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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.”

Of Porridge, Poetry and the Philosophers’ Stone

By Anke Timmermann

Wer ain guot Muess wil machen
[Es] kompt von siben sachen
Aijr und salz
Milch vnd Schmaltz
gewurtz vnd Mell
von Saffran wirdt es gell
(ÖNB MS 11410, f. 186r, s. xvi)[1]
 

 [He who wants to make a good porridge needs seven items: eggs and salt, milk and suet, spice (elsewhere: sugar) and flour; saffron gives a yellow colouring.]

These rhymes will seem very familiar to anyone who grew up in a German-speaking family: unbeknownst to many, the children’s song “Backe, backe Kuchen” can be traced back as far as the fifteenth century. Perhaps understandably it is commonly accepted that this is a piece of folklore for toddlers rather than a recipe proper.[2] Even the original recipe for porridge–or cake, in the children’s rhyme–is simple and elliptic. No measurements or methods are provided, and the phrasing and listing of exactly seven ingredients seems formulaic. But the environment that brought forth this recipe is much more complex, bringing together medieval poetry, recipes and scientific communication.

To see the connection between science and porridge we need to look at the manuscripts in which the text was originally written. The earliest documented copy of the poem can be found among jottings on the inner cover of a fifteenth-century manuscript, beside medical notes and recipes.[3] The cited sixteenth-century version appears in a medical recipe book owned by a physician-apothecary near Vienna, Wolfgang Kappler. This pharmacological reference work contains hundreds of recipes, some of them traditional instructions for the manufacture of pills and salves, many explicitly using alchemical methods and ingredients, others covering diet and regimen, and all of them intended to be useful in his professional practice. The rhymed parts of both manuscripts are comparatively few. But beyond the confines of their covers, they form part of a medieval and early modern written tradition in which scientific verse spread across Europe. To Kappler and his contemporaries, these rhymes would not have conjured up the image of chanting children. Rather, they would have recognised the rhymes as an accepted medium of communicating knowledge.

Why would anyone choose to write a recipe in rhyme rather than in plain instructive prose? Answers to this question are many and varied. In late medieval England, for example, the hope of attracting royal funds for a future project certainly inspired some alchemical practitioners to compose couplets.[4] Medical recipes, much less often subject to versification, might sometimes cross over into the realms of charms, cookery and general Middle English poetry. Incidentally, John Lydgate’s (author of the Fall of Princes) most popular poem during his lifetime was a medical one, his Dietary.[5]

Elias Ashmole, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, vol. 1. MS Ashmole 971, f. 014v, s. xvii2. Credit: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford).
Elias Ashmole, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, vol. 1. MS Ashmole 971, f. 014v, s. xvii2. Credit: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

Scientific poems on botany, the stars and their movements joined longer learned treatises (‘encyclopaedic poetry’) on the make-up of man and God’s creation. Particularly in alchemy, rhyme served as a vehicle for preserving practical instructions, making it easier for a copyist to transport the text from one manuscript into another or for the practitioner to memorise important steps in the laboratory. With ancient didactic poetry as ancestor and current concerns about techne, craft and knowledge at its heart, scientific poetry was a working genre for those who wrote, read and used it.[6]

When English antiquarian Elias Ashmole published Middle English alchemical poetry in his Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum he focused on the poem’s role in English language and literature, not in the laboratory.[7] Since then the connection between poetry and science or craft has been lost. It is this discrepancy between the nature of modern scientific publications and that of their historical ancestors that makes scientific poetic recipes so intriguing and yet so difficult to research. While it may not be child’s play it tells us much about how historical experts transformed experience into knowledge as they turned prescriptions into rhyme.

 

[1] On the manuscript, see the Austrian National Library’s catalogue HANNA, s.v. 11410.

[2] C.M. Blaas, “Ein Kinderspruch aus dem XV. Jahrhundert” in Germania 23 (1878), 343.

[3] HANNA, s.v. 12503. On recipes in German Fachliteratur see also J. Telle, “Das Rezept als literarische Form” in Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 26 (2003), 251-74.

[4] For example, see: P. J. Grund, ‘Misticall Wordes and Names Infinite’: An Edition of Humfrey Lock’s Treatise on Alchemy (2011).

