonian magazine as recently as 1991:

In response to the debauchery of Roman baths, the early Christian church frequently discouraged cleanliness. “To those that are well, and especially to the young,” Saint Benedict in the sixth century commanded, “bathing shall seldom be permitted.”

Living unwashed were saints, the masses, and monarchs alike. Saint Francis of Assisi considered an unwashed body a stinking badge of piety.

“The fathers of the early church equated bodily cleanliness with the luxuries, materialism, paganism and what’s been called ‘the monstrous sensualities’ of Rome,” explains Professor Greene [V. W. Greene, a professor of epidemiology at the Ben Gurion Medical School in Beersheva, Israel].

Within a few centuries, the public and private sanitation practices of Greece and Rome were forgotten; or, as Greene adds, were “deliberately repressed.”

Europe during the Middle Ages, it’s often been said, went a thousand years without a bath.

The article does go on to mention that monasteries, however, as guardians of knowledge, "preserved some of Rome’s hydrological technology and cleanliness habits pointing out that Christchurch Monastery at Canterbury had elaborate plumbing laid in 1150 CE. -
—“Cleanliness has only recently become a virtue” by Jay Stuller, February, 1991, issue of Smithsonian, pages 126-135. Abstracted in web post, "Ablutions and Bathing: Historical Perspectives" ,

As we see by the beautiful toilette articles displayed in this new exhibit, however, bathing, like other social "perks", continued to be enjoyed by the wealthy elite, despite its vilification for the masses.

I think the early church was simply trying to control the social gatherings of the general population by its prohibition on bathing. The morality issues were just an excuse. The bathing ritual as practiced in ancient Rome and elsewhere was considered more a social activity than personal hygiene. It was often said that more business was conducted in the baths than in the streets. In my opinion, the embrace of Christianity by Constantine and others was simply a political strategy to control the Roman mob in the first place and subsequent repression of activities whereby the common man could improve their circumstance like education and "networking" in the bath house were simply repressed to ensure the continuance of the existing power structure.

The despotic emperors of the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries had, for all practical purposes, already demasculated the Senate to the point that many magistracies were filled from the equestrian ranks or even lower. This meant that the emperors had to control an increasing number of subordinate administrators (and their kinsmen) rather than the select few of the earlier oligarchic senate. So, with the emperor as head of the church - the pontifex maximus - it is hardly surprising that he turned to the church to assist him in this regard.

The exhibit at the National Medieval Museum (Musée de Cluny) and the National Renaissance Museum at the Chateau d'Ecouen explores daily rituals around bathing and grooming from the Greco-Roman era through the Renaissance... an impeccably curated and fascinating glimpse into Roman Empire hairstyles and bathing rituals, formulas pre-modern Europeans used to make balms, unguents, rouges and other early beauty regimes, and artistic representations of beauty and grooming through the Renaissance period. It also debunks the myth that no one so much as approached a bath or wore makeup during the "dark ages", showing how social bathing and grooming rituals simply went underground in the medieval period, as the powerful Christian church regarded such rituals as potentially sinful.

Part of the exhibit at the Musée de Cluny is held at the newly reopened Gallo-Roman frigidarium, which once housed a public bath during the period when Paris was Lutetia, part of the Roman empire. - More:

The exhibit also includes information about 144 powders, unguents, and other cosmetic materials that have been excavated from various sites, many reconstituted and displayed in recovered glass or ceramic containers.

Although the grooming rituals were no longer public, I wouldn't exactly say the wealthy went out of their way to hide this activity, as evidenced by the rise in popularity of the nude portrait in the 16th century.

[Image - Lady at her toilette. Ecole de Fontainebleau. 1560 CE]

Post a Comment