On Bathing

Robert Frost once wrote:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
I’ve got to keep on this blasted path
I’ve got to take a stupid bath.

Frost’s controversial poem, as you’d know, led a generation of young Americans to eschew bathing, and even caused the American senate to get that poem rewritten by an official committee—no doubt you are familiar with the sanitised version, about “miles to go” and all that. Anyway, it now appears that Frost was only reaching deep into the traditions of the Western world when he expressed his distaste for bathing. Katherine Ashenburg writes in the New York Times:

A first-century Roman spent a few hours each day in the bathhouse, steaming, parboiling and chilling himself in waters of different temperatures, exfoliating with a miniature rake — and avoiding soap. Elizabeth I boasted that she bathed once a month, “whether I need it or not.” Louis XIV is reported to have bathed twice in his long, athletic life, but was considered fastidious because he changed his shirt three times a day. […]

Among the most fervent hand-washing advocates were medieval poets, who found it difficult to describe a banquet without affirming that everyone present washed his hands before eating, then once again afterward. Unless you washed your hands, you had no claim to gentility.

That belief persisted through the 17th century, even as bodily griminess reached new heights. Doctors assured people that they were more susceptible to the plague if they opened their pores in warm water, and terrified Europeans shunned water and washing, except for their hands. Since forks were not in general use until the 18th century, hand-washing still had a practical function as well as a symbolic one: the Dutch in the age of Rembrandt scandalized French visitors by eating without first washing their hands.

By the mid-19th century, people were timidly experimenting with bathing, but scientists still believed that disease spread through decaying matter and bad smells.

This excerpt helps us understand why the government of William Shakespeare’s time rewrote his classic line, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your soap.” It was considered too depraved, and we cannot blame the censors of the time if Vincent Van Gogh, much later, took the revised words at face value.

And now if you’ll excuse me, the water is running…