[5] K. Bühler, “Lydgate’s Rules of Health in MS Lansdowne 699” in Medium Ævum 3 (1934), 51-6.

[6] On the history and functions of scientific, especially alchemical, poetry see e.g. R. M. Schuler, Alchemical Poetry, 1575-1700 (1995), D. Kahn, “Alchemical Poetry in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: A Preliminary Survey and Synthesis” in Ambix, 57-58 (2010/11), 249-74/62-77, and my forthcoming article in the Companion to Fifteenth Century Verse. Note also J. Telle’s forthcoming monograph on German alchemical poetry, Alchemie und Poesie.

[7] E. Ashmole, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum (London, 1652).

Teaching Recipes

Nearly every year, I teach a senior seminar in the English department at the University of Texas, Arlington (near Dallas) that changes thematically each time.  With the recent proliferation of both cookbooks and books about cooking, I decided this spring to try out a class that focused on literature that features recipes as a major component, and, as a kind of juxtaposition to the literature, I also wanted to consider recipes as a literary pursuit.  Students would delve into texts that exhibit literary, lyrical, and aesthetic sensibilities about recipe-writing and recipe-execution, and that mark particular cultural shifts in food praxis and politics. At the same time, students would study how recipe writing calls upon a host of literary and cultural practices.

The literature that we read was primarily contemporary novels, including Annia Ciezadlo’s Day of Honey, Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate and Nicole Mones’s The Last Chinese Chef, though we also read M.F.K. Fisher’s classic work, How to Cook a Wolf.   For the recipe side, we read Hervé This’s Molecular Gastronomy and Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse Café Cookbook. But, as I am an early modernist by training, I also wanted the students to be exposed to earlier recipes to understand how recipes have developed and changed in the last four hundred years.

Here the class intersected with my own research interest in women’s manuscript receipt book writing of sixteenth and seventeenth century England and with my involvement with the newly formed digital humanities group, Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC), many of whose members write for this blog.  I was inspired by Lisa Smith’s autumn class, “Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe,” who had worked on transcribing Johanna St. John’s recipe book. (See her blog post “An Experiment in Teaching Recipe Transcription,” April 12, 2013.)  I was also working in tandem with Rebecca Laroche, who teaches at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, as we decided that we would have our students transcribe the same seventeenth-century recipe book, so that the text could be double-keyed.  Rebecca and I chose Jane Baber’s receipt book, available in digitized form from the Wellcome Library, because it was short, only twenty-six pages, and in a hand, we thought, that was not too difficult.  Our students would code their transcriptions in XML on the Textual Communities crowd-sourcing transcription platform, run by the University of Saskatchewan.

With a couple of exceptions, the students in the class were senior English majors so they were used to reading and writing about literature. Reading and transcribing early modern writing, however, was something that they had never encountered before–and the task seemed at first quite daunting.  To teach the skill of transcribing, Rebecca and I had students utilize the online Cambridge handwriting course, which moves progressively through more and more difficult early modern handwriting.  My class met on Thursdays in a computer classroom, and we devoted the class period to transcription.  What I noticed was that students started working collectively on the transcriptions, and such communal learning made all the parties stronger transcribers.

So when it finally came to transcribing Baber’s receipt book, I decided to have them work in groups.  What we all noticed was that the group work allowed everyone a safety net to have the confidence to do difficult work, with as much accuracy as possible. I also learned a lot about transcribing from the students as they experimented with various techniques, such as using a tablet or large T.V. to look at the recipe while writing the transcription on a laptop. Students became tenacious in figuring out what words could be, looking them up in the Oxford English Dictionary or in a Google search.  They also struggled to learn to code in XML and to make everything work correctly on the Textual Communities site.

Throughout the semester, students had to write short, researched analytical commentaries, and in the next few days some students from the class will be posting their discoveries about Jane Baber’s recipes.  I am sure you will enjoy their discoveries, and it is exciting to see such keen interest in these receipt book manuscripts.

