I recently came across two books on hygiene and body culture: Douglas Mackaman’s Leisure Settings (1998), on the history of health spas in France, and Katherine Ashenburg’s The Dirt on Clean (2007), on changing attitudes towards body odor through the ages. I haven’t read either one of them yet, but from what I understand, both explore fields that are closely related to the work of French historian Georges Vigarello. I’ve been meaning to review his book Concepts of Cleanliness for quite some time; it’s not seldom that words like ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ appear in perfume reviews — take Robin’s recent post on Guerlain Shalimar for example — and it’s nice to put their meaning in a cultural perspective. Vigarello’s book is a scholarly work on hygiene and cleanliness, and sets the record straight on some widespread historical misconceptions. Originally published in 1985 (right before Alain Corbin’s The Foul and the Fragrant), it covers the period between the late Middle Ages and the 19th century, painting a vivid picture of washing and bathing rituals in France. The author dismisses the common assumption that the Middle Ages were simply ‘dirty’, and quotes from travel journals, etiquette books and other period documents to reveal that by our modern standards, personal hygiene reached an absolute low point during the 17th and 18th century.
Vigarello’s basic premise, however, is that every age has its own definitions of ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’. If we want to understand the past, we need to set aside our modern preconceptions of cleanliness. The history of personal hygiene follows a social dynamic of its own, marked by rules and prohibitions that are hard (if not impossible) to understand out of their context. Bathing meant different things to people through time; it was often detached from the notion of hygiene, which had various religious and social connotations. A few examples will hopefully make this clear.
Taking French society as his prime focus, Vigarello illustrates the change in the use of water for bathing purposes between the late Middle Ages and the end of the 18th century. Contrary to what one might expect, it was in the Middle Ages that public baths and steam houses flourished: people regularly gathered there to party with their friends or to clinch business deals. In 1292 there were no less than 26 public baths in the city of Paris alone, and their number was rapidly increasing across the country. Bathing was first and foremost a festive ritual that took place in good company; the steam house was a place of leisure, much like the tavern. Bathing as we perceive it nowadays — clearing the body from traces of dirt and perspiration — is a notion that didn’t resonate well in those days.
Cleaning your shirt and carefully removing fleas from your body was the dominant idea of hygiene among the 15th century French elite. Keeping up appearances was all that mattered: looking clean on the outside, and concealing bad odors with perfume. You didn’t wash your hands and face for sanitary reasons, but because it was an act of moral decency — the underlying logic was in fact clerical, not medical. Washing the hands and face was a common habit among the elites until the early days of the French Renaissance, and served as a means to fall in favor of local rulers; it was a practice taught in courtly etiquette books, and had become part of a social code, rather than a matter of ‘good hygiene’. In fact, treatises on hygiene rarely mentioned the use of water, and gave specific diet recommendations instead. Food intake was thought to influence the quality of body fluids, and was by far the biggest concern. These rules and practices obviously required much discipline and self-restraint, and actually count as important factors in the civilizing process that unfolded at the various Courts of Western Europe; a excellent scholarly work on this subject is The Civilizing Process (1939) by German sociologist Norbert Elias.
The decline of bathing rituals from the 16th century onwards was primarily related to moral issues. By the 15th century, public baths and steam rooms started attracting a new crowd: once serving as occasional, discrete hideouts for secret lovers, they were now becoming overt places of prostitution. Despite the strict gender segregation imposed on these facilities by several city councils, they eventually became sites of fights, physical abuse, and even murder. A 1566 law in Orléans ordered all prostitution establishments to be shut down, including the public steam houses; in the space of a few decades, none were left in all of France. By 1692 only a handful of public baths were still open in Paris, and they were reserved exclusively for medical treatments. Public baths, now considered places of violence and moral corruption, had given a negative connotation to bathing practices in general.
Private baths had always been the exclusive domain of aristocrats, but after the 15th century their popularity and use decreased as well. Records show that the average 16th century courtesan would take a bath on the day before their marriage, or before and after a long journey, but hardly any other time. In the mid-17th century, water was no longer used for personal hygiene, except for rinsing the mouth. Cleanliness was based on appearance and smell: it wasn’t related to the body itself, but to the whiteness and odor of the shirts and linen undergarments that people wore. The “dry cleaning” practices at the French court were well-reasoned and legitimized: contact with water was avoided as much as possible, as it entered the pores and made internal organs fragile, giving free way to unhealthy air. At the Court of Versailles bathing was very rare, and took place under medical supervision: full immersion in water was thought to impair vision, provoke tooth ache, and make the face turn pale and more susceptible to extreme temperatures in winter and summer. Vigarello points out that these fears encouraged the ongoing refinement of sensitivities towards the body: people became increasingly concerned with ‘polishing’ their conduct, and carefully guarded their private space. It was a different take on hygiene, and yet hygiene it was: bear in mind that 17th century norms on cleanliness were dictated by the authors of etiquette books, not scientists.
Aristocratic values had always been strongly attached to appearance and spectacle; the bourgeois way of life that came to replace it in the early 19th century was far more sensible to physical health. Investments in appearance were replaced by a preoccupation with all things hidden to the naked eye. In that context Vigarello mentions the role of cosmetics and perfume in late 18th century France as well, showing how their use was described (and often severely criticized) by hygienists. The emergence of these new sensitivities is the main subject of Corbin’s The Foul and the Fragrant, which places the origins of the modern intolerance to stench and body odor in this transitional period.
Vigarello’s book goes far beyond the overview I gave here, and is an incredibly rewarding read. The English title may sound a little dull, and I don’t know if the translation is as compelling as the French original, but I would blindly recommend this book for its wealth of references alone.
Georges Vigarello (1941) is a professor at the Université Paris Descartes, and has published books and articles on health, hygiene, physical appearance, sports, and violence.
Concepts of Cleanliness: Changing Attitudes in France since the Middle Ages
Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press (1988)
Translated by Jean Birrell, 239 pages
Original title: Le propre et le sale: L’hygiène du corps depuis le Moyen Age (1985)