My Beautiful Wickedness

Why did early modern Europeans have such lousy personal hygiene?
July 3, 2007, 7:45 am
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Nick has another history question!

He asks “Why did people stop bathing after Rome fell? Breakdown in sanitation after “barbarian” tribes conquered Europe allowed plagues to fester and spread. Why was there such a dramatic break from Roman hygiene? The elaborate and incredibly advanced Roman baths were either mothballed or destroyed entirely, and people bathed very infrequently. Why? Was it that their newfound Christian fundamentalism made everyone phobic of nudity?

He observes that “The Jews were the only people in Europe who still bathed routinely (being bound by halacha to ritually immerse, especially the women). As a result, during the Black Death, Jews, while still effected, got the plague at a lower rate than the rest. So, people concluded, the Jews were obviously responsible for the plague, they must be poisoning us or something, so we herd them all into the nearest synagogue and burn them alive. (I got this from Rabbi Ken Spiro, who has Jewish history mp3s online).

(And later, courtesy of the site Straight Dope, Nick adds his own research:
“In the wake of the plague, though, Europeans decided baths were dangerous. Hot water allowed toxins to penetrate the skin–better to keep the pores caulked with healthy grime. A grossed-out Muslim in the Arabian Nights suggested that once Christians were doused with baptismal water they felt entitled to avoid bathing for the rest of their lives. Personal grooming, such as it was, focused entirely on appearances. People washed their faces and hands sometimes but refused to immerse their entire bodies except on doctors’ orders. The rich drenched themselves with perfume to conceal odor. Lice and fleas were universal, etiquette requiring merely that one refrain from scratching conspicuously in public. People were used to a baseline level of putridity; to attract attention, you had to really reek.”

So, how about it, historian types? What can we say about the state of medieval and early modern European life, religion, and scientific thought that would help explain this behavior?

54 Comments so far
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I have nothing to add to this conversation except to point out that the prior of St. Fridswides, John of Wallingford complained bitterly that the Danes bathed once a week, combed their hair regularly, and changed their clothes regularly. The result was that English women were easily seduced by the nice-smelling Danes.

So, I don’t think it’s fair to say that “to attract attention, you had to really reek.” Evidence also shows that you could attract the really fun kind of attention if you smelled nicely.

But, I guess, that could still be a religious difference. The Danes weren’t yet Christian.

Comment by Aunt B.

Aunt B said: So, I don’t think it’s fair to say that “to attract attention, you had to really reek.”
I don’t know, that comment struck me as sarky and tongue-in-cheek.

Comment by Sheogorath

Ah, Danes. Still easy on the eyes, though they tend to drink like fish and get depressed easily.

Three other observations before I go do battle with my house. Cloth, weather, and water.

Cloth, as we’ve already established was a labor-intensive good and as such, it was scarce and relatively expensive. So having a second set of clothing to change into while the first was being laundered would not have been something that most people would have had. And laundry being done laboriously, what with the boiling — who cuts or gathers that firewood? a lot of England, at least, was substantially deforested and wood went for cooking — and the lye solution — who made the soap? and what kind of damage does that do to textile fiber — my guess is that you wouldn’t want to do it too much or your clothing would fall apart — and the hauling of the water or the setting up on a riverbank…it sounds like a chore that I would have tried to avoid too.

Weather — doesn’t this roughly coincide with a period of cooling that culminated in the Little Ice Age? I think that the glaciers start advancing in Europe around 1250 and that the weather gets wild and crazy (long cold snaps, droughts followed by torrential rains) until the 19th century. I am guessing that maybe it would have just been too damn cold for extended bathing for at least half the year in Northern Europe. If there’s snow on the ground from October to May…

Finally, I’m thinking about the condition of water. The rivers that ran through major towns would have been choked with human filth, as this was where all the privies eventually ran. The river was also where you threw dead animals to get them off the street. I don’t think you’d have wanted to take a dip in the river, which might account for why so few Europeans knew how to swim. (At least judging from those who migrated…Franklin was a rarity and thought, at one point, that he should become a swimming instructor.) And hauling water up from a well — well, that’s labor-intensive too.

