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Durham University

Department of English Studies


Academic Staff

Publication details for Prof Elizabeth Archibald

Archibald, Elizabeth (2015). Bathing for Beauty in the Middle Ages. In The Recovery of Beauty: Arts, Culture, Medicine. Saunders, Corinne, Macnaughton, Jane & Fuller, David London: Palgrave Macmillan. 53-71.

Author(s) from Durham


‘Wine, sex and baths ruin our bodies, but they are the stuff of life,’ according to the tombstone of a Roman freedman at Pompeii.1 It is striking that baths are described as damaging to the body; we might have expected that they were considered an important part of a health and beauty regime, but for the Romans bathing was primarily a social event. Many Roman villas had bath suites, but what is notable about the Roman world is the extent of public bathing. Every city had a public water supply and public baths, and the entry charges were moderate. The baths were open for rich and poor, free and slaves, and maintaining them was a civic duty taken on by public figures. It was normal practice to go to the baths to make and meet friends (and also lovers), do business deals and relax in pleasurable surroundings. The first Christians lived in a Roman culture, and most would certainly have considered both public and private bathing to be usual and pleasurable. The cult of asceticism was not a fundamental aspect of early Christianity, but developed gradually during the third and fourth centuries, and was not general practice.2 Saints who refrained from washing for years — the practice known as alousia — were the exception to the rule; there would have been no point in this renunciation if no one else washed either. Melania the Younger, granddaughter of one of the ascetic Roman ladies in Jerome’s circle, gave up bathing as part of her campaign to persuade her husband to agree to a chaste marriage; she clearly understood that this would make her less attractive.3

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