The book

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In our hall hangs a nineteenth-century framed handbill, hand-blocked in red and blue, printed by the 'Inmates at the Prevention and Reformatory Institute, 237 Euston Rd, London'. It used to hang in the parlour of a farmhouse near Louth in Lincolnshire, close by the chair in which, according to family legend, John Wesley sat when he came to tea one memorable afternoon. It says:

To Be Observed By This Family.
Waste Not, Want not
Gather up the fragments that remain that nothing be lost – John vi.12.
Do everything at its Proper Time
To everything there is a Season, and a time to every purpose - Eccls.iii
Put everything in its Proper Place.
Use everything for its Proper Purpose.
Rise early. Be industrious.
Let all things be done decently and in Order – Cor. xiv.40

The chair still has a place of honour; but the Rules have been relegated by the next generation to a lowly space next to the coat rack. We no longer need to be told 'Be Clean'; being clean is hardly worthy of comment. Even so, there are still some visitors who look at the Rules and say simply: 'I agree with that'. That handbill speaks with distant voices that can still be heard, but are growing fainter.


Inner cleansing … the senses … training and adaptation … care of the body surfaces … place, space and order … pollution … tools, adornments and body-art … water, springs and stoves.

Dirt is only matter out-of-place and is neither 'good' nor 'bad'. Nature does not care what we think, or how we respond, to matter in all its forms. But as a species we do care, very deeply, about our own survival. A dense mass of human history clusters around the belief that dirt is 'bad', and that dirt-removal (cleansing) is always 'good'. The old Anglo-Saxon word 'clean' was used in a wide variety of situations: it was often blatantly human-centred or self-serving in a way we might call 'moral'; but it was also used more objectively as a technical term, to measure or judge material things relative to other things. It was thoroughly comprehensive, and unquestioned.

Preceding all human cultural history however – certainly before any human history of personal hygiene – were billions of years of wholly a-moral species development. The exact date one enters this endless time-line is almost irrelevant; what we are really looking for are the time-spans or periods when things speed up, which in the case of homo sapiens was somewhere between c.100,000-25,0000 BCE, followed by another burst of development after c.5000 BCE. Throughout this long period of animal species development, all of our persistent, over-riding, and highly demanding bio-physical needs were evolving and adapting, and providing the basic infrastructure for the later, very human-centred, psychology, technology and sociology of cleanliness.

It is difficult not to use ancient language when describing the egotistical processes of human physiology – routinely described as the 'fight' for life – and in particular, our endless battle against poisonous dirt. Much of this battle is carried out below the level of consciousness. Most of the time our old animal bodies are in a constant state of defence and renewal, but we feel or know nothing about it; and the processes are virtually unstoppable. We can no more stop evacuating than we can stop eating or breathing – stale breath, of course, is also an expellation of waste matter. Ancient scientists were strongly focussed on the detailed technology of these supposedly poisonous bodily 'evacuations' and modern science also uses similarly careful technical terminology when describing bodily 'variation', 'elimination', 'toxicity' or 'waste products'. In either language, old or new, inner (and outer) bodily 'cleansing' is ultimately connected to the more profound principle of 'wholesomeness' within the general system of homeostasis that balances and sustains all bodily functions.


Stratification and outcome … the cosmetic trades … cosmetic receipts … graded holiness … the holy toilette … palace purity … the courtly toilette … public women

This is really the story of elluan ancient Mesopotamian word meaning a type of glittering, strikingly luminescent or beautiful cleanliness – a powerful, non-ascetic, pre-Christian, image of beauty that was entirely guilt-free. The cosmetic routine now called 'pampering' – baths, aromas, facials, manicures, pedicures, hair-styling and costuming, conducted in sensuous surroundings with or without groups of friends – emerged at both ends of Eurasia during the Bronze Age from c.4000 BCE, along with most of the necessary tools and raw materials. Cosmetics is the underbelly of personal hygiene – usually ignored, often much reviled, but even now forming an essential part of personal health-care and self-identity. The sensuous beauty of ellu turns out to be an integral part of the long history of royal court-culture, which ran more or less unbroken from this period through five millennia to the present day. Thanks to the Neolithic Revolution in technology and trade, Eurasia's fertile sub-tropical river-valleys, coasts, islands and hinterlands had produced some tribal societies who had grown very rich indeed.

