University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Bathing in the Western European Tradition

Does Bathing Encourage or Discourage the Spread of Disease?

Item No. BH1183, Emergence of Advertising On-Line Project; John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History; Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/eaa/

In the years of upheaval, decline, and rebuilding in Medieval Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire (5th to 6th centuries), bathing was not common.  At first this was because of the decline in technology and wealth throughout much of Europe—bathing required soap, hauling and heating a lot of water, and a great deal of energy for what seemed temporary benefit in hard times.  The elite bathed in considerable style.  By the Renaissance (1400-1500s), bathhouses had re-emerged, often used by mixed company who even had dinner parties while soaking in warm water.

Christian religious authorities often disapproved of bathing because of the unnecessary indulgence and focus on earthly pleasure rather than spiritual purity and because experience showed that, at least among the elite, it often led to sexual misconduct.

It was medicine not morals, however, that virtually ended bathing in western culture. Medical theories disapproved of bathing for hundreds of years because they considered it harmful, even dangerous. If disease was spread by bad air, and water opened the skin to air, it was clear that people should not wash often and certainly should not submerge their whole bodies in water.  A layer of dirt on the body was sometimes considered a prudent protection against disease.

The epidemics that spread over Europe from the 1300s and afterward seemed to confirm medical theories that bathing was dangerous. The Black Death (bubonic plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis), killed 30–60% of the European population from the 1340s to 1400, and it returned often until the late 1700s.

Only as medical science proved the germ theory of disease was bathing again seen as healthful and even protection against sickness.