Baths and Bathing in Medieval Literature and Society

People involved in this project

Principal investigator:

School(s) Humanities
Department(s) English
Dates 1 August 2011 - 31 July 2012
Funder(s) Leverhulme Research Fellowship
Contact person Professor Archibald

More about this project

Did anyone in Western Europe in the Middle Ages have baths, rich or poor, male or female, and if so, how frequently? Was the main motive health, cleanliness, gracious living – or sex?  How did the Church regard bathing? A surprising amount of information appears in medieval texts – romances, saints’ lives, exemplary tales, chronicles, courtesy books, law codes, medical treatises – and many images of bathing survive, in manuscript illuminations, carvings, frescoes, and tapestries. Both public and private facilities were available: bathing was very much a part of life in the later Middle Ages (much more than in the Renaissance, it seems). But there is also a surprising paucity of references in my specialist field of Middle English romance, apart from a few medical cases. Did medieval nobles bathe less in England than in other countries? Was it not macho to bathe? Is it a question of gender, nationality, or literary genre?  To what extent does imaginative literature reflect contemporary life, and what might explain discrepancies? And how does imaginative literature expose contemporary preoccupations and anxieties?

My methodology will be comparative and interdisciplinary. Each literary case study will focus on a bathing episode in a specific text, but will include wide-ranging discussion of sources and analogues and of social and historical context. I shall consider legal and theological attitudes (Christianity has fewer cleanliness rituals than  Judaism or Islam); practicalities (how did they keep the water hot?); the evidence of art and architecture (how do textual and visual bathing scenes compare?); and anthropology (how do medieval European bathing practices and attitudes compare with those in other countries and centuries?).  To what extent were medieval people conscious of continuing Roman tradition, and how did medieval bathing practices differ from Roman ones? Were medieval travellers and crusaders influenced by Arab bathing customs encountered in Spain and in the Middle East? This interdisciplinary, illustrated study will be scholarly in setting out the evolution of medieval bathing habits and analysing literary texts, but also accessible to the non-specialist reader.