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Institute of Advanced Study

Bathing, Beauty and Christianity in the Middle Ages

Abstract

Most of my work focuses on the later Middle Ages, the time of the development of the written vernaculars of western Europe and the rise of romance as a literary genre. But in thinking about my research project on baths and bathing in medieval literature and society in relation to the Durham research theme ‘The Recovery of Beauty,’ I realized that I needed to know much more about the attitude of the early Church to bathing, and how this evolved in the later Middle Ages. It turns out to be considerably more complex than one might suppose. The early Christians, living in the Roman empire with its culture of bathing, did not all condemn it out of hand. The growth of the ascetic movement and monasticism produced some extremely negative reactions to bathing, but some churches and monasteries built and maintained baths for the poor and sick, and many senior clerics also created splendid bath suites for themselves. In the later Middle Ages, preachers inveighed against luxurious bathing, but both male and female religious continued to enjoy public and private baths, which were increasingly popular across western Europe, and bathing imagery was sometimes used by ecclesiastical writers for didactic purposes. This ambivalent attitude is reflected in the imaginative literature of the period.

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