The hygiene of the skinby@havelock
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The hygiene of the skin

by Havelock EllisApril 8th, 2023
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The Bath—Antagonism of Primitive Christianity to the Cult of the Skin—Its Cult of Personal Filth—The Reasons which Justified this Attitude—The World-wide Tendency to Association between Extreme Cleanliness and Sexual Licentiousness—The Immorality Associated with Public Baths in Europe down to Modern Times. The hygiene of the skin, as well as its special cult, consists in bathing. The bath, as is well known, attained under the Romans a degree of development which, in Europe at all events, it has never reached before or since, and the modern visitor to Rome carries away with him no more impressive memory than that of the Baths of Caracalla. Since the coming of Christianity the cult of the skin, and even its hygiene, have never again attained the same general and unquestioned exaltation. The Church killed the bath. St. Jerome tells us with approval that when the holy Paula noted that any of her nuns were too careful in this matter she would gravely reprove them, saying that "the purity of the body and its garments means the impurity of the soul."Or, as the modern monk of Mount Athos still declares: "A man should live in dirt as in a coat of mail, so that his soul may sojourn more securely within."
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Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume 4 by Havelock Ellis is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. TOUCH IV


The Bath—Antagonism of Primitive Christianity to the Cult of the Skin—Its Cult of Personal Filth—The Reasons which Justified this Attitude—The World-wide Tendency to Association between Extreme Cleanliness and Sexual Licentiousness—The Immorality Associated with Public Baths in Europe down to Modern Times.

The hygiene of the skin, as well as its special cult, consists in bathing. The bath, as is well known, attained under the Romans a degree of development which, in Europe at all events, it has never reached before or since, and the modern visitor to Rome carries away with him no more impressive memory than that of the Baths of Caracalla. Since the coming of Christianity the cult of the skin, and even its hygiene, have never again attained the same general and unquestioned exaltation. The Church killed the bath. St. Jerome tells us with approval that when the holy Paula noted that any of her nuns were too careful in this matter she would gravely reprove them, saying that "the purity of the body and its garments means the impurity of the soul."Or, as the modern monk of Mount Athos still declares: "A man should live in dirt as in a coat of mail, so that his soul may sojourn more securely within."

Our knowledge of the bathing arrangements of Roman days is chiefly derived from Pompeii. Three public baths (two for both men and women, who were also probably allowed to use the third occasionally) have so far been excavated in this small town, as well as at least three private bathing establishments (at least one of them for women), while about a dozen houses contain complete baths for private use. Even in a little farm house at Boscoreale (two miles out of Pompeii) there was an elaborate series of bathing rooms. It may be added that Pompeii was well supplied with water. All houses but the poorest had flowing jets, and some houses had as many as ten jets. (See Man's Pompeii, Chapters XXVI-XXVIII.)

The Church succeeded to the domination of imperial Rome, and adopted many of the methods of its predecessor. But there could be no greater contrast than is presented by the attitude of Paganism and of Christianity toward the bath.

As regards the tendencies of the public baths in imperial Rome, some of the evidence is brought together in the section on this subject in Rosenbaum's Geschichte der Lustseuche im Alterthume. As regards the attitude of the earliest Christian ascetics in this matter I may refer the reader to an interesting passage in Lecky's History of European Morals (vol. ii, pp. 107-112), in which are brought together a number of highly instructive examples of the manner in which many of the most eminent of the early saints deliberately cultivated personal filth.

In the middle ages, when the extreme excesses of the early ascetics had died out, and monasticiam became regulated, monks generally took two baths a year when in health; in illness they could be taken as often as necessary. The rules of Cluny only allowed three towels to the community: one for the novices, one for the professed, and one for the lay brothers. At the end of the seventeenth century Madame de Mazarin, having retired to a convent of Visitandines, one day desired to wash her feet, but the whole establishment was set in an uproar at such an idea, and she received a direct refusal. In 1760 the Dominican Richard wrote that in itself the bath is permissible, but it must be taken solely for necessity, not for pleasure. The Church taught, and this lesson is still inculcated in convent schools, that it is wrong to expose the body even to one's own gaze, and it is not surprising that many holy persons boasted that they had never even washed their hands. (Most of these facts have been taken from A. Franklin, Les Soins de Toilette, one of the Vie Privée d'Autrefois series, in which further details may be found.)

In sixteenth-century Italy, a land of supreme elegance and fashion, superior even to France, the conditions were the same, and how little water found favor even with aristocratic ladies we may gather from the contemporary books on the toilet, which abound with recipes against itch and similar diseases. It should be added that Burckhardt (Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien, eighth edition, volume ii, p. 92) considers that in spite of skin diseases the Italians of the Renaissance were the first nation in Europe for cleanliness.

It is unnecessary to consider the state of things in other European countries. The aristocratic conditions of former days are the plebeian conditions of to-day. So far as England is concerned, such documents as Chadwick's Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Laboring Population of Great Britain (1842) sufficiently illustrate the ideas and the practices as regards personal cleanliness which prevailed among the masses during the nineteenth century and which to a large extent still prevail.

A considerable amount of opprobrium has been cast upon the Catholic Church for its direct and indirect influence in promoting bodily uncleanliness. Nietzsche sarcastically refers to the facts, and Mr. Frederick Harrison asserts that "the tone of the middle ages in the matter of dirt was a form of mental disease." It would be easy to quote many other authors to the same effect.

It is necessary to point out, however, that the writers who have committed themselves to such utterances have not only done an injustice to Christianity, but have shown a lack of historical insight. Christianity was essentially and fundamentally a rebellion against the classic world, against its vices, and against their concomitant virtues, against both its practices and its ideals. It sprang up in a different part of the Mediterranean basin, from a different level of culture; it found its supporters in a new and lower social stratum. The cult of charity, simplicity, and faith, while not primarily ascetic, became inevitably allied with asceticism, because from its point of view: sexuality was the very stronghold of the classic world. In the second century the genius of Clement of Alexandria and of the great Christian thinkers who followed him seized on all those elements in classic life and philosophy which could be amalgamated with Christianity without, as they trusted, destroying its essence, but in the matter of sexuality there could be no compromise, and the condemnation of sexuality involved the condemnation of the bath. It required very little insight and sagacity for the Christians to see—though we are now apt to slur over the fact—that the cult of the bath was in very truth the cult of the flesh.[22] However profound their ignorance of anatomy, physiology, and psychology might be, they had before them ample evidence to show that the skin is an outlying sexual zone and that every application which promoted the purity, brilliance, and healthfulness of the skin constituted a direct appeal, feeble or strong as the case might be, to those passions against which they were warring. The moral was evident: better let the temporary garment of your flesh be soaked with dirt than risk staining the radiant purity of your immortal soul. If Christianity had not drawn that moral with clear insight and relentless logic Christianity would never have been a great force in the world.

If any doubt is felt as to the really essential character of the connection between cleanliness and the sexual impulse it may be dispelled by the consideration that the association is by no means confined to Christian Europe. If we go outside Europe and even Christendom altogether, to the other side of the world, we find it still well marked. The wantonness of the luxurious people of Tahiti when first discovered by European voyagers is notorious. The Areoi of Tahiti, a society largely constituted on a basis of debauchery, is a unique institution so far as primitive peoples are concerned. Cook, after giving one of the earliest descriptions of this society and its objects at Tahiti (Hawkesworth, An Account of Voyages, etc., 1775, vol. ii, p. 55), immediately goes on to describe the extreme and scrupulous cleanliness of the people of Tahiti in every respect; they not only bathed their bodies and clothes every day, but in all respects they carried cleanliness to a higher point than even "the politest assembly in Europe." Another traveler bears similar testimony: "The inhabitants of the Society Isles are, among all the nations of the South Seas, the most cleanly; and the better sort of them carry cleanliness to a very great length"; they bathe morning and evening in the sea, he remarks, and afterward in fresh water to remove the particles of salt, wash their hands before and after meals, etc. (J. R. Forster, "Observations made during a Voyage round the World," 1798, p. 398.) And William Ellis, in his detailed description of the people of Tahiti (Polynesian Researches, 1832, vol. i, especially Chapters VI and IX), while emphasizing their extreme cleanliness, every person of every class bathing at least once or twice a day, dwells on what he considers their unspeakable moral debasement; "notwithstanding the apparent mildness of their disposition and the cheerful vivacity of their conversation, no portion of the human race was ever perhaps sunk lower in brutal licentiousness and moral degradation."

After leaving Tahiti Cook went on to New Zealand. Here he found that the people were more virtuous than at Tahiti, and also, he found, less clean.

It is, however, a mistake to suppose that physical uncleanliness ruled supreme through mediæval and later times. It is true that the eighteenth century, which saw the birth of so much that marks our modern world, witnessed a revival of the old ideal of bodily purity. But the struggle between two opposing ideals had been carried on for a thousand years or more before this. The Church, indeed, was in this matter founded on an impregnable rock. But there never has been a time when influences outside the Church have not found a shelter somewhere. Those traditions of the classic world which Christianity threw aside as useless or worse quietly reappeared. In no respect was this more notably the case than in regard to the love of pure water and the cult of the bath. Islam adopted the complete Roman bath, and made it an institution of daily life, a necessity for all classes. Granada is the spot in Europe where to-day we find the most exquisite remains of Mohammedan culture, and, though the fury of Christian conquest dragged the harrow over the soil of Granada, even yet streams and fountains spring up there and gush abundantly and one seldom loses the sound of the plash of water. The flower of Christian chivalry and Christian intelligence went to Palestine to wrest the Holy Sepulchre from the hands of pagan Mohammedans. They found there many excellent things which they had not gone out to seek, and the Crusaders produced a kind of premature and abortive Renaissance, the shadow of lost classic things reflected on Christian Europe from the mirror of Islam.

Yet it is worth while to point out, as bearing on the associations of the bath here emphasized, that even in Islam we may trace the existence of a religious attitude unfavorable to the bath. Before the time of Mohammed there were no public baths in Arabia, and it was and is believed that baths are specially haunted by the djinn—the evil spirits. Mohammed himself was at first so prejudiced against public baths that he forbade both men and women to enter them. Afterward, however, he permitted men to use them provided they wore a cloth round the loins, and women also when they could not conveniently bathe at home. Among the Prophet's sayings is found the assertion: "Whatever woman enters a bath the devil is with her," and "All the earth is given to me as a place of prayer, and as pure, except the burial ground and the bath." (See, e.g., E. W. Lane, Arabian Society in the Middle Ages, 1883, pp. 179-183.) Although, therefore, the bath, or hammam, on grounds of ritual ablution, hygiene, and enjoyment speedily became universally popular in Islam among all classes and both sexes, Mohammed himself may be said to have opposed it.

Among the discoveries which the Crusaders made and brought home with them one of the most notable was that of the bath, which in its more elaborate forms seems to have been absolutely forgotten in Europe, though Roman baths might everywhere have been found underground. All authorities seem to be agreed in finding here the origin of the revival of the public bath. It is to Rome first, and later to Islam, the lineal inheritor of classic culture, that we owe the cult of water and of physical purity. Even to-day the Turkish bath, which is the most popular of elaborate methods of bathing, recalls by its characteristics and its name the fact that it is a Mohammedan survival of Roman life.

From the twelfth century onward baths have repeatedly been introduced from the East, and reintroduced afresh in slightly modified forms, and have flourished with varying degrees of success. In the thirteenth century they were very common, especially in Paris, and though they were often used, more especially in Germany, by both sexes in common, every effort was made to keep them orderly and respectable. These efforts were, however, always unsuccessful in the end. A bath always tended in the end to become a brothel, and hence either became unfashionable or was suppressed by the authorities. It is sufficient to refer to the reputation in England of "hot-houses" and "bagnios." It was not until toward the end of the eighteenth century that it began to be recognized that the claims of physical cleanliness were sufficiently imperative to make it necessary that the fairly avoidable risks to morality in bathing should be avoided and the unavoidable risks bravely incurred. At the present day, now that we are accustomed to weave ingeniously together in the texture of our lives the conflicting traditions of classic and Christian days, we have almost persuaded ourselves that the pagan virtue of cleanliness comes next after godliness, and we bathe, forgetful of the great moral struggle which once went on around the bath. But we refrain from building ourselves palaces to bathe in, and for the most part we bathe with exceeding moderation.[23] It is probable that we may best harmonize our conflicting traditions by rejecting not only the Christian glorification of dirt, but also, save for definitely therapeutic purposes, the excessive heat, friction, and stimulation involved by the classic forms of bathing. Our reasonable ideal should render it easy and natural for every man, woman, and child to have a simple bath, tepid in winter, cold in summer, all the year round.

For the history of the bath in mediæval times and later Europe, see A. Franklin, Les Soins de Toilette, in the Vie Privée d'Autrefois series; Rudeck, Geschichte der öffentlichen Sittlichkeit in Deutschland; T. Wright, The Homes of Other Days; E. Dühren, Das Geschlechtsleben in England, bd. 1.

Outside the Church, there was a greater amount of cleanliness than we are sometimes apt to suppose. It may, indeed, be said that the uncleanliness of holy men and women would have attracted no attention if it had corresponded to the condition generally prevailing. Before public baths were established bathing in private was certainly practiced; thus Ordericus Vitalis, in narrating the murder of Mabel, the Countess de Montgomery, in Normandy in 1082, casually mentions that she was lying on the bed after her bath (Ecclesiastical History, Book V, Chapter XIII). In warm weather, it would appear, mediæval ladies bathed in streams, as we may still see countrywomen do in Russia, Bohemia, and occasionally nearer home. The statement of the historian Michelet, therefore, that Percival, Iseult, and the other ethereal personages of mediæval times "certainly never washed" (La Sorcière, p. 110) requires some qualification.

In 1292 there were twenty-six bathing establishments in Paris, and an attendant would go through the streets in the morning announcing that they were ready. One could have a vapor bath only or a hot bath to succeed it, as in the East. No woman of bad reputation, leper, or vagabond was at this time allowed to frequent the baths, which were closed on Sundays and feast-days. By the fourteenth century, however, the baths began to have a reputation for immorality, as well as luxury, and, according to Dufour, the baths of Paris "rivaled those of imperial Rome: love, prostitution, and debauchery attracted the majority to the bathing establishments, where everything was covered by a decent veil." He adds that, notwithstanding the scandal thus caused and the invectives of preachers, all went to the baths, young and old, rich and poor, and he makes the statement, which seems to echo the constant assertion of the early Fathers, that "a woman who frequented the baths returned home physically pure only at the expense of her moral purity."

In Germany there was even greater freedom of manners in bathing, though, it would seem, less real licentiousness. Even the smallest towns had their baths, which were frequented by all classes. As soon as the horn blew to announce that the baths were ready all hastened along the street, the poorer folk almost completely undressing themselves before leaving their homes. Bathing was nearly always in common without any garment being worn, women attendants commonly rubbed and massaged both sexes, and the dressing room was frequently used by men and women in common; this led to obvious evils. The Germans, as Weinhold points out (Die Deutschen Frauen im Mittelalter, 1882, bd. ii, pp. 112 et seq.), have been fond of bathing in the open air in streams from the days of Tacitus and Cæsar until comparatively modern times, when the police have interfered. It was the same in Switzerland. Poggio, early in the sixteenth century, found it the custom for men and women to bathe together at Baden, and said that he seemed to be assisting at the floralia of ancient Rome, or in Plato's Republic. Sénancour, who quotes the passage (De l'Amour, 1834, vol. i, p. 313), remarks that at the beginning of the nineteenth century there was still great liberty at the Baden baths.

Of the thirteenth century in England Thomas Wright (Homes of Other Days, 1871, p. 271) remarks: "The practice of warm bathing prevailed very generally in all classes of society, and is frequently alluded to in the mediæval romances and stories. For this purpose a large bathing-tub was used. People sometimes bathed immediately after rising in the morning, and we find the bath used after dinner and before going to bed. A bath was also often prepared for a visitor on his arrival from a journey; and, what seems still more singular, in the numerous stories of amorous intrigues the two lovers usually began their interviews by bathing together."

In England the association between bathing and immorality was established with special rapidity and thoroughness. Baths were here officially recognized as brothels, and this as early as the twelfth century, under Henry II. These organized bath-brothels were confined to Southwark, outside the walls of the city, a quarter which was also given up to various sports and amusements. At a later period, "hot-houses," bagnios, and hummums (the eastern hammam) were spread all over London and remained closely identified with prostitution, these names, indeed, constantly tending to become synonymous with brothels. (T. Wright, Homes of Other Days, 1871, pp. 494-496, gives an account of them.)

In France the baths, being anathematized by both Catholics and Huguenots, began to lose vogue and disappear. "Morality gained," remarks Franklin, "but cleanliness lost." Even the charming and elegant Margaret of Navarre found it quite natural for a lady to mention incidentally to her lover that she had not washed her hands for a week. Then began an extreme tendency to use cosmetics, essences, perfumes, and a fierce war with vermin, up to the seventeenth century, when some progress was made, and persons who desired to be very elegant and refined were recommended to wash their faces "nearly every day." Even in 1782, however, while a linen cloth was advised for the purpose of cleaning the face and hands, the use of water was still somewhat discountenanced. The use of hot and cold baths was now, however, beginning to be established in Paris and elsewhere, and the bathing establishments at the great European health resorts were also beginning to be put on the orderly footing which is now customary. When Casanova, in the middle of the eighteenth century, went to the public baths at Berne he was evidently somewhat surprised when he found that he was invited to choose his own attendant from a number of young women, and when he realized that these attendants were, in all respects, at the disposition of the bathers. It is evident that establishments of this kind were then already dying out, although it may be added that the customs described by Casanova appear to have persisted in Budapest and St. Petersburg almost or quite up to the present. The great European public baths have long been above suspicion in this respect (though homosexual practices are not quite excluded), while it is well recognized that many kinds of hot baths now in use produce a powerfully stimulating action upon the sexual system, and patients taking such baths for medical purposes are frequently warned against giving way to these influences.

The struggle which in former ages went on around bathing establishments has now been in part transferred to massage establishments. Massage is an equally powerful stimulant to the skin and the sexual sphere,—acting mainly by friction instead of mainly by heat,—and it has not yet attained that position of general recognition and popularity which, in the case of bathing establishments, renders it bad policy to court disrepute.

Like bathing, massage is a hygienic and therapeutic method of influencing the skin and subjacent tissues which, together with its advantages, has certain concomitant disadvantages in its liability to affect the sexual sphere. This influence is apt to be experienced by individuals of both sexes, though it is perhaps specially marked in women. Jouin (quoted in Paris Journal de Médecine, April 23, 1893) found that of 20 women treated by massage, of whom he made inquiries, 14 declared that they experienced voluptuous sensations; 8 of these belonged to respectable families; the other 6 were women of the demimonde and gave precise details; Jouin refers in this connection to the aliptes of Rome. It is unnecessary to add that the gynæcological massage introduced in recent years by the Swedish teacher of gymnastics, Thure-Brandt, as involving prolonged rubbing and kneading of the pelvic regions, "pression glissante du vagin" etc. (Massage Gynécologique, by G. de Frumerie, 1897), whatever its therapeutic value, cannot fail in a large proportion of cases to stimulate the sexual emotions. (Eulenburg remarks that for sexual anæsthesia in women the Thure-Brandt system of massage may "naturally" be recommended, Sexuale Neuropathie, p. 78.) I have been informed that in London and elsewhere massage establishments are sometimes visited by women who seek sexual gratification by massage of the genital regions by the masseuse.

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