The History of Bathing

Longtime readers of The Examined Life know about my deep and abiding interest in the sanitary habits of Americans. It has now come to my attention that a useful addition to the corpus of research on this subject has been made.  One  Katherine Ashenburg* has written an entire book on the history of personal hygiene in the West. The book is called The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History. Apparently, in the West, the practice of taking a bath daily is a modern one – for much of the last millenium, a monthly bath was the norm. In this, they differed from every other civilization – and in fact, the Christians had a reputation for uncleanness among the Muslims and Jews. Ashenburg blames Christianity for this, as apparently the religion placed much less emphasis on ritual cleanness than other religions like Islam or Hinduism. I am generally sceptical of such explanations  – Islam, Judaism and Hinduism developed in much warmer climates where you sweat a lot more, undressing is not a life-threatening experience and splashing cool water on yourself is actually pleasant.  To check the influence of Christianity, one needs to look at the rituals of cleanliness in other civilizations in the same belt, like Tibetan Buddhism, Confucianism and Shintoism… umm.. so I guess I am wrong in my scepticism.

There is no word on whether the book discusses the strange reluctance of the Americans to use bidets.

*Yes, she is the same person who wrote this article.

3 thoughts on “The History of Bathing

  1. One explanation that I read long back was since Christian slaves were used for construction of Roman baths, early Christians were not that sold out on taking bath.
    By the way I will more or less agree with your assumption of hygiene corresponding with climates. I think that Confucianism and Shintoism were in relatively warm climate (I may be wrong though). Tibetan Buddhism was of course an import. By the way I am not sure how much Arabs historically used to practice hygiene outside rituals (wazoo is the term I believe). Persians (and by extension Turks I can understand).

    As far as Americans are concerned I think you are worrying about trifles. What keeps me awake at night is the outrage that Americans still refuse to adopt SI units, instead continuing with barbaric FPS.
    May be one or two strongly worded resolutions from UN are in order. Later we can even invade US.

    Off topic, What do you think about this ? Gives me bad feelings.

  2. Just checked – Beijing and Tokyo are to the north of Paris… and Japan is a pretty cold place – so you are wrong about Confucianism and Shintoism growing in a warmer place. And Christianity is as much of an import to Europe as Tibetan Buddhism is – in the sense that it originated in the much warmer holy land.

  3. If you read the book ‘Wealth and Poverty of Nations’ by David Landes, you will find some interesting takes on the daily rituals of Europeans in the Dark Ages. I do not want to elaborate. But his contention was interesting that new inventions like paper and knowledge from the East slowly started freeing Europeans from disease and allowed them to become ready to innovate.

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