Ablutions or Bathing, Historical Perspectives

(Latin: abluere, to wash away)

Ablutions from the Past to the Present

In a leading public health textbook of 1908, W.T. Sedgwick noted that because personal hygiene is a means to control infectious diseases, “the absence of dirt is not merely an esthetic adornment.” He added that cleanliness is “doubtless an acquired taste.”

  • Sedgwick’s comment came at a time of transition, when personal hygiene wasn’t a widespread habit.
  • Through great periods of European and much of U.S. history, clieanliness was inconvenient, religiously restricted, or just plain out of fashion.
  • Living unwashed were saints, the masses, and monarchs alike.
  • In response to the debauchery of Roman baths, the early Christian church frequently discouraged cleanliness. “To those that are well, and especially to the young,” Saint Benedict in the sixth century commanded, “bathing shall seldom be permitted.”
  • Saint Francis of Assisi considered an unwashed body a stinking badge of piety. Queen Isabella of Castile boasted that she had had only two baths in her life—at birth and before her marriage.
  • Colonial America’s leaders deemed bathing impure, since it promoted nudity, which could only lead to promiscuity.
  • Laws in Pennsylvania and Virginia either banned or limited bathing. For a time in Philadelphia, anyone who bathed more than once a month faced jail.
  • Bathing facilities often were not available

  • The English of that era really couldn’t bathe even if they wanted to, notes V. W. Greene, a professor of epidemiology at the Ben Gurion Medical School in Beersheva, Israel. “There was no running water, streams were cold and polluted, heating fuel was expensive, and soap was hard to get or heavily taxed. There just weren’t facilities for personal hygiene. Cleanliness wasn’t a part of the folk culture.”
  • Through much of the 19th century, adds Greene, Europeans and Americans lived in wretched filth, and many died young of associated diseases.
  • Archaeological evidence suggests 5,000-year-old bathing facilities in Gaza. Soaplike material found in clay jars of Babylonian origin has been dated to about 2800 B.C.
  • Before the time of Abraham in Middle Eastern desert climes, custom dictated that hosts offer washing water to guests to clean their feet.
  • One of the first known bathtubs comes from Minoan Crete that was found in the palace at Knossos and is dated about 1700 B.C.
  • The palace plumbing system had terra-cotta pipes that were jointed and cemented together and were tapered at one end to give water a shooting action to prevent the buildup of clogging sediment. Their technology put Minoans in the hydrological vanguard.
  • The ancients had their hygienic practices

  • The ancient Egyptians didn’t develop such plumbing, but they definitely liked hygiene which was evident in their use of fresh linen and body ointments, skin condioners, and deodorants of the day.
  • The Greeks apparently prized cleanliness. Although they apparently didn’t use soap, Greeks anointed their bodies with oil and ashes, scrubbed with blocks of pumice or sand, and scraped themselves clean with a curved metal instrument called a “strigil”. Immersion in water and anointment with olive oil followed their ablutions.
  • At its peak of ablutive excess, it may have seemed that all of Rome indulged in the baths. In the fourth century A.D., the city had eleven large and magnificent public bathhouses, more than 1,350 public fountains and cisterns, and many hundreds of private baths.
  • Served by thirteen aqueducts, Rome’s per-capita daily water consumption averaged about 300 gallons, nearly what an American family of four uses today.
  • Roman baths usually opened at midday, just as sportsmen finished their games or exercises. A bather first entered the “tepidarium”, a moderately warm room for sweating and lingering.
  • Next came the “calidarium”, a hotter room for greater sweating, or perhaps the ultrahot "laconicum".
  • In these the bather doused himself with copious quantities of warm, tepid, or cold water.
  • Scraped off with a strigil, sponged and reanointed, the Roman concluded the process by plunging into the cool and refreshing pool of the “frigitarium”.
  • Rome’s obsession with bathing is said to be a factor that helped send the empire down the drain.
  • Early Christian leaders condemned bathing as unspiritual

