Dipping Your Toes in the Water: Reconsidering Renaissance England’s Attitudes Toward Bathing

Recently, the feminist newsblog Jezebel posted a short article by Dodai Stewart entitled “Tudor Fashion: Pretty, But Best Not to Think About the Stench.”  The article highlighted a portraiture exhibit of 16th and 17th century nobles In Fine Style: the Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion, currently showing at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace and cites at length noted art historian Brian Sewell’s musings on the stenches beneath the bombast and slashed sleeves, the malodours caught in the layers of velvet and satin, and the pong of not wearing underclothes. Many Jezebel readers questioned early modern English hygienic practices and several cited familiar reeking anecdotes. One reader wondered:

 “I have always thought this about the hygiene during those years. If you don’t wash your hair after a while it smells downright rank. And what about brushing your teeth? Cleaning your pits? When did these people bathe?”

Half-length portrait of Anne of Denmark Attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, 1614 Oil on panel In this detail, we see the layers of pearls, the golden buttons on the bodice, the delicate lace cuffs, and finely wrought fabric of her gown. This detail is prominent on both the exhibit’s homepage and in the “Jezebel” article.

I hope to challenge prevailing beliefs and misconceptions about early modern bathing practices and hygienic rituals.  My intervention here is based on Mark Jenner’s nuanced approach to early modern hygienic practices and the histories of smell; while I am questioning the modern metanarrative of stench and the lack of bathing, I embrace the conflicting descriptions of bathing found in these primary sources.[1] In this first post, I tackle the concept of “bath” in the Renaissance.

Some early modern physicians lament the lost tradition of bathing so well known to the ancient Greeks and Romans: “It was most usual of old among the Romans for pleasure, but now a dayes only used for the recovery of health, and resisting of diseases” (Morel 197).[2] Nevertheless, this does not mean that all early modern English people avoided bathing and walked around stinking.

Even those who warned against the dangers of bathing, such as James Hart–who suggested not bathing more than three or four times a year in contrast with the Germans, who bath once a week, and was especially averse to bathing in cold water—still suggested washing of the hands and face (up to three times a day) as well as frequent foot washes. Hart did not proscribe outright against baths, however: “With us these bathings are not so much in request; although I deny not, they might now and then discreetly used prove profitable for the body…” (295).[3]  He then goes on to describe varieties of baths and their benefits.

The very variety of names for baths described in medical tracts demonstrate that there were a number of bathing options. People tended to bathe in cold water in spring or summer—these are usually in natural water sources such as springs, rivers, and ponds and are often referred to as “natural baths.” In the colder months, people might partake in an “artificial bath,” washing in a tub or basin of heated water. There were “stoves” (dry or moist heated baths, akin to modern saunas), “fomentations” (the ladling or sponging onto particular parts of the body heated liquids), “irrigations” (basically an early form of the shower, “a pouring of Liquor from high, like rain on any part (but chiefly the head) making it distill out of a snowted vessel” (203), and the “petty bath”: “between a Bath and Fomentation, larger than this, lesser than that” (195).[4]

Albrecht Durer, "Woman's Bath" dated 1496 Although Durer's image is dated before the closing of the public bathhouses, we see several different sorts of bathing practices occurring in this image. Beginning at the top right corner, the standing woman carries aromatic herbs. Behind her we see water being heated for the bath. The women clean themselves before entering the large, recessed communal pool at the far right. Moving clockwise, we see an elderly woman whose feet are in the public bath and she is receiving a "petty bath" by the centrally located woman in a headdress. In front of the central woman, we see an ointment jar, a sponge, and a lathering brush. To her left, we see another woman cleaning her genitals (probably with a sponge) as two younger children await their baths. A peeping Tom looks through the doors. One woman combs her hair and another scratches at her dry skin. Unlike many other Renaissance representations of women bathing (often classical scenes such as Diana and Acteon or Biblical scenes such as Susanna and the Elders or Bathsheba), this scene does not seem particularly erotic, but instead captures a realistic rendering of different women (with decidedly different body types) cleansing themselves.

Albrecht Durer, “Woman’s Bath” dated 1496
Although Durer’s image is dated before the closing of the public bathhouses, we see several different sorts of bathing practices occurring in this image. Beginning at the top right corner, the standing woman carries aromatic herbs. Behind her we see water being heated for the bath. The women clean themselves before entering the large, recessed communal pool at the far right. Moving clockwise, we see an elderly woman whose feet are in the public bath and she is receiving a “petty bath” by the centrally located woman in a headdress. In front of the central woman, we see an ointment jar, a sponge, and a lathering brush. To her left, we see another woman cleaning herself (a “fomentation”) as two younger children await their baths (probably full baths or ablutions in the nearby basins). A peeping Tom looks through the doors. One woman combs her hair and another scratches at her dry skin. Unlike many other Renaissance representations of women bathing (often classical scenes such as Diana and Acteon or Biblical scenes such as Susanna and the Elders or Bathsheba), this scene does not seem particularly erotic, but instead captures a realistic rendering of different women (with decidedly different body types) cleansing themselves.

