A Sweet Bath and Sweating: Renaissance Ladies and Bathing

by Colleen Kennedy

Bathing in the Renaissance could be a fragrant and languorous event, especially for a lady with her own herbal garden (or the extra money to buy spices, flowers, and herbs) and some free time.  Even sweating could be aromatic, rejuvenating, and relaxing. This post  reconsiders early modern bathing and hygienic habits, in response to a short article by Dodai Stewart entitled “Tudor Fashion: Pretty, But Best Not to Think About the Stench” posted to the feminist newsblog Jezebel. While my first post considered the types of early modern baths, today I turn to women’s recipe books to explore especially sweet baths and the art of sweating.[1]

Ladies could partake in steam baths—called a vaporary or a moist stove. Women, whose humours tended to be colder and wetter, especially benefited from sweating.[2] Men with certain phlegmatic conditions could also be treated by sweating, and “the use of this is most convenient in the winter, and spring, as of the bath in summer” (Morel 200). This implies that bathing was not regulated to just the summer months when the bather could avoid a chill, but rather that this vaporary could replace cold bathing in winter months.

The bather would sit in a tub (or on a chair) and the bather’s body would be encircled by some sort of enclosed cover or canopy, with the head sticking out. Sir Hugh Plat’s frequently republished Delightes for Ladies claims that “I know that many Gentlewomen as well for the clearing of their skins as cleansing their bodies, do now and then delight to sweat” (Recipe 27: A Delicate Stove to Sweat In”).[3] Aromatic and medicinal plants (“such proportion of sweet hearbes, and of such kind as shall bee most appropriate for your infirmitie”) would be brought to a steam and filtered by means of a pipe into the canopy, and this perfumed steam “will breathe so sweete and warme a vapour upon your bodie as that you shall sweat most temperately.” Rather than sounding archaic or unsanitary, this moist stove quite resembles a modern sauna.

A Lady in Her Bath François Clouet (c. 1571) oil on oak National Gallery of Art We do not know the identity of the central figure, but the National Gallery notes: "The masklike symmetry of the bather's face makes exact identification difficult; scholars have suggested that her aristocratic features indicate that she is one of several royal mistresses, most notable among them Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of Henry II. It is possible that the nude, a Venus type, represents ideal beauty rather than a specific individual." The painting, while alluding "to a happy, healthy home," also creates an allegory of the three major roles of a woman's life, centering around her fertility and highlighted by water. The central figure (mother) represents maternal fertility; her two children, including the ever important male heir are featured. Her tub's sideboard has flowers and fruits, further signs of fertility, and she even holds a flower in her hand. To the bather's left is a wet nurse (crone), a woman approaching perimenopause, but still able to provide milk for her charge. In the background we see a younger servant (maiden) with a jug of heated water for the bath; the unicorn represents chastity and the vessel of water is decidedly not a "leaky vessel."
A Lady in Her Bath
François Clouet (c. 1571)
oil on oak
National Gallery of Art
We do not know the identity of the central figure, but the National Gallery notes: “The masklike symmetry of the bather’s face makes exact identification difficult; scholars have suggested that her aristocratic features indicate that she is one of several royal mistresses, most notable among them Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of Henry II. It is possible that the nude, a Venus type, represents ideal beauty rather than a specific individual.”
The painting, while alluding “to a happy, healthy home,” also creates an allegory of the three major roles of a woman’s life, centering around her fertility and highlighted by water. The central figure (mother) represents maternal fertility; her two children, including the ever important male heir are featured. Her tub’s sideboard has flowers and fruits, further signs of fertility, and she even holds a flower in her hand. To the bather’s left is a wet nurse (crone), a woman approaching perimenopause, but still able to provide milk for her charge. In the background we see a younger servant (maiden) with a jug of heated water for the bath; the unicorn represents chastity and the vessel of water is decidedly not a “leaky vessel.”

In addition to “delicate stoves,” there were many pleasurable recipes for relaxing baths and sweetly scented soaps found in recipe books.  The Accomplished Ladies’ Rich Closet of Rarities (1687) offers a scrumptious recipe for a “Sweet Bath”:

Take the flowers or peels of Cittrons, the Flowers of Oranges and Gessamine, Lavenderr, Hysop, Bay-leaves; the flowers of Rosemary, Comfry, and the seeds of Coriander, Endive and sweet Marjorum; the Berries of Myrtle and Juniper: boil them in Spring-water, after they are bruised, till a third part of the liquid matter is consumed, and enter in a Bathing tub, or wash your self with it, as you see occasion, and it will indifferently serve for Beauty and Health (63).[4]

Another recipe describes an equally balsamic bath:

“This bath is very good, Take two handfulls of sage leaves, the like quantity of lavender flowers and roses, a little salt, boile them in spring water and therewith bath your body; remembring that you are never to bath after meals for it will occasion many infirmities; bath therefore two or three hours before dinner, it will cleare the skin, revives the spirits and strengthens the body, the same effects hath this following” (37).[5]

Even the most common of cleansing activities, the washing of the face and hands were not necessarily just plain well water. Hugh Plat offers a recipe for hand-washing water “very cheape” using items founds in any well-stocked house or garden: “Take a gallon of faire water, one handful; of Lavender flowers, a few cloves, and some orace powder, and foure ounces of Benjamin: distill the water in an ordinarie leaden still…” (Plat, Recipe 2: “An Excellent handwater or washing water very cheape”). In The French Perfumer, almonds could be scented with flowers, and after the oil was extracted, the remains could be used as exfoliating “cakes of almonds” to wash the hands (47).[6]

Such baths, we can see are pleasurable, sensuous, cosmetic, hygienic, and employ common medicinal and scented herbs for both their aromatic and therapeutic virtues.[7] Furthermore, we see that bathing was not limited to the face and hands, but to the whole body. Finally, we discover that even hands and faces could have fragrant soaps and sweet waters. Bathing, then, when it occurred could be a pleasure for all the senses.


[1] See my previous post: “Dipping Your Toes in the Water: Reconsidering Renaissance England’s Attitudes Toward Bathing.”

[2] For more on the colder, wetter humors of early modern women and the depiction of women as “leaky vessels,” see Gail Kern Paster’s erudite The Body Embarrased: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993). For visual representations of women at their bath and humoral theory see 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).

[3] Plat, Hugh. Delightes for Ladies, to adorne their Persons, Tables, closets, and distillatories. London: Printed by Peter Short, 1602.

[4] J. S. The accomplished ladies rich closet of rarities: or, The ingenious gentlewoman and servant-maids delightfull companion. London : printed by W.W. for Nicholas Boddington in Duck-Lane; and Joseph Blare on London-Bridge, 1687.

[5] Jeamson, Thomas. Artificiall embellishments, or Arts best directions how to preserve beauty or procure it. Oxford : Printed by William Hall, 1665.

[6] Barbe, Simon. The French perfumer teaching the several ways of extracting the odours of drugs and flowers and making all the compositions of perfumes for powder, wash-balls, essences, oyls, wax, pomatum, paste, Queen of Hungary’s Rosa Solis, and other sweet waters, London : Printed for Sam. Buckley …, 1696.

[7] I would like to return to these same bath recipes and crosslist the ingredients for these baths with the medicinal qualities described in standard herbals to cover the range of restorative effects.


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