But this is out of my era…

Comment by bridgett

YAY! I’m glad you’re not annoyed and are posting my questions. 😀

If bathing was so arduous and clothes-damaging, how come the Romans had no problem with it? And Muslims and Jews kept bathing as they always had (probably not a lot by today’s standards, but way more than Europeans). It was the white people that had a radical shift in bathing attitudes following the downfall of the Romans. Why would water by shittier for Europe than in the Levant? why would clothes be more expensive? maybe the lack of proximity to Chinese silk?

What gives?

Comment by Nick Dupree

I’m guessing empire. Rome imported a lot of cloth from Egypt and other parts of Africa, the Middle East, and particularly India (a trade they took over from the Greeks and that operated through Greek middlemen); as you mention, they also traded silk from China. Places like Trier (which, not incidentally, had a cathedral that housed the cloak supposed worn by Christ during his Crucifixion) were major hubs in the Roman cloth trade. With the cooling of relations between Christians and non-Christians, I presume that international cloth trade took a hit.

But since nm was stressing yesterday that cloth production was ubiquitous, maybe I’m overdoing cloth scarcity in Europe. I know this was certainly the case in colonial America and maybe I’m projecting…I think a lot of it has to do with when we’re talking as well. By the 16th c, the Portuguese were importing cloth from Africa and India and the Spanish were importing cottons produced by encomienda labor from the Americas; by the 17th, there was a booming trade in Indian goods via the Dutch. So maybe it would be helpful if a more knowledgeable person gave us some time and place parameters so that everything doesn’t get so mushy and we’re talking about a specific where and when.

Slave labor also makes it easier for the slaveowners to present what we’d now call a hygienic appearance. Not to put too contemporary a spin on it, but I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that our public mania for urban sanitation and domestic cleanliness in the 19th and 20th centuries has come at a time when there have been a lot of “dirty” immigrants available to dig sewers and clean houses. There is a literature on the connections between race/immigration/public health/consumption/domesticity for the US, but that’s a different discussion and I don’t want to get too far off-track before you get your question answered.

Water quality — perhaps population density played a part? Also, the drinking water for the bigger Roman cities (oh, help me, old Western Civ memories) was piped in via aqueduct. So, fresh water versus putrid river water?

Who you calling whitey, whitey? Racial categories like “white” wouldn’t make much sense before the 16th century. The salient categories here, as you point out, are religious and cultural in nature. Maybe Christians didn’t bathe because that’s what Jews and Muslims did, just like LDS folks don’t drink caffeinated colas (functions as an identity marker).

Comment by bridgett

Here are my two ducats:

My understanding is that there were several things at work here. One is the decline of the Roman cities and their municipal infrastructure. As things crumbled (or were taken apart for more important buildings like barns) the public baths the Romans built everywhere became unusable in most cities. In those cities that still had them, bathing remained more common until the Carolingian period. At that point the Church began to weigh in on the immorality of the public baths, both due to the frequency of contant between members of the opposite sex and as part of the growing Church intolerance of homosexuality. Even then, though, my understanding is that bathing remained more common in Mediterranean Europe than in the north.

European Jews bathed more frequently than their Christian neighbors due to the heavy emphasis on bodily purity in Jewish practice. Why Christians had already abandoned that concern I do not know – perhaps once one is washed in the Blood of the Lamb, whether one is washed in water is less important?

Bathing remained more common in the Muslim world due to the same religious practices as the Jews and due to the fact that the Muslim world was more urbanized and supported more advanced municipal infrastructure than Christian Europe up until more recent times.

As to the clothing issue – clothing was actually a smaller expense in the more integrated and urbanized economy of the Roman world than in the agricultural economy of Medieval Europe, therefore having it wear out earlier was a bigger deal for more people. For most European families, wearing out clothing meant producing new clothes from scratch.

Comment by Gerald

So, it seems that, in part, if you have someone to do your dirty work, you are able to keep cleaner. That makes sense. I also wonder about the roles of women. If you’re relying on a largely female workforce for cloth production (as it seems is the case in early Modern Europe), those women have to have time to spin and, if they don’t have wheels, they’re doing it by spindle, which would require even more time. If women’s duties were otherwise keeping their hands busy, there might not be as much time for spinning.

