The Early Moderns were not big on baths. These were the people of the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the Witch Craze, the Inquisition, and they did not smell very nice.
In fact, perfume was big among the early moderns—not to make themselves smell good, but rather to mask the smell of others around them. Elizabeth I only bathed once a month. She was sixteenth-century; the seventeenth century was worse. Water was not viewed as a reliable means to cleanliness. It was, in fact, downright hazardous to one’s health. Medical opinion of the day held that a thick layer of grime and grease on the skin was advisable to plug up the pores and keep nasty things like the plague from invading the body. Not only that, but warm water could upset the balance of the humours in the body, and therefore create disease, such as gout. It is written that sufferers of gout often only experienced the malady after taking a bath.
So, the avenue to cleanliness was generally pursued outside of water. Not even face washing was a daily occurrence. One might wipe down their face with a dry cloth at the end of the day, but that was about it. Hands could be washed with water, it’s true. Barley and powder might be rubbed into the hair at night and then combed out in the morning as a means of keeping the hair clean. Perfumes and resins were very popular, as were pomades. But the best way to keep clean was to change one’s linen regularly. A change of shirt or a change of chemise was generally felt to be the best way to achieve cleanliness. If a man was of a more athletic disposition, there could be several changes of shirt a day. Art from this period often depicts scenes with clean linens rather than the bathhouse scenes of the middle ages. And fashions, as the march of time progressed, revealed ever greater glimpses of the clean chemise and the shirt beneath the rich bejeweled velvets and laced silks.
But on occasion, a bath as we would understand the term, did occur. And then it was an event, let me tell you. Francis Bacon devised quite an epic bath routine. This took 26 hours long, and was meant to limit the penetration into the body of the bad, or “watery” part of the process while encouraging its “moistening heats and virtue.” ( Ashenburg, The Dirt on Clean,101) First you sealed the body with oil and salves before immersion. Then you sat in water for two hours. After you got out, the bather would wrap themselves in a waxed cloth saturated in resin, myrrh, pomander, and saffron “which was intended to close the pores and harden the body, which had grown soft in the water.” (Ibid.) And voila! An early modern bath.
Then, after having your bath, you might have to stay home for a while, as it was deemed dangerous to go out and about too soon after a bath. A story about If King Henri IV’s response to one of his advisers taking a bath is any indication, you weren’t supposed to leave the safety of your house for several days after your bath. I’ll repeat the story here: “On a Spring day in 1610,” King Henri IV of France sent a messenger to the Paris house of one of his advisers, the Duc de Sully, to request his presence at the Louvre. But Sully was taking a bath. The good advisor prepared to obey the royal summons, but his attendants begged him not to risk his health by going outside. The messenger agreed, saying “Monsieur, do not quit your bath, since I fear that the king cares so much for your health, and so depends on it, that if he had known that you were in such a situation, he would have come here himself.” The messenger returned to the Louvre, the king consulted his own doctor, and the doctor decided Sully would be vulnerable for several days after his bath. The king then ordered Sully to complete his bath, and then stay home for two days. The king would come to him, and expected to find him “in your leggings, your slippers and your nightcap, so that you come to no harm as a result of your recent bath.” (115) And this was a very big deal. The king coming to wait upon one of his advisers was no small thing. Baths were not to be fooled around with.
So all right then, it seems that the early moderns didn’t like water. . . ha, ha! But then the contradictions of human nature kick in. Early moderns didn’t like baths, it’s true. But they liked swimming quite a bit. Swimming in rivers and lakes and bathing in natural spas was perfectly fine, and even encouraged. But baths weren’t a good thing, and in some cases, they were a sinful thing. In Spain, confessors would ask their female penitents about the frequency of their bathing habits. The Spanish Christians were particularly grimy, as they viewed it as a means of distancing themselves from the comparatively clean Moorish. Also, since I’m on the subject, the Germans were a little cleaner than the rest of Europeans, as they were rather fond of their public bath houses. The French were rather filthy, perhaps few more stinky that the Sun King himself, who was well known for his halitosis—so much so that his mistresses doused themselves in perfume to mask his stench. The English have never been known for their cleanliness, and their aversion to warm baths even in the eighteenth century suggest they could not be counted among Europe’s cleanest during the seventeenth.
And so here I’ve reached the point where I address the use of this information in your fiction. Cleanliness was generally determined by the freshness of one’s linens and not of the body underneath. Everybody had problems with fleas and lice. This post will probably give you an idea of the age, but really, if you’re writing fiction set in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, my advice is to start reading. The Hillary Mantel’s and the Philippa Gregory’s are meticulous in their research, and you must be too. In fact, they are where you should start. Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is excellent. It reads like something even better than a biography. It will give you an idea as to what you need to do with your own fiction. Writing in the early modern era is no small feat. Good luck!