Outside, it’s a balmy 13°F in the midst of a lake-effect squall, but inside the temperature is comfortably and soothingly higher than body temperature. Aaahh…the bathtub – an indispensible household fixture for anyone enduring winter above the 40° latitudinal mark. Even today, a hot bath, or a soak in the more luxurious hot tub, is still the most effective means of raising overall body temperature, thereby staving off colds, controlling fevers, and reducing the ache of arthritis and rheumatism. Like their Celtic forebears, the ancient Irish recognized and made use of the bathtub’s health benefits, both to keep themselves clean and to aid in healing.
“What?” you say. “I thought life in the Middle Ages was incredibly filthy and no one ever took a bath.” That’s the typical response I get to bath scenes in my novels, and if that’s your picture of life in ancient Ireland, allow me to adjust the focus for you. First of all, the period we’re discussing is the Late Iron Age to the early Middle Ages – say up to the 8th century AD – before Christianity truly transformed the island in all the ways that it did.
One of the early societies to make a practice of bathing was the Greeks, but it was the Romans who made it into a pastime. As Bill Bryson points out in his fantastic book At Home, “Nobody has ever bathed with as much devotion and precision as the Romans did….Roman baths had libraries, shops, exercise rooms, barbers, beauticians, tennis courts, snack bars, and brothels. People from all classes of society used them….For much of the Roman era the baths were marked by a certain rigid decorum, which assured a healthy rectitude, but that as time went on life in the baths – as with life in Rome generally – grew increasingly frisky, and it became common for men and women to bathe together….No one really knows quite what the Romans got up to in there, but whatever it was it didn’t sit well with the early Christians. They viewed Roman baths as licentious and depraved – morally unclean if not hygienically so” (2010, p. 345-346).
It was the Romans who commented on the Celts – so impressed they were by their appearance. Diodorus Siculus wrote, “The Gauls are tall in stature and their flesh is very moist and white, while their hair is not only naturally blond, but they also use artificial means to increase this natural quality of colour. For they continually wash their hair with lime….” (McMahon, 1990, p. 12).
Spiking their hair with lime undoubtedly made the men look fierce in battle, but it also probably helped ward off lice. And the “moist flesh” comment may be an indication of – thankfully, not cannibalism on the part of the Romans – but of the use of oils and herbal ointments by the Celts after a good bath. Of further note, “Gauls are also said to have shaved their body hair….The site at La Tène produced ‘toilet sets’ consisting of an iron razor and a pair of sprung iron shears” (James, 1993, p. 64). Women used cosmetics, combs, and mirrors. “In late Iron Age Britain, mirrors became increasingly elaborately decorated” (James, 1993, p. 69).
In their investigation of the early Christian era in Ireland, Hughes and Hamlin note, “Vats made of staves bound with metal hoops have been found, possibly to take bathe water, for the Irish liked to sit in their baths and it was only the ascetics who stood in cold water; the rest had their water heated with fire-stones kept for the purpose. Guests in particular were sometimes welcomed with a hot bath” (1997, p. 44). Slogging through bogland, after all, was a dirty affair.
There is also evidence that baths were used for medicinal purposes. “We find, in Irish medical tracts, that baths were frequently prescribed for healing. Fingin, the Druid physician of Conchobhar Mac Nessa, cured the wounded warriors by baths of medical herbs. In Cormac’s Glossary such a medical bath was called forthrucad and most often given for leprosy – doinnlóbru” (Ellis, 1998, p. 113).
So, if bathing was considered essential for good health and appearance by several early civilizations, what happened in the Middle Ages that made people stop bathing? The lewd behavior that went on in Roman bath-houses caused the early Christians to equate bathing with prostitution. Then the plague came and people did everything they could think of to prevent coming down with it. “Unfortunately, people everywhere came to exactly the wrong conclusion. All the best minds agreed that bathing opened the epidermal pores and encouraged deathly vapors to invade the body. The best policy was to plug the pores with dirt. For the next six hundred years most people didn’t wash, or even get wet, if they could help it….” (Bryson, 2010, p. 346).
Europe must have been one big blackhead.
Bryson, B. (2010). At home: a short history of private life. New York: Doubleday.
Ellis, P.B. (1998). The ancient world of the Celts. New York: Barnes & Noble Books.
Hughes, K. & Hamlin, A. (1997). The modern traveller to the early Irish church. Dublin: Four Courts Press.
James, S. (1993). The world of the Celts. New York: Thames and Hudson.
McMahon, A. (ed.). (1990). The Celtic way of life. Dublin: O’Brien.