Also, were folks hip to using warp-weighted looms or were looms clunkier by then?

You know, this would be a great topic for a book.

Comment by Aunt B.

Was it that their newfound Christian fundamentalism made everyone phobic of nudity?

Well, I must humbly point out that our current idea of “Christian Fundamentalism” really had little to do with the early church. In fact, much of the early church was fond of nudity, etc.

I don’t have the degrees that some of these folks have, but I’ve got some bit of expertise in this, so I’m gonna interrupt with a few of my two centseses.
It was the white people that had a radical shift in bathing attitudes following the downfall of the Romans.

Again, you’re viewing history through your zeitgeist construct. The “White People” of today were NOT the “White People” of 1800 years ago. The most basic answer I can give you is probably too basic for your tastes, but since everyone else has covered water supply and the cloth trade, I’ll chime in with Occam’s Body Odor.

1. The people who invaded Rome came from an area where it was colder. It’s not so easy to take baths when the temperature is 30degrees F instead of 70 degrees F.

2. People who rely more on hunting for food as opposed to agriculture bathed less out of necessity. It makes it easier to hunt when you smell like the skins of the animals you are tracking and the soil of the ground you’re hunting in. Lavender water sort of robs you of your clandestineness…and may make you starve. Many of the societies where bathing was more prominent relied more on agriculture and fishing for their food supply (i.e. the Mediterranean, Rome, Japan). Of course, these are oversimplifications–I’m quite sure detailed research will dredge up some hunting Romans and some farming Gauls. Nevertheless, the fundamentals of folkways seem to bear out the truth of hunter vs. fisher/farmer in hygiene practices.

Comment by Katherine Coble

“White People” was the wrong choice of words. I meant Europeans.

this is a fantastic discussion!

thank you so much! 🙂

Comment by Nick Dupree

Kat, please. Smarts is smarts…fire away. Good point about the positive good of smell — I hadn’t thought of the practicalities of hunter vs fisher/farmer, but human stink would make hunting harder. Not my field, so I could be wrong about this, but I think the Gauls were agricultural before the Romans arrived — maybe not with plows, but they were growing grain and at least some were practicing seasonal transhumance.

It’s times like this that I regret my pitiful ignorance of world history…I can kind of “beat time,” but there’s so damn much I don’t know.

Comment by bridgett

The Gauls and the Germanic tribes were all farming well before the Roman conquests, although Roman farming methods had a huge impact on farming west of the Rhine.

Comment by Gerald

It really seems to me, as a person who doesn’t know much about this, that the rise of smelly Europeans corresponds with the rise of Christianity. If the pre-Christians bathed regularly and the Jews and Muslims bathed regularly, could being smelly be a way of setting yourself apart? As proving that you were not as worldly as others? Or is that concern with not being perceived as being too much of the Earth a more modern Christian concern?

Comment by Aunt B.

I see where you are coming from, but the Eastern Orthodox Christians continued to bathe just as much as their neighboring Muslims. The Byzantine accounts of the Crusades include scathing comments about the smelly, bearded “Franks.”

Of course, not bathing was a frequent element in Christian asceticism; especially for those inspired by the accounts of John the Baptist.

Comment by Gerald

One thing I’m not 100% sure about is the extent to which all of the Romans themselves were “non-smelly.” Bathing was certainly a huge part of their urban culture, but I’m not sure if the folks working away on the Latifundia had access to bathhouses, etc… Most of our written accounts of Rome are written by Roman upper-class authors. Most of the archaeological remains of bathhouses, etc… were in urban areas or in the Roman forts, which were themselves a kind of mini-town.

Comment by Gerald

OK, if I may just interject here … this is driving me crazy. “Why did early modern Europeans have such lousy personal hygiene” is a useful question if it really refers to the early modern period, which started around the 16th century.* When it refers to the middle ages, however, which I assume is what is meant by “after Rome fell,”** it is a meaningless question. Medieval Europeans cleaned up about as often, largely in the same ways, as Europeans under the Western Roman Empire.

