Clean: An Unsanitised History of Washing by Katherine Ashenburg

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Clean: An Unsanitised History of Washing by Katherine Ashenburg

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sharon Hall
Reviewed by Sharon Hall
Summary: This is a well-written and entertaining account of an unlikely topic – the history of washing and personal hygiene. It is full of interesting anecdotes and facts, but it is also a thoughtful examination of changing attitudes towards cleanliness over the last 2000 years.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: March 2009
Publisher: Profile Books
ISBN: 978-1846681011

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Although maybe not the first book you'd be drawn to – a history of personal hygiene perhaps doesn't seem that appealing – but if you had overlooked this excellent book, you would have missed out on an enjoyable and informative book, full of fascinating facts and a jolly good read.

Attitudes towards and rituals of cleanliness have certainly changed over the last two thousand years and this book chronicles many of them, largely in Europe and the US. Cultural differences with regard to cleanliness and body odour (and yes, Napoleon and Josephine do get a mention here, although it transpires that they both took daily baths) are discussed at length, from the Greeks and Romans to the present day.

The book is full of interesting facts and anecdotes, but it is not a mere list of these, as Ashenburg discusses the issues of personal hygiene and cleansing with an academic eye. The author writes: Show me a people's bathhouses and bathrooms, and I will show you what they desire, what they ignore, sometimes what they fear – and a significant part of who they are.

In the 5th century, Hippocrates was a champion of baths who believed hot and cold immersions brought the body into a healthy balance. Baths were also part of a rite of passage for the Greeks, whilst cleaning the body was done with a curved metal scraper, a strigil, to remove dirt. For the Greeks, hot baths were for sissies.

The Romans adored hot water in communal baths. Baths were considered central to the notion of Romanization and the bathhouse became more elaborate over time, including exercise areas, gardens, snack bars and libraries. Prostitutes, healers and beauticians often had premises in the bath area and brothels were often located close to baths.

Early Christians lived under the rule of Romans, but in the Christian tradition, emphasis was placed on ritual purity rather than physical cleanliness, with baths to wash away immoral acts. Baths were allowed for cleanliness or health, but not for warmth or pleasure.

Evidence for bathing in early medieval times comes largely from monastic sources. Some monasteries had complex engineering systems to deliver water into sinks, basins and troughs, but full baths were rarely taken except by the sick, and public baths disappeared in western Europe. The Crusaders brought the practice of bathing back to Europe after their encounters with Turkish steam baths. In some locations, abandoned Roman baths were reinstated as communal steam baths and some baths were founded at natural hot springs, such as Baden in Switzerland. Public bathhouses spread throughout Europe, with varying regard to mixed bathing and, er, non-cleansing practices. The term stewhouse, which originally referred to the warmth of the bathhouse, gradually came to mean a house of prostitution, and in the 12th century, Henry II formally recognised Southwark, where London bathhouses were concentrated, as a legal red-light district.

The devastating bubonic plague epidemic (the Black Death), which started in the 14th century, effectively put an end to bathing for the next 200 years as it was believed that infection entered the body through the pores and therefore washing and bathing were dangerous. Many people relied on changes of linen undergarments to keep themselves 'clean', avoiding wetting their skin. It was believed that pores blocked with grime sealed the body from infection. Linen became the emblem of cleanliness and it became fashionable to discreetly show one's linen peeking out from underneath overgarments, with cravats, ruffles and long sleeves in evidence.

In the 18th century, attitudes slowly changed, with bathing in cold water being considered by some to be restorative. The benefits of seawater bathing were also extolled at this time. In a sermon in 1791, John Wesley, who championed cold bathing, proclaimed cleanliness is next to godliness and, by the mid 19th century, people were again taking baths.

The 20th century saw the greatest increase in washing. Body odours became more socially unacceptable than ever, and were also seen as an issue of class. In 1937, George Orwell wrote the four words he considered as the secret heart of class differences in the West: the lower classes smell. Soap and deodorants began to be marketed intensively and very successfully, partly with this in mind and, by the use of film stars in advertisements, by association with success, youth and beauty. More recently, anxiety about dirt and disease has increased, along with wider issues of safety and security and we continue to try to protect ourselves from the unseen and unsafe world, be it germs, smell or terrorism.

Ashenburg writes well and fluently, weaving examples and evidence into the text effortlessly. At no point do you feel that this is a catalogue of facts, but instead it is a well-evidenced narrative, drawing on the arts, literature and biography as well as historical sources, and supported by illustrations.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If you enjoyed this book and are musing on bodily cleanliness and cultural practice, you might like to try On Farting: Bodily Wind in the Middle Ages by Valerie Allen. For more about infection, try The End of Plagues: The Global Battle Against Infectious Disease by John Rhodes.

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