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“He knew how to dress and he knew how to smile and he knew how to bathe, and somehow he got the notion that this made him fit to be king.”—Olenna Redwyne
Today’s topic is bathing. Renly enjoyed a good bath and he’s not the only one in Westeros to frequently indulge in a dip. Is the custom of bathing in Westeros rooted in historical fact? We think of medieval people as being the great unwashed. This, I have read, is one improvement GRRM makes that we can’t quibble with: we want our Lannisters smelling fresh, not like horse manure. But were medievals opposed to bathing?
Let’s destroy this common myth.
The mud slinging dirt farmers of Monty Python would have happily taken a bath after a hard day’s work and King Arthur might have joined them too. Or at least had a separate bath drawn.
Princes were not infrequent bathers. In Einhard’s biography of Charlemagne, The Life of Charlemagne (c. 817-836), we’re told that Charlemagne, the most famous early medieval king, was an avid swimmer and bather: “He enjoyed the exhalations from natural warm springs, and often practiced swimming, in which he was such an adept that none could surpass him… He used not only to invite his sons to his bath, but his nobles and friends, and now and then a troop of his retinue or body guard, so that a hundred or more persons sometimes bathed with him.”
We know from manner books composed in the late medieval period that nobles extended the practice of cleanliness beyond just the bath. They washed their hands before eating and basins would be found in the manor house for the daily washing of the teeth, face, and hair. King Henry III (d. 1272) even had a room constructed for the purpose of washing his hair. Loras’ locks deserve such a luxury!
It wasn’t only princes and nobles that washed their weary bodies. Commoners were fond of bathing as well. Outdoor bathing was common in warmer months, but bathing could be more elaborate than a dip in the pond. Public steam baths were a fixture of medieval Bohemia, Germany, Poland, and Russia. Bathhouses featuring tub bathing were found in cities throughout Western, Central, and Eastern Europe. These public baths featured communal tubs large enough for the Kingslayer and the Maid of Tarth to cozy up in together.
Where did the Church stand on bathing? Any problem the Church had with bathing was related to the fact that the purpose of bathing wasn’t only for cleanliness. Bathing was considered one of life’s great pleasures in the Middle Ages. It was a time for socializing and sharing an adult beverage or two, and as a pleasurable experience, not all churchmen were equally enthusiastic about the pursuit. Particularly ascetic monastic communities, for example, limited bathing. At Cluny, monks were limited to bathing only twice a year—Easter and Christmas, whether you needed it or not.
The mixed gender fountain bathing, which could be the prelude to a romantic entanglement, depicted in this medieval woodcutting is just the sort of thing those Cluniac monks would have frowned upon.
Twice yearly bathing was extremely austere even for monks. Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604), the first monk to become pope, encouraged Sunday bathing. Hildegarde of Bingen (d. 1178), mystic and Benedictine abbess, was passionate about her saunas and described in her writings what herbs to mix with water, during a steam bath. Indeed, many monasteries constructed communal bath houses, some of which were open to the public.
So, where does the myth of the stinky medieval prince, prelate, and peasant come from? The Elizabethan era. Queen Elizabeth herself was actually an avid bather, something her physicians found very troubling, because the medical treatises of the day argued that bathing was unhealthy. Responding to continued outbreaks of plague from the late medieval period onward, they believed water contained pathogens, which could get into crevices of the body when bathing. So they avoided immersion. They also avoided opening the pores through the once common steam bath for the same reason.
There were also legitimate public health concerns that resulted in less bathing in the 16th and 17th c. Syphilis and gonorrhea became common in this period, which resulted in the closing of public bathhouses—the once convenient location for maintaining hygiene. The connection between public baths and venereal diseases? Well, those Cluniac monks weren’t so wrong about the dangers of bathing: the women who ran public baths became carriers of disease, which was spread to their customers, who apparently didn’t always come for the water alone.
Writings, poetry, paintings, woodcarvings, tapestry, and archeological evidence all point to bathing being an important part of medieval life. They did not have access to Roman plumbing, so immersion bathing was not a daily ritual, but it was not infrequent and certainly greatly enjoyed.
I think it’s fair to say that Renly and the other Westerosi nobility would have been right at home in a medieval Parisian bathhouse. So, go draw yourself a bath, grab your favorite ASOIAF book, and have a drink on me.
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