 

Jane Baber 1r                              Jane Baber 6r

Ice (Fires Foe): Some lessons in love and burning

By Phoebe Dickerson

What should you do if you burn yourself? Ideally, you’d stand bent over a sink of cool or tepid water for half an hour. Instead, if you’re anything like me, you’re more likely to run around clutching some frozen peas to the afflicted area. Or maybe you’d try smearing on some antiseptic ointment. However, if instead you were to turn to the celebrated Dutch physician, Paul Barbette (d. 1666) for advice, you’d be recommended to take a quite different approach. In his Thesaurus Chirurgiae (first translated into English in 1675), he writes:

The chief care must be to draw out the fire, by which in a light burning you preserve from Blisters and Ulcers; in a great one, you free from all danger; therefore, what Medicine soever is at hand, is presently to be used; let the hurt Part be held to the fire, and fomented with Ink, Lye; or let there be applied Soot, or an Onion beaten with Salt.[1]

While the notion of applying Soot, Ink or Lye to a burn is positively eye-watering, it hardly stands out among the wealth of curious balms and plasters that fill the pages of any early modern recipe book: the concept, however, of holding a burn to a fire – of letting it get nice and toasty – is, even within this context, glaringly misguided.

Was Barbette’s a voice in the wilderness? Certainly, I have not come across this precise recommendation anywhere else: nonetheless, it is worth considering that the notion we readily accept today, of reducing the heat of the area by applying something cold, was considered – and frequently dismissed – by early modern thinkers as a ‘contrary’ remedy. Such treatments were widely thought to aggravate the constitution into dangerous imbalance. George Acton for example, in 1670, expounds against the ‘extinction of praeternatural heat by cooling Medicines, and refocillation of cold, by heating ones.’ [2] Arguing that heat and cold were symptoms – rather than causes – of ‘the enraged Vital Spirit’, Acton asks :

‘Does not Fire burn most vehemently, when constring’d by an extreme cold of the ambient? And hot water sooner extinguish Fire than cold, because sooner penetrating its Pores? I could multiply arguments against the Method of curing Diseases by contrary Remedies.’

Barbette’s suggested burn treatment adheres instead to the logic of sympathy, according to which the heat in the wound would be attracted to the original heat of the fire.

‘An Unknown Man with Background of Flames’ c. 1600 (V&A) attrib. Nicholas Hilliard (click on image to link to the image’s entry on the V&A’s website)

The notion that cold would only exacerbate a burn has implications outside the medical realm: indeed, it finds explicit poetic expression in ‘The Exclamation’ [3], a mid-century love-lyric by Hugh Crompton (fl. 1657). The speaker advises his reader thus:

‘Ice (fires foe) laid to the skin
Thats burnt, will cause the flesh to turn
Into a blister, and within
With greater vehemency to burn!’

His purpose with this medical tit-bit is, of course, romantic: with this poem – half plaint, half invocation – the speaker, burnt by love, asks that his beloved’s ‘icy heart’ might melt and ‘reflect’ the warmth of his own burning heart. He says,

‘[…] thy heart will me affect,
And with enlivening flames me cherish.’

Where her cold heart’s frigid enmity endangered his heart, her hoped-for warm heart – newly aflame – will offer sympathy. It does not dim or extinguish the lover’s passion: rather, the flames of her love are ‘enlivening’ where, alone in the cold, his own were destructive.

Burning hearts and freezing mistresses are common Petrarchan conceits, pervasive in the period’s literary and artistic (see above) effusions of amorous feeling. Crompton’s words may seem a cocktail of early modern romantic cliché and ill-founded medical beliefs. Nonetheless, there is something at once unusual and appealing in the fact that his allusion to burns so closely echos the language of contemporary physicians. In addition, it so happens many modern doctors would agree with his words: the NHS website advises us to ‘never use ice or iced water’. The Mayo-clinic advises that ice can ‘cause a person’s body to become too cold and cause further damage to the wound’.

So, a caution, if you will: whether you are a lover – or simply someone with a nasty kitchen burn – think twice before you reach for the frozen peas. And whatever Barbette says, if you’re already burnt, perhaps you should stay back from the fire.

[1] Paul Barbette, Thesaurus chirurgiae : the chirurgical and anatomical works of Paul Barbette (London : Printed for Henry Rodes, 1686), p. 191

[2] George Acton, A letter in answer to certain quaeries and objections made by a learned Galenist against the theorie and practice of chymical physick… (London : Printed by William Godbid for Walter Kettleby), 1670, p.

[3] Hugh Crompton, Pierides, or, The muses mount by Hugh Crompton, Gent. (London : Printed by J.G. for Charles Web), 1658, p. 79.