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2018.03.09 - Dirty Middle Ages, clean Enlightenment?

Dirty Middle Ages, clean Enlightenment?

 /Spas and bathing culture in the Middle Ages in Hungary and in Europe/

We tend to speak about the dark Middle Ages, but the Medieval Period was actually a colourful time full of contradictions and mysteries, when the constant changes in thinking left their mark on every aspect of civilisation, including our relationship with bathing, taking care of the body and health in general. Who would have thought that people in the Middle Ages were taking a bath more often than a king in the period of the Enlightenment?

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A Scythian sauna?

A large part of the Carpathian Basin was under the rule of the Roman Empire at the dawn of the Middle Ages, so in big cities and military camps the traditional Roman bathing culture prevailed. The houses – especially the villas of the nobility – were built of stone and had a bathroom, floor heating and plumbing. In the eastern part of the country that was inhabited by tribes from the steppes people were also familiar with the joys of taking a good bath. Despite living a nomad lifestyle, our ancestors frequently washed themselves. In their tents they poured water on hot stones to enjoy a steam bath, beating themselves with birch tree branches. What is more, they also used a kind of shower: they hanged large leathers sacks which were full of water and had a tap on them, so all they had to do was stand under them and ‘take a shower.’ Those nomads who were richer were taking portable leather bathtubs with them, in which they could enjoy a bath for a longer time. The bathing culture of the nomads was soon taken over by the inhabitants of the Eastern Roman Empire, for instance Byzantine emperor Constantine mentioned it in his Book of Ceremonies that the leader of each military camp was obliged to take a Scythian bath – the leather bags with a tap and the portable bathtub – with them for the emperor, when they went on a campaign. Arab traveller Ibn Fadlan wrote about the bathing habits of nomadic Bulgarians living in Bashkiria, revealing that men and women were plunging into the same pool naked.           

When the nomads settled their bathing culture also changed, but the internal need to stay clean remained in the soul of Hungarians. Water has remained a synonym of cleanness and health for good.  

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Albrecht Dürer: The Bath House

Respect for hot springs

In the Middle Ages one of the most frequent diseases was gout, the pains of which could be eased with the water of hot springs. The bathing culture was thriving at those places where there was a hot water spring. In the 13th century spas were first created in Buda on the northern banks of the Danube, which were later followed by more baths on the southern banks of the river – these places weren’t only used for bathing but also for healing purposes. Bath masters formed their own guilds and apprentices had to pass an exam to become bath attendants, who learned the ins and outs of their trade by going on a 5-year trip before becoming bath masters themselves. Later the occupying Turks made a great contribution to the local spa life and bathing culture, but it is also true that they found rich traditions and a developed infrastructure when they arrived in Hungary.   

The church’s relationship with bathing was somewhat ambiguous. It is a fact that Saint Jerome – he translated the Bible – said taking a bath too often wasn’t a good thing, but other church notabilities such as Saint Benedict practically made it compulsory to wash regularly in his monasteries, and even city dwellers were allowed to use the baths of monasteries. However, things changed in the 14th century when the population of cities started growing rapidly and the lack of clean drinking water resulted in the outbreak of severe epidemics. About half of Europe’s population died in the Great Plague in the middle of the 1300s and public baths played an important role in the spreading of the disease.

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The end of the public bath period

The baths were closed from one day to another, and the relationship of Europeans with bathing changed drastically. In the countryside the situation remained the same as before among peasants, but those living in cities and aristocrats took baths rarely. Peasants’ spas were characterised by a happy and busy atmosphere, while in the castles of aristocrats practically there was no bathroom. During the Reformation the only thing protestant and catholic preachers agreed on was that bathing was bad for the health. They blamed the baths for spreading not only the plague but also the syphilis, in spite of the fact that it wasn’t true that baths were a hotbed of prostitution in the Middle Ages. The lowest point was the 17th and 18th centuries: Europeans basically weren’t bathing at all and the hygiene situation was the worst in cities. City life didn’t sink into barbarism only at those places where they managed to guarantee a continuous supply of clean drinking water. In Hungary it was the cities in the northern part of the country (Upper Hungary) that were leading the way in building a plumbing system for drinking water. First they used tarred tree trunks to bring clean water from the mountain springs to the cities, because they didn’t want to drink the contaminated water from dug wells. Later lead pipes were used for the same purpose. Finally, with the spreading of plumbing and the discoveries of modern medicine, the enlightened bathing culture of the Medieval Period returned.