Hygiene is Overrated I

[Today’s post is sponsored by my stepdaughter Anna Maria… and she knows why]

Perhaps you recently read about one Amou Haji, an 80 year old fellow in the tiny village of Dejgah in southern Iran who claims not to have bathed in over six decades, in part because he fears that cleanliness will make him ill.

Go ahead. Google him.

His beliefs aren’t as rare as you might think, at least by historical standards.

In early Christian centuries, authorities allowed the public to use bathhouses just as had been the case in Roman times. However, as it became apparent that the baths were being used for hedonism as much as, or for more than, hygiene, church fathers began to crack down on such licentiousness. Starting in the early 5th century CE, first women were banned from the baths, and then nudity in general was prohibited. Finally, the whole concept of public baths was largely proscribed.

Bathing, it was proclaimed, lead to immorality, promiscuous sex, and the spread of diseases.

Sin aside, by the 400s, it had become widely accepted that water could carry diseases from the air directly into the body via the skin’s pores, so the church’s ban on bathing as a (primitive poorly understood) public health measure had traction, and held sway in Western medical circles for more than a millennium.

This meant that – not having to be told more than once – most of the lower classes began foregoing baths altogether, opting instead to wash their hands, parts of their faces, and mouths (by rinsing) only.

[sidebar: washing the entire face was believed to risk developing catarrh and weakening the eyesight]

The upper classes restricted their bathing to a few times a year, trying to balance the desire to avoid diseases against overpowering body odor.

Case in point: one Russian ambassador to France in the early 18th century noted that Louis XIV “stunk like a wild animal,” as court physicians regularly advised His Gallic Majesty to bathe as infrequently as possible to maintain good health. Louis was apparently a good patient, bathing only twice in his lifetime it is said – at his birth and at his wedding.

[sidebar: the Eastern Orthodox churches didn’t get as agitated about bathing as did the Western church, and therefore Russians of this era tended to bathe more frequently than those of the Pope’s domains – perhaps as frequently as once per month; Russians were therefore held by many in the West to be sexual perverts]

To get past eye-watering stench, many aristocrats in the Middle Ages rubbed their bodies with scented rags, and used perfumes liberally. Both men and women wore small bags containing herbs between the layers of their clothing, especially in their undergarments.

Amazingly, this complete lack of personal hygiene in parts of western Europe lingered in some circles into the early 19th century.

Rock on, Amou!

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

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