Morel describes the variety of liquids that may be used in a fomentation:

“The SIMPLE Liquor that is wont to be prescribed for a Fomentation, as to its quality, is either hot or warm water, when we would relax in pains that come from over-much fulness; or Wine, when we would discusse and strengthen; or wine and water together where we would do both at once, or either temperately; or milk in great paines, or oyl common, or other where we would mollifie in relation to the paine, and digest as to the scope; or water and oyl, Vinegar and water, or Vinegar of Roses in hot affections, or Lee of Vine ashes in cold affections, if we should digest and dry strongly.” (191)

Even with the simple “cold bath,” we often find contradictory advice, sometimes even in the same source. William Vaughan extols the virtues of cold baths, but he limits who can partake:

“Cold and natural baths are greatly expedient for men subject to rheumes, dropsies, and gouts. Neither can I easily expresse in words how much good cold baths do bring unto them that use them: howbeit with this caveat I commend bathes, to wit, that no man distempered through Venery, Gluttony, watching, fasting, or through violent exercise, presume to enter into them.” (70-71)[5]

Yet, another later manual explains that cold baths are only good for those with naturally hot humors: “a Bath, viz. the washing of the whole body for the most part for hot and dry distempers of the whole body, seldom for cold ones, for which purpose the Stove is most convenient.”[6] The individual bather’s humoral make-up, gender, age, and current ailments could alter how often and what types of baths to use.[7]

When considering early modern attitudes toward bathing, what was prescribed or proscribed by physicians and what was actually practiced seem to vary greatly. Another Jezebel reader questioned: “But why?? Why didn’t the wealthy at least give themselves a daily sponge bath? How could they not want to feel clean and stop smelling so badly?”  But, as we have seen, there were a variety of bathing options. The Jezebel article and the readers’ comments just perpetuate modern Western attitudes toward deodorization and bathing that often create a simplistic metanarrative of stench, when the bouquets of the past are far more complex and heady than we can ever truly recover.

A forthcoming post will consider luxurious baths and sweats preferred by Renaissance ladies.


[1] See Emily Cockayne’s delightfully disgusting and well-documented Hubbub: Filth, Noise, and Stench in England 1600-1770 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007), especially pages 59-72 for a survey of bathing customs, teeth cleaning, wig wearing, hair washing, linen cleaning, or lack thereof for all of the above. Katherine Ashenburg’s The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History (New York: North Point Press, 2007) offers a similar, albeit less scholarly, narrative of bodily stench and lack of bathing as the norm (see pages 77-123 for her chapter on “A Passion for Clean Linen 1550-1750”).  Both of these works begin with a pre-conceived narrative: to focus on the filth, the malodorous, and the unsanitary.

[2] Morel, Pierre. The expert doctors dispensatory. The whole art of physick restored to practice. London : Printed for N. Brook, 1657.  The online “A Short History of Bathing before  1601: Washing, Baths, and Hygiene in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, with sidelights on other customs” offers a nice brief history as well as many citations from primary sources. Also see the first chapter of Kathleen M. Brown’s Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009) for a concise and fascinating study on the shift away from ablutions and toward the use of clean linens.

[3] Hart, James. Klinike, or The diet of the diseased· Divided into three bookes.:London : Printed by Iohn Beale, for Robert Allot, and are to be sold at his shop at the signe of the blacke Beare in Pauls Church-yard, 1633.

[4] Morel on fomentations (pp. 191-194) and stoves (200-201).

[5] Vaughan, William. Approved directions for health, both naturall and artificiall deriued from the best physitians as well moderne as auncient. London : Printed by T. S[nodham] for Roger Iackson, and are to be solde at his shop neere the Conduit in Fleetestreete, 1612. STC (2nd ed.) / 24615

[6] Morel, Pierre. The expert doctors dispensatory. The whole art of physick restored to practice. London : Printed for N. Brook, 1657.

[7] See for example, Zirka Z. Filipczak’s Hot Dry Men/ Cold Wet Women: The Theory of Humors in Western Europe Art 1575-1700. American Federation of the Arts, 1997, for a wonderful study of the gendered representations of men and women. I am not covering purely medicinal or therapeutic baths, such as those at Bath, but rather bathing for frequent hygienic purposes. For more on the medical spas at Bath see Amanda Herbert’s “Drinking Stinking Spa Waters in Early Modern Britain.”


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4 thoughts on “Dipping Your Toes in the Water: Reconsidering Renaissance England’s Attitudes Toward Bathing

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