During the upheavals that accompanied the fall of the Roman Empire, bathing practices in Europe experienced a sharp but brief decline. When Atilla saw the elaborate metalwork adorning the thermae, he was more interested in converting it into weaponry than appreciating its aesthetics. At the same time, the growing Christian church, anxious to wipe out all vestiges of pagan Rome, converted many of them into churches. However, with tens of thousands of balnea and thermae in Europe, bathing could not be completely eliminated.
Men’s bathhouse, 16th century. Dürer.
Later, during the Middle Ages, bathing enjoyed so much popularity that we must question the portrayal of medieval Europeans as diseased and pest-ridden right up to the sixteenth century. In fact, they enjoyed several types of sweat baths. In the southern and central areas, Roman-style bathing flourished (although without the customs and symbology of the balnea), and in the north, Scandinavian bathing was popular. Whatever else the medieval period may have been, it certainly wasn’t dirty.
During the eighth and ninth centuries the Vikings terrorized the north (what is now Holland, Germany, Belgium and the British Isles), and eventually settled there. It’s not clear whether they introduced the Scandinavian type of sweat bath, with its hot rocks in a wooden room-or whether the locals were already using something comparable. In any case, Dürer’s fifteenth century wood carvings, etchings and drawings of the German badstübe bear striking similarities to the Scandinavian bath, complete with birch-branch flaying and fanning. In the south, conquering Turks and Arabs brought their hammam (a smaller version of the thermae) up the Danube in the Balkans, and into Moorish Spain. However, as the conquerors were driven back, the hammam went with them. Although bath houses may have varied structurally, their laws, customs, and methods were virtually the same throughout medieval Europe. They were known as hot-houses, stews, sweat houses-whatever configuration of native words conveyed the idea of heat, sweat and enclosure. The French called them étuves; Germans and Scandinavians knew them as bath houses (badstübe, badstue, bastue ). In Italy they were called bordellos.
Medieval bath houses were used for socializing, but also as a place where physicians plied their trade.
In parts of Europe, bread ovens were some· times tapped for a bath by a tube that carried steam into an adjoining room. This eventually led to jurisdictional conflicts between the bath house and bakers’ guilds.
In medieval Sweden, the bath house was a legal sanctuary for criminals. However, because of its inviolability, anyone committing a crime inside a bath house was doubly punished. Crime in the bath house was considered heinous because of the bather’s naked vulnerability. If a Swede were to steal less than a mark, he would not be prosecuted, unless it was stolen in a bath house-then he would be hanged.
Throughout most of Europe, ownership of a bath house was handed down from father to son. When a new bath house was built, the Duke of the area could give bath-house rights either to a friend or to the highest bidder. If the place did not maintain certain standards of cleanliness and comfort, the Duke was authorized to transfer controlling rights to someone else. The wealthy often used subalterns (usually a family) to manage their bath houses, and charged them a yearly tariff for the privilege.
In its medieval heyday the bath house could be likened to a combination of today’s cinema, amusement park, pool hall, and popular street corner-one of the few places available for public recreation. Understandably, this led to some bawdy problems. In Dijon and the Valois Dukes of Burgundy, William Tyler describes the four étuves of fourteenth-century Dijon. Two were hot-water baths, and all four lacked privacy, thereby inviting all manner of disorder. In an effort to achieve a s semblance of public decency, separate baths were designated for men and women. Those who broke the rule (such as a monk from St. Benigne, who was caught in the company of two married women) were fined. However, with affluent and influential people lounging on couches, drinking hot spiced wine and enjoying the pleasures of gender, authorities were only half-hearted in their attempts to thwart prostitution and debauchery. This applied not only to Dijon, but to all of Europe. Soon the bawdy reputation of the baths eclipsed their primary function of bathing. The words étuve, badstübe and bordello took on new meanings. In one of Tyler’s accounts, “there was such a noise of yelling, quarreling, and jumping up and down it was amazing the neighbors should be able to stand it, justice ignore it, and the earth tolerate it.”
Hot baths became hotbeds of scandal. Municipalities began enforcing strict regulations to protect public health and private morality. Tyler wrote, “The church also, sensitive to growing criticism of its relationship to the baths as the movement of reform gained momentum, cooperated with civil authorities in fighting crime and immorality. By the late fifteenth century, public baths and at least the more notorious bordellos had been abolished.”
By the sixteenth century, through the prosecution of the Church, dwindling wood supplies, and the Plague, public bathing had died out. The bath houses were gone, not to reappear until the nineteenth century, with the introduction of Turkish and Russian baths on the continent.