All Roman cities had public bath houses. These were maintained, and new ones built, long after the Western Empire disintegrated. London still had numerous public baths by 1400 (Chaucer wrote about them), and so did Bath, York, Paris, and other Roman cities in northern Europe. In addition, the Merovingian and Carolingian Franks, who ruled extensive territories in northern Europe that had not been part of the Empire, founded new cities and put public baths in them. And every little town around the Mediterranean had public baths, even new, post-Roman foundations. Their upkeep is a frequent topic of municipal regulation and local taxation. In some of the more northerly cities, baths became increasingly frequented by prostitutes, but farther south prostitutes simply were told that if they were found in the baths on certain days of the week they would be arrested.

Medieval baths had one advantage over Imperial baths: soap. The Romans, like other early Mediterraneans, cleaned up by rubbing themselves with olive oil and scraping themselves down with a strigil. (The main point of going to the baths was to steam.) As long as north-south trade routes continued unimpeded (up to about 1000) olive oil was available in the north, but northerners also substituted other kinds of oil, including animal fats and butter, which completely horrified the Romans as an example of barbarism. However, those barbarians also were clever enough to invent soap by combining animal fats and potash. Soap first shows up in Roman records around the fourth century, IIRC. (It isn’t clear how long the Germans had been using it before the Romans noticed.) The Romans resisted this innovation for a while but ultimately adopted it, and personal hygiene probably improved.

Moreover, in between visits to the baths and outside of cities wealthy individuals could oil/scrape down as often as they pleased, and poorer individuals could splash themselves with water as often as they pleased. The farther north one was, the less pleasing the water splash actually was, but the use of soap probably made any individual wash in the middle ages more effective than any individual wash in earlier times.

So: were medieval people in general as clean as we are today? No. Were they as clean as the Romans? In cities, yes, and probably cleaner. Outside of cities, probably as clean as they had been in any particular place during the imperial period, keeping in mind that most of northern Europe was never part of the Empire.

Now, as for Jews being the only ones to keep clean: nonsense. The municipal officials who made damn sure that the baths continued to function were Christians or Muslims, but not Jews. A certain level of cleanliness was desired among all religious groups. Jews and Muslims had more ritual demands for cleanliness, but then (except in Muslim-dominated areas) they got fewer days to use the bath houses, and we can assume that Christian demand for hot water was high even without the religious motivations.

We also know, from excavation of cemeteries, headstone evidence, and chronicles, that Jews died in large numbers during epidemics of any kind, including the outbreaks of plague in the 1340s and subsequently. So why were Jews blamed for starting the epidemics?*** For the same reason that members of out-groups are usually blamed for misfortunes. Because it feels good to beat up someone vulnerable, and there will be people in positions of official or unofficial leadership who will be happy to explain why bad things are the fault of members of those groups. Because when population has been declining slowly for a couple of generations (due to shifting weather conditions after the 1290s) and then a quarter of the people who are left (or up to two-thirds of your neighbors, in cities) die over a period of a few months, reasoned observation doesn’t come into it much. But differential levels of personal hygiene didn’t enter into it.

I hope this helps.

*Some of the reasons include: the association of bath houses with prostitution, the weather (the “Little Ice Age” began around the middle of the 16th century, and made outdoor, cold-water bathing less attractive), and Renaissance medical ideas (Im a little shaky on this, but water was supposed to interfere with some of the humors) as well as a lot of other things.

**I won’t go into the fallacy of what’s usually meant by “the fall of Rome” here.

***Except where they weren’t. In England, where economic competition with Flanders was intense, Flemings were often blamed, and massacred. In Italy, some people blamed heretics, but the heretics were already hiding out up in the Alps, so there were no massacres. In the Iberian kingdoms, where most of the Jews of Europe lived in the 14th and 15th centuries, there were a few rumors that lepers had poisoned some wells, but mostly no human agency was attributed to the epidemics.

Comment by nm

I’ve got nothing to add to this, just wanted to say that I’ve enjoyed the discussion.

Comment by listie

Thanks nm! Shows what I get for tossing stuff off the top of my head from mostly forgotten undergrad classes!

I seem to recall something about bathouses being closed in Paris and other cities as part of the wave of health regulations that municipal authorities enacted in response to the Black Death. Is that correct?