  • “The father’s of the early church equated bodily cleanliness with the luxuries, materialism, paganism and what’s been called ‘the monstrous sensualities’ of Rome,” explains Professor Greene.
  • Within a few centuries, the public and private sanitation practices of Greece and Rome were forgotten; or, as Greene adds, were “deliberately repressed.”
  • Europe during the Middle Ages, it’s often been said, went a thousand years without a bath.
  • Gregory the Great, the first monk to become pope, allowed Sunday baths and even commended them, so long as they didn’t become a “time-wasting luxury.”
  • Guardians of culture and knowledge during the Dark Ages, Europe’s monasteries also preserved some of Rome’s hydrological technology and cleanliness habits.
  • Elaborate plumbing laid in 1150 served the Christchurch Monastery at Canterbury, with settling tanks to purify water, and branches that fed the kitchen, the laver, and the washouse.
  • Greene stated, “People always talk about the good old days, before pesticides and pollution; but in the good old days of Europe and the United States, people lived in filth, with human and animal fecal matter all around. The rivers were filthy. Clothing was infested with vermin.”
  • Cleanliness leads to better health

  • Although scholars point to advances in medical science; such as, vaccines and antibiotics, as the major factors in turning the tide against disease, the changes in personal and domestic hygiene should be given considerable credit for improvements in better health conditions.
  • “For one thing,” Greene explains, “pasteurization and vaccines didn’t really come along until the mortality decline was well established. That’s not to say vaccines weren’t important. But nearly 40 diseases are transmitted by feces, urine, and other secretions on contaminated hands or other objects. The greatest cause of fatal infant diarrhea came from mothers who went to the toilet, didn’t wash their hands and passed along intestinal bacteria to their babies.”
  • Body ordor is not caused by the human body or sweat itself. The skin has more than two million sweat glands, and the perspiration that comes from the abundant eccrine sweat glands is fundamentally clear and odorless.
  • Common skin flora, consisting of several kinds of benign bacteria, feed off the secretions and skin particles on the body and clothing. In the process of eating and eliminating waste, the bacteria cause the stench.
  • Most people rely on soap and water to get rid of the sweat that bacteria eat. Since soap contains fats, oils, and alkali; it loosens the bonds that hold dirt, oil, and bacteria to the skin and suspends them in water.
  • Some experts say that the way to get really clean is to soak and to wash in a bathtub and then to shower off the “floating soap and body-oil slick” that clings to the body when a person stands up in the tub.
  • Even in our “modern age”, too many people who should know better, do not wash their hands after using a toilet.
  • Cleanliness, via ablutions, is one of the most important ways to maintain good health.
—Compiled from excerpts of an article written by Jay Stuller titled
“Cleanliness has only recently become a virtue” as seen in the
February, 1991, issue of Smithsonian, pages 126-135.

Another aspect of a lack of cleanliness

Head, pubic, and body lice became a prominent part of human existence in the West where they were helped by early Christian disdain for comfort and cleanliness; one species' asceticism created another's nirvana. Lice thrived in the Middle Ages and beyond, thanks to the continuing belief that bathing was an indulgence, an invitation to illness, or even a sin.

As late as the seventeenth century, etiquette lessons for Europe's nobility taught when and how to dispose of one's lice. If royalty had an abundance of parasites; then so did their subjects, who washed their bodies and clothes less often.

Lice became rarer from the eighteenth century onward, as washing became more frequent and effective in societies; however, head lice and nits (louse eggs) still infect many children in American schools and nurseries, and in poor countries, body lice thrive on people who wear the same unwashed clothes every day.

—Arno Karlen, Man and Microbes
G.P. Putnam's Sons; New York; 1995; page 113.

Pointing to a page about washing A link to a related series of articles about Toilets, Then and Now and their applications to the progress of personal hygiene.

Pointing to a page about washing A family unit of luto- or "wash" words and definitions.

Pointing to a page about showers You can go to this link about The History Of The Shower for a special presentation.