Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"Next to Godliness" Came Later

Thanks to the excessively charming Day Al Mohamad, I've been cruelly tempted into doing exactly that sort of thing I adore to do - going on about some silly subject of which I have a bit of knowledge and on which I have a deeper perspective than the day-to-day.  Following on the heels of Immaculate Misconception, let's look at some of the actual methods human beings have used over time to keep clean.  Thanks to the knowledge I've gained, I'll disclaim at the top that most of my own knowledge is unfortunately Western-centric, and almost entirely Euro-centric, in fact.  My interest in American history has never been lively, and I admittedly considered it a follow-up to those things which did appeal to me (Arthuriana, Roman, and European/British history), so understand that everything I say is informed in this context, more or less.  Any attempt to display diversification in my approach to humanity may be doomed to failure, so please forgive me when I try, and forgive that trying for being limited.


The oldest personal hygiene products humans have ever used - might be what we consider today to be dirt.

Perhaps the earliest cleaning agent (as opposed to medium - which tends oftenest to be water) was sand.  Even today, we know the phrase "scoured by sand", and scouring is one heck of a means of cleaning.  Sand has been used for everything from washing hair to clothes to pots and pans, and the pot-and-pan application is hardly extinct.  Clay and mud, too, have always held a place in, particular to the purposes of this post and its predecessor, personal hygeine.  Clay is still used in hairdressing, and various silts, muds, and clays continue to hold quite the hallowed place in spa treatments and the like.  Clay-fine mud makes a remarkable moisturizer - and, in times and places other than the suburban United States, quite the sunscreen as well.  Ask any pig who's had its melanin bred away why it wallows and "dirties" up that pink hide.



Clay is a fixative and a moisturizer, a paint and hair coloring, a body-builder in hair under management - and, above all, a matrix for sculpture.  The beauty in what the ignorant might call "dirt" goes back by far longer than the history of soap (whose earliest recipes consisted of oils and ashes - another component we today might call "dirt" as well).  It also spreads farther across the world than the imagined habitation of Tarzan the Ape Man, and is used across more of the body than many Westerners even feel it is polite to remember we own.





Self-beautification with things some of us narrowly define as "dirt" is bold, exuberantly symbolic, powerfully striking - and all done with materials many of us have forgotten, or prefer not to remember, or think is just something to wash away.  It is artistry with earth itself.

Of course - in many places, especially warmer ones, depilation held more prominence than hairdressing.  Shaving and plucking came along early, and have stuck with us just as long as mud masks and cleansing.  It is said Caesar himself (did you know his name basically means "good hair"? ironic, as he was famously bald in middle age) had all his body hair plucked.  Egyptians, particularly of higher rank, shaved their heads - male and female - and many of those hairstyles we see in relief sculptures were meticulously crafted wigs.  The art of wigmaking was highly prized in many of the pharaonic eras, and hygeine was carried even farther with the use of wax perfume cones, balanced on top of the head, to melt down over the neck and body, moisturizing and scenting (particularly nobility and largely women) through the heat of a long Egyptian day and langorous evening.

Once we got past scouring with sand, and the early soap formulations, we began grooming ourselves with a will.  Combs came first, but we have had brushes for almost every purpose - cleaning of ourselves, very small parts of ourselves, and our beloved self-decorating clothing, domiciles, and even animals for a long time as well.  Combs were innovated by being carved from ivory, from sandalwood, and hairdressing - an activity almost certainly born out of the necessity of de-lousing and de-tangling - grew, as a social activity, to become part of social presentation.

Pliny was aware of soap, but not its application to a person's skin - that, we find discussed in Latin, as an occurrence among those filthy Barbarians, the CELTS, and in Gaul.  Yes, ladies and germs, the Romans were ignorant of this method of bathing until well after Caesar died.  The famous Galen extolled German soap as the best, no less.

Not everybody was into the soap bag - and soap wasn't the only game in town by a long shot.  Hit up Northern Europe and you find saunas.  Similar to the Roman bathing ritual (a multi-process event, and no small one), the skin was treated to heat and cool.  The Romans went from cool and dry to ever-warmer rooms.  The Scandinavians moved from the heat of the sauna ... and closed up their pores with  - well, the cold with which most of those environs were so abundantly endowed.  Sound "skin science", that, actually - heat it up, open the pores, sweat out whatever's icky, then rinse it all off and finish the process with a good, tight seal.  Probably did wonders for medieval acne.


Clovis I, in "The Ax and the Vase" spends rather a lot of time in grooming (well, or in being groomed - in certain now-cut chapters, first by his mother - and in later periods, by slaves of the body).  He was one of the Long Haired kings, reges criniti, a line of Frankish rulers whose charisma and power were distinctively wrapped up in their long hair.  (I swear, this is not why I wrote about Clovis ... !)  Archaeology tells us that hairdressing even going back as the bronze age in Britain could be pretty rich stuff - clips and bindings of gold, copper, and braiding and care were displayed in many northern and Celtic tribes.  The myth of the filthy Viking or Migration Period hordes is one with staying power, but not one with actual legs to stand on.

Part of the issue I have with the "everyone was dirty until 1900" theory is this:  at no time in history, ever, in any context or aspect of our humanity, has "everyone" been ANY one thing.  Human beings cover, if it possible to even conceive it, a vastly wider and more myriad spectrum than the straight line model I referred to in Immaculate Misconception between "clean" and "dirty".  Even that spectrum is wrongly considered as a straight line, because nothing is so easy to quantify.  The array, then, of all those aspects of dress, bathing, self-decoration, habitation, diet, elimination, animal husbandry and proximity, remediation of human waste (where we put it and how), and all those things which feed into the modern, limited, myopic definition of "clean" would be impossible to place on a single graded line, with one state at one end, another at the other, and all possibilities neatly aligned in between.