chapter 3: GREEK HYGIENE

Demographics … water, water, water … the superstitious man … the Olympic Games … parks and gymnasia … training and gymnastics … scientific hygiene … cosmetics

Greek personal hygiene was a philosophy of life that went well beyond good grooming. In the name of their young goddess, princess or high-priestess of health, Hygeia, the Greeks ultimately brought another permanent layer of meaning to the idea of cleanliness. We are all hygienic now. Leaving eastern Eurasia and Middle Eastern history behind us, we move west into the Mediterranean and end up on its northern shores: Greece in the Bronze Age, c.1500-600 BCE, followed by the Greek intellectual and literary renaissance of c.600-400 BCE, a time of exciting transition between oral culture and literacy. After a long gestation, by c.400 BCE Greek 'hygiene' had emerged as a specialised medical discipline that attempted to control every aspect of the human environment – air, diet, sleep, work, exercise, the evacuations, passions of the mind – and to incorporate them into a 'sanitary' or wholesome way of life. It was a rational approach to bodily cleansing that made no reference at all to the old cosmetic toilette. The normal history of hygiene starts in the Greek classical renaissance, not the Bronze Age; but even so, one thousand years of cultural change is a relatively short time-span compared to some we have been looking at. It suggests a high-energy society – partly due to the communications revolution of the written word; but also in part because the Greeks were relative latecomers to the high culture of the sub-tropical zones.

chapter 4: ROMAN BATHS

The aqueducts … public baths and spas … Ovid's grooming … physical methodists … Galen's Hygiene … late antique baths

The Roman baths and aqueducts cleansed and scoured more people in western Asia than any previous civilisation – over twelve million bodies, if even only a quarter of the Imperial population lived in cities and were regular bathers; and historians have rightly viewed them as one of the linchpins of Roman life. The only viable conclusion from Roman baths is that cleanliness was an integral part of the Roman 'civilising process', and that an ultra-clean, well-groomed body was their badge and symbol of citizenship. But bathing was only one part of a whole regime of grooming and hygienic self-care for which expert written advice was now given by, amongst others, Ovid, Celsus and Galen. When the booming Roman economy finally fell apart in the sixth century, a great many things from this extensive body-culture were physically destroyed and could not be replaced, whilst other knowledges or lore strangely survived, or were re-fashioned.

Most ancient empires took some note of social welfare as part of their governing duties, none more so than the Greeks. The Romans had Greek hygienic statecraft directly in front of them, and were strongly inspired by the Greek concept of 'the managed life'. The Roman state and its richer citizens also invested in social welfare projects from an early date, thereafter erratically spending (as far as we can tell) a varying proportion of gross income on an almost identical range of 'healthy services': pure water supplies, public baths, parks, stadiums, state-sponsored games and sports and town doctors. The Roman imperial population in and around the Mediterranean, Europe and Africa was however far larger – 46 million in 200 AD – meaning that their communal treasure chest was wider and deeper than the Greeks. Urban Roman life would have been inconceivable, and a lot more foetid and visibly filthy, without the various public baths, latrines, fountains and taps served by the Roman aqueducts.

chapter 5: ASCETICISM

Eurasian asceticism … Christian purity … neo-Platonism … virginity … washing and bathing … the healing mission

Religious asceticism played a large part in reconfiguring European culture after the fall of Rome. So much of Christian history flows from this philosophy of purity; and so many bodies were subsequently constrained, cleansed or physically altered because of it – especially those of monks, nuns, and many other devout men and women. In order to appreciate the milieu of cleanliness in medieval and early modern Europe, we need at least some grasp of the seismic events that occurred in that crucial five hundred-year period of religious upheaval in the Late Empire. The basic outlines are fairly clear. There was a religious revolution in which the moral duty to 'know thyself' became infinitely more important than the secular hygienic duty to 'look after yourself'. As a result, the ideology of cleanliness was turned upside down and inside out. