To Bathe or not to Bathe

Louis XIV, France’s greatest monarch (1643-1715), reigned for over 72 years and in all that time bathed only twice. They called him the “Sun King” (Le Roi Soleil), but sun and water hardly ever touched his rancid torso. His physicians advised against bathing for health reasons, and Louis himself said that bathing “disturbed” him. Not by coincidence, his personal squalor combined with his womanizing ways helped popularize deodorants, perfumes, and scented cloths to mask the odors in his court. Not that it helped very much. The Russian ambassador to France remarked that “His majesty stunk like a wild animal.” The Russians themselves bathed more often than Western Europeans, who denounced them as “perverts.”

Louis was not the only ruler comfortable with filthiness. Queen Elizabeth I of Spain said that she bathed only twice: the day she was born and the day she was married. Aristocratic Europeans bathed only a few times a year and most commoners not at all. Early Europeans had bathed regularly, but with the coming of Christianity, Church leaders denounced bathing because they believed it drew sinful attention to the body and encouraged promiscuity. There was a saying: “Saintliness smells bad.”

Southern Europeans had cleaner habits, particularly those with a lingering Roman influence or areas such as southern Spain and Portugal with a Moslem impact. Some Iberian cities regulated bathing: men on certain days, women on others, with fines for violators. This cleanliness paid off during the Plague that struck Europe in 1348 and killed perhaps a fourth of the northern European population. Southern Europe fared better, probably because of better hygiene. But centuries would pass before the link between cleanliness and health became known.

Americans were heirs to the dirty ways of their European ancestors. It has been estimated that fewer than one in ten Americans bathed even once a year in the early 1800s. Nor were Texans of that time—or later—wasteful with soap and water. Not that most used soap when they bathed; it was reserved for washing clothes. A brisk rubdown with a coarse towel loosened the caked-on body dirt. Ironically, many young boys were cleaner than girls and adults because they swam in creeks.

Although these attitudes lingered into the twentieth century, a new hygienic philosophy was expressed in the saying: “cleanliness is next to godliness.” My mother was a devout believer in the modern credo. I am sure that as children my siblings and I had the cleanest ears, bodies, faces, and fingernails in the area due to her vigorous scrubbings. Her mania for cleanliness caused me at times to envy members of the old school of nasties, two of whom it was whispered with awe and repugnance had never taken a bath. We stared at them from a distance, for like the Russian ambassador at King Louis XIV’s court, we learned that you did not want to stand too close to them.

Harold Raley