There have ALWAYS been people who, through slovenliness, ill health, inability, ignorance, or the progression of age, smelled or appeared offensive to other people.  There have ALWAYS been those of more privilege or fastidiousness, who lacked certain obviously "dirty" qualities.  And there are always days most of us fall more toward one end of the stinky-toleration level or the other.  There has never - ever - been a period in history during which every living human being could automatically be ranked as filthy - even by modern standards, frankly - and certainly not all at one level.  If I encountered a 14th-century beggar stricken with, but not yet dead of, the plague, I imagine the scent would be something.  But if I met her cousin, say maybe The Wife of Bath, I'd be able to tell a distinct difference - even if the WoB still seemed stinky by my standards.

The question is, though - just how stinky were people, really?

Americans like to sneer about Europeans (see also:  the French) who don't shave (horrors!) and who waft either garlic or a bit of personal musk, and judge them "dirty".  Imagine what our bodies would smell like to essentially everyone in history, though, who ever lived before current American standards became so dominant (for us).  Chemical perfumes, oddly lotioned skin, dyes and even clothing spun from plastic and unnatural fiber.  We would not smell like human beings - and, frankly, we probably wouldn't smell exceptionally good.  Most of the scents we take for granted are pretty cheap, and an awful lot of them (try Monday morning in any corporate high-rise elevator) are ovewhelming.  Many of us get actual headaches from the colognes and body splashes so many modern "civilized" humans ladle on indiscriminately.

Try parading a smoker, who's tried to cover up that smell with perfume, in front of an ancient peasant, and see whether they don't curl up their nose in horror.

Or a person devoid of their own oils and sweat, marinated in the latest celebrity signature scent - not smelling like a *person* at all - and see if this doesn't cause outright suspicion, if not even hostility.

The relativity we work from, formulating "dirty Barbarians" in the modern mind, ironically, was largely born of that very period many of us sneer about now, the Victorian era (you know I'd get to "cleanliness is next to Godliness" sooner or later, right?).

Even better, the fear of bathing we presume was symptomatic of a thousand years of European peasantry was in fact itself born late.  People across the continent and the British Isles were in fact well acquainted with bathing, even if not in full-body-immersion style, but definitely in that manner, for centuries, if not millennia, before The Black Plague.  The medical establishment of the time attempted study of this scourge, but, oddly enough, it was not treated in the way a modern disease is, and this is key to the understanding of the way the culture changed, even as the population was devastated by death.  By the time one had symptoms of Plague - it was almost certainly a death sentence.  Treatment was essentially ... cruelly ... not worth it.

(Don't mind the forward-slash "Smallpox" notation - this is a famous Plague illustration) 

It was, perhaps ironically, the Church who began to advise its flock in the means to prevent contraction of the disease, and bathing was a clear casualty in this period.  In 1348, even common folk expected to bathe once a week, often by full-body-immersion, in the way we'd recognize as "bathing" today.  This practice involved both exposure to cold and wet, but also nudity, and these things took on a relative menace, in a time when the friend you spoke with just this morning appearing by evening as a corpse.  Everything did.

And so, we found workarounds, and even that time-honored "shortcut" (or entirety of personal ablution, as the case really can be, and not just in post-Plauge Europe), the Whore's Bath, sometimes saw its own short-cutting.  (The WB is the standing cleansing, not necessarily even in a state of complete undress, in which we spot clean the ampits and groin.  Foot washing has always held a special and symbolic place in the human heart, but as hygeine goes, it's less vital in the role of stink-control than those areas with the most glands.)

So modernity has this constructed memory, of Elizabethans or the denizens of Versailles, decked out in possibly filthy Bitchin' Velvets wafting around oranges jammed full of cloves, pouring perfume down their necks or decolletage, and powdering like mad over every possible other sin.

I would hardly venture to say NOBODY practiced these cosmetic half-truths.  I know what the bodkin was for (*).



But it might just be some of them did long not to itch so much, or couldn't stand the smell of the pomanders themselves, or just had a different standard, and perhaps tried to prevent their wigs becoming home in the first place for the vermin they had to kill with jeweled scimitars in the second place (*get the functional picture, then?).  It might be that the lesser the finery, the easier to wash - and same for the woman or man as well.  Some of the heaviest powder-ers died of lead poisoning, anyway.

Eventually, we came to the place where any evidence of human biology, at least the olfactory kind (see Well Cut Through the Body for reference to wardrobe and the evidence of sexual enhancement, or Ancient Knickers for the possibility of early alluring lingerie), as morally outrageous.  With this, sadly, has come both a judgmentalism of any culture not adhering to what may or may not really be all that healthy a "civilized" obsession - and of the past, which we have presumed out of hand to be entirely composed of filth and dirt.

It makes me want to shop for German soap.

And it makes me feel dirty, the baggage - and considerable moralism, not to mention cultural elitism - we've attached to the simple method of personal ablution.  I think it stinks.

But I do love the fresh scent of sandalwood, too.

1 comment:

Mo said...

Whoa. A lot to absorb, and then wash off. Interesting is the statement that a medieval weekly bath counted as clean compared to more recent schmutzigkeit. I wonder if the contrast is between self-defined "civilized" people (Romans, Victorians), who seem drawn toward longer-cycle cleansing and perfumery and "primitive" people, who often insist on daily bathing regardless of discomfort? There are cultures who discovered plant-based surfactants (soaps, minus the processing), and were even considered by their Euro-explorer contemporaries as cleanly, who subsequently have been characterized as primitive and 'dirty,' perhaps reflecting a correlation of melanin with dirt, more than an accurate understanding of hygiene. Interesting post.