A few years ago, the Economist ran an article ‘The Joy of Dirt’ – from which the title of this article is borrowed – in which it pointed out that for most of its history, Europe was loath to bathe. And the aversion to bathing was not just confined to the underprivileged – it was equally prevalent amongst the rich.
When the famous Henry VIII (1491 – 1547) was the king of England, a strong belief amongst the nobility – and, may I add, the medical profession – was that water was a carrier of diseases like the plague and the best way to avoid them was to avoid water. Taking a bath would only serve to open the pores and let the diseases in! Bathing was, thus, a rarity. Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603), Henry’s daughter, took only one bath a month while her son, James I, never bathed. Most Europeans used powders, oils, spices and perfumes to mask their body odour. Wigs were in vogue because people rarely, if ever, washed their hair.
Henry IV of France (1553 – 1610) was one of the most popular French kings and showed great care for the welfare of his subjects. He also displayed, for the times, great religious tolerance. However, when it came to personal hygiene, he took the cake! His mistresses said he “smelled like a carrion.” (Check out the meaning!). Although he changed his shirt every day, he refused to bathe or cover up his smell with cologne or perfume. When his second wife, Marie de Medicis, met him, she fainted from the stench he emanated.
During his life, King Louis XII of France (1462 – 1515) took only two baths. King Louis XIV of France (1638 – 1715) ruled for 72 years but refused to bathe unless his doctors forced him to. Obviously they didn’t succeed often enough since he took two, possibly three, baths in his entire life! He preferred to be dusted with scented powder and washed his face with a cloth soaked in alcohol.
Visual Courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8545333@N07/