Comment by Gerald

Yay! Damn, I love it when smart people sit around being smart…

Comment by bridgett

About Paris I don’t know for sure (Iberianist here), but it wouldn’t be surprising. A lot of people blamed bad and/or poisoned water and/or vapors for the epidemic, so bath houses/steam rooms would have seemed like a bad thing; plus the mental association of baths with prostitution in a northern town like Paris would have made it seem like a morally sound action to take.

I’m sorry I went on so long, but the myth of the dark and dirty medieval period infuriates me. Gibbon has a lot to answer for.

You know the interesting thing about the current myths about European Christians as dirty and ignorant folks, especially in contrast to those superior Muslims? Majority Muslim areas in the western Mediterranean got hit a lot worse than majority Christian areas in the western Mediterranean when the Black Death showed up. It seems that Muslim religious leaders called for extra prayers in the mosques, while Christian religious leaders called for processions, so people got crowded closer together for longer periods of time.

Comment by nm

I don’t know any medievalist who doesn’t go spare at the first hint of Dark Age-ism. It’s like dangling the fetid corpse of Turner in front of someone who studies early US.

Comment by bridgett

[…] A bunch of Nashvillians are talking over at My Beautiful Wickedness about the history of bathing. It was all kicked off by this question: Why did people stop bathing after Rome fell? Breakdown in sanitation after “barbarian” tribes conquered Europe allowed plagues to fester and spread. Why was there such a dramatic break from Roman hygiene? The elaborate and incredibly advanced Roman baths were either mothballed or destroyed entirely, and people bathed very infrequently. Why? Was it that their newfound Christian fundamentalism made everyone phobic of nudity? Spread It Around: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages. […]

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Oooh, Turner! Did you know that a generation ago, Iberianists tried adopting the Frontier Thesis for our very own? It didn’t work too well there, either.

Comment by nm


Yeah, North Africa got hit harder and longer. If memory serves the last major outbreak of the plague there was in the 19th century, and Egypt’s population only regained pre-14th century levels in the late 20th century. I think this is a little piece of demographics that goes a long way towards illuminating current realities.

(Of course, now I’ve moved from my office to my house. I didn’t have any of my Braudel, etc… at the office and I have none of my African stuff at home.)

Comment by Gerald

Welcome, Nashville readers. Chime in and y’all come back.

Comment by bridgett

[…] I Love the Internet Filed under: Blogging & Bloggers — Aunt B. @ 7:45 pm This discussion about hygene in Europe pretty much captures what I love about the internet–all kinds of smarts being brought to a […]

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I love this blog so much.

So the “barbarians” didn’t dismantle the aqueducts and baths? can someone explain why they would stop using the aqueducts?

Comment by Nick Dupree

Some aqueducts are still in use.

My understanding is that the Germanic did keep using them, but they had no idea how to maintain or repair them and they didn’t have an economy that would support that kind of infrastructure. Those that lasted were used, but those that broke simply fell into direpair in many cases. Also, the Germanic tribes were really much more interested in sharing out farmland than in moving into the cities. Many Roman provincial towns just dwindled and some disappeared. With them went the purpose for that aqueduct.

Rome itself, which had a population of over a million at its height, dropped to a population in the thousands (I think 11,000 at one point, but I’m just pulling that out of my aging memory.) Some of the stone buildings in Rome didn’t fall apart due to age, they were used as convenient “quarries” for local farmers who wanted building materials. Church authorities protected the structures that were still in use, but by that point the city was a shadow of its former self.

Comment by Gerald

Hi, interesting discussion. There is lot of facts of bathing in old Europe and on Roman times. But have anyone noticed that the Europe was not an monotonic Continent in those times (like its not even nowadays).
For instance: in a small Northern European country (in Scandinavia) Finland has had its own special hot bath “sauna” through the history.
There have not been saunas in other countries. Well, in fact some American Indians have their own hot bath, which is almoust same thing. Still only in Finland the tradiotionel sauna has had its very special role of every familys life through the times (even in the Middle Ages!). Even today, practically every home has its own sauna. Of course saunas are now mainly electonic sauna, but in many apartment buildings, but there are still there are still saunas which will heat by wood (spescially in houses).

Comment by Risto Degerman, Finland

Wow, a Scandinavian weighs in! I love the internet!

Comment by Nick Dupree


we do have letters by Christians that say “the Jews are dying less, so obviously they are causing the plague. let’s round them up and kill them.”

I don’t know how much the bathing prevented plague, but we got blamed.
It’s very possible Jews weren’t less plague-ridden, and the Europeans just lied about that because they wanted an excuse to kill Jews.

At any rate, the Black Death perpetuated a tradition of pogroms and anti-Semitism that continued until finally culminating in the 20th century.

Comment by Nick Dupree

Also, how colorfast were dyes? If you liked your green shirt and didn’t want it to fade, you’d wash it as little as possible, I’d think.

Comment by Aunt B.

Colorfast dyes was one of the things that Rome was importing from India, now that you mention it. But, in the absence of a commericially produced dye (boiling up what you’ve found locally, like beetroot, lichen, etc), one had to add a mordant (like alum, vinegar, or cream of tartar). Vinegar was the most readily available and cheap substance, as you could just throw in the cider or small beer that had gone off…but yeah, even so, lye-based soaps will just fade the heck out of naturally dyed cloth.

On a tangent — how surprising — I got my happies on when I came across Michel Pastoreaux’s Blue: The History of a Color, Amy Butler Greenfield’s A Perfect Red, and Simon Garfield’s Mauve: The Color that Changed the World. They are way Eurocentric (because red doesn’t mean what Europeans think it means to all peoples around the globe), but that in itself opens up new interpretive possibilities for thinking about how color shapes one’s understandings of the world. They had a high “goshwow” factor (number of goshwows per chapter), anyhow. Maybe someone else would like them too.

Comment by bridgett

What Gerald said about the aqueducts.

Nick, references to those letters, please? There is quite a bit of writing saying “the wicked Jews did thus and so [generally poisoning wells, sometimes in concert with ‘the lepers’] to cause the epidemic” and even “the wicked Jews must have caused the epidemic because they’re wicked and that’s what they do” but I wasn’t aware of specific claims that Jews weren’t dying. You have to understand that the Christians who fulminated against Jews (both they and the Jews were Europeans, if that’s where they were living) didn’t consider themselves to be lying, any more than the nativists who panic about illegal immigrants spreading TB and leprosy here are lying, exactly. They’re ignoring reality, to be sure, but they aren’t saying “gee, what evil lie can I make up about this group of people I don’t like?” They’re saying “I heard that drug-resistant TB is on the rise [which it is], and I know it must be the fault of this group that I hate and fear, because I hate and fear them because I know they’re no good.”

Btw, bathing wouldn’t have prevented plague in the least, since it was caused by fleas that usually infested rats that lived in the thatched roofing of the day. You could be as clean as you liked, or even as clean as we would like today, but if there were plague-carrying rats in your thatch, in the local granary, sneaking around the outhouse, or anywhere else that rats like to hang out and people show up as well, their fleas could jump from them to you, and you would get sick.

Comment by nm

The colorfastness of medieval cloth is a highly debated topic. After the 10th century or so, there was a huge trade around Europe in dyestuffs, especially madder (grown mostly in southern France, for rose/reds — it was used in Bridgett’s day to dye cloth for British Army uniforms) but also for woad (grown in england a a few other places, for blues). There was a special kind of mustard, I think (? gee, I’m starting to forget this stuff) grown for yellows, and you could get a litle murex for purple for the extreme, extreme luxury trade, from the eastern Mediterranean. All of those required mordants. The most prized mordant was alum, but it was very pricey. So dyers experimented as much with mrdants as they did with dyestuffs proper. Anyway, the most expensive cloths were pretty color-fast, others less so. (Robin Hood wore the most expensive red cloth, Lincoln greyne, so-caled because of the grainy red dye, and not green at all but a marker off how rich he was off in the greenwood.)

But the outside, dyed clothing wasn’t meant to be washed often. Once or twice a year would have done it. What got washed more regularly were the undergarments, which were of undyed cotton (luxury), linen, or even wool. The shift for women (long dress, with or without narrowish sleeves, loose enough to allow for pregnancy), the shirt for men (knee- or shin-length dress, sometimes split for convenience in urination at times when the prevailing style let men part rather than pull up their outer clothing, with or without sleeves). That was what was next to the skin, picking up all the sweat, stink, stains, and whatnot. There was no point at all in dyeing it.

Comment by nm

No one claimed Jews didn’t die of the plague. I got the claim that Jews had less personal filth, fewer rats, less contact with gentiles (isolation) and somewhat less plague spreading, from Rabbi Ken Spiro, Jewish historian at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem, who has Jewish history mp3s online. But his sources may be colored by bias and ethnocentrism and basically false.
I’m comfortable that 90% of what I say on a daily basis may be crap. 😛

Comment by Nick Dupree

I found a more solid source.

From In The Wake of the Plague by Norman F. Cantor:

Segregated in their own quarters (where the Jews lived as humble artisans except for the small elite of bankers and rabbis), the Jews were cut off from the rodents on the wharves and the cattle in the countryside, the main carriers of infectious disease. In addiction, rabbinical law prescribed personal cleanliness, good housekeeping, and highly selective diets. These conditions may very well have isolated the Jews from the hot spots of plague and their practical quarantine aroused suspicion that they were responsible for the disease to which they themselves seemed immune. Of course, on a general paranoid attitude to Jews among the populace could activate these suspicions into pogroms.

Comment by Nick Dupree

Norman Cantor is generally not all that reliable a historian. But notice that even he won’t make the claim that Jews didn’t suffer from epidemics as their Gentile neighbors did: “may very well have” and “could” are not claims of factual accuracy.

Comment by nm

I accept that….

Comment by Nick Dupree

I’m so sorry. My last comment came off much snippier and dismissive than was warranted. I apologize. I was a little frazzled from dodging idiot teenagers setting off Roman candles in the middle of the street, but that’s no excuse. If Cantor or anyone else would mention a fourteenth-century reference to this idea, I would accept it. Well, if Cantor mentioned it I would have to check it out for myself first. But, seriously, if you ever find any such specific reference I would love to know about it.

Comment by nm

Love it that people are researching and arguing from sources. I met Prof. Cantor when I was in grad school. He was very kind, very personable, and (to me, given his reputation as a Marxist-bashing crank) surprisingly supportive of women’s history. I don’t know the particulars of his famous feuds (other than to say that in his later life, he damaged the reputations of some of his colleagues in what seems to me an irresponsible way, alleging that they were Nazis without producing any evidence that this was the case), but I will venture a small opinion about why academic historians sniff at his work. Popular historians (and he was one…he sold a lot of books) have to do a mighty lot of generalizing to say anything — as anyone who has ever cringed and taught a Western Civ survey can tell you. Academic historians — especially in the period in which Cantor worked — sacrificed the broad generalizations to ever more particular (and I’d hope more accurate) examinations of smaller and smaller subjects. Academic historians are now suspicious of the Big Book That Explains Everything, because we know that it gets as much wrong as right when you begin to dig a little deeper. I don’t actually believe in the so-called “crisis of fragmentation” that’s often used by more intellectually conservative historians as a rallying cry to go back to old-style “men, dates, and battles.” As evidenced by our conversations above, when we do return to synthetic questions, we do so with a richness that would have been impossible in the days of master narrative, when case studies were viewed as so much trivia and women appeared on the dust jacket. So woo-hoo.

Comment by bridgett

Eh, Bridgett, there are a lot of Big Picture historians whose word I would trust more than Cantor’s. It’s not his book about other historians that did his reputation in, since no one in the field took it seriously (one was obviously a Good Historian based on how helpful one had been to his career), and his accusations of Naziism were clearly, clearly meant as a joke, and taken that way. It’s the book he did right after that, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, which was damaging to him. He had some pet theories about the big picture that caused him to cherry-pick the material more than is common for a survey of that type. I mean, if Robert Stacey, whose surveys of English history I have used with pleasure, tells me that there’s a document that says X I’ll believe it. If Lynn Hunt, whose Western Civ textbooks I have assigned, tells me that there’s a document that says Y I’ll believe that, and Hunt isn’t even a medievalist. Hell, if the late Warren Hollister, who once tried drunkenly to hug me (to my severe displeasure) and whose textbook on the middle ages I rather trashed in my dissertation told me about a document that said anything at all, I’d believe him. That’s because they’re writers who know how to give a Big Picture with a strong narrative line, but who let the reader know what other arguments/approaches/ideas are out there, whose own more detailed scholarship in their own fields is impeccable, and who don’t ignore the persons/events that challenge them.

Comment by nm

The theme of the week around here is “prooftexting.” Kat may be surprised to find this, but until she used the word in a post last week as a practice that she detests, I was, of course, familiar with the concept but I never knew that there was a perfectly lovely word to describe the practice of eliding contradictory stuff to make a strong argument that fits your own preconceptions.

Comment by bridgett

I thought that was called “Scholasticism”? 😉

Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

Comment by Gerald

Gerald, you owe me a new keyboard, dammit.

Comment by nm

My work here is done.

Comment by Gerald

[…] Wickedness is hosting another discussion about cleanliness (or lack thereof) in history.  The last one was very […]

Pingback by Dead Dirty White People « Virtual Bourgeois

Hi…I am brand new to WordPress, so I am not sure if I am doing this right, but I have a question. This is a great conversation regarding personal cleanliness, but does anyone know what steps people took to clean their homes during the late middle ages/early renaissance? Specifically, I am curious about the upper-middle and upper class homes. I have read that the idea that this class of people covered their castle/chateau/manor home floors in straw, which they replaced periodically, has been discredited. Is this true? What other products would they have used to clean their house?

Comment by traebuy

Traebuy, I’m going to move your question up into a different post so it doesn’t get lost or forgotten. Check for the new post and responders, please respond at the new thread so that we can separate personal cleanliness from domestic hygiene.

Comment by bridgett

You have answered your own question. The Christians were filthy because they had abandoned the Mosaic Law which commanded them to perform ablution on a regular basis. Jews and Muslims, who continued to obey the dictates of their religion were much cleaner. I’m not sure about the details of Jewish Law, but Muslims are obliged to wash their hands, forearms, faces and feet and rinse their mouths and noses five times and to bathe at least once a week. They are also encouraged to brush their teeth using a “toothbrush” made from the root of the arak tree, to wear clean clothes and to use perfumed oil. They are also obliged to bathe after sexual intercourse and after menstruation.

Comment by S. Strauch

I’m not certain when a lack of hygiene came to characterize Medieval Christian Europeans, but the historic record clearly shows this was not always the case in the pagan past, even outside the empire. Cornelius Tacitus writes in his book, the Germania:
“On waking from sleep, which they (the
Germans) generally prolong to a late
hour in the day, they take a bath,
oftenest of warm water, which suits a
country where winter is the longest of
the seasons.”

Comment by Bill

Wow. That’s gotta be some sort of record for an open thread.

Comment by democommie

i don’t know that much about europe. but the clvry here in the states got very frustrated when they tried to corrnor the native indians. they could not understand how they sliped away before the army got there. reason was the whites smelled so bad the indians could smell them for miles away. the horses that the indians raised could not tolorate the smell of the white men either. they would alert the indians that they were near. personal hygine was a part of native american indians religion. one of the few things about their coustums that was in common. the goverment baned the use of the sweat lodge and all other native forms of religous pratice till 1929. but they bathed and did their religous pratices anyway undercover. filth might have been the norm for the euro-americans but not the indians. thought you might like alittle insight on the subject.

Comment by humming bird naha

[…] There were serious exceptions, of course. I cannot resist mentioning a particularly well taken example, reported  by the prior of St. Fridswides, John of Wallingford, “who complained bitterly that the Danes bathed once a week, combed their hair regularly, and changed their clothes regularly. The result was that English women were easily seduced by the nice-smelling Danes” (here).  […]

Pingback by Why Are the Dutch So Clean? « Organizations and Markets

Living in a tropical town with a British community, the locals do sometimes comment on the lack of cleanliness of the British – so the factors may not be purely involved.

Also look at the comments by one character, sent to a British boarding school, in The Satanic Verses: its fiction, but it rings true to me.

The post on The Straight Dope says it was a Renaissance problem, so I take it Chritianity cannot be blamed.

Comment by Graeme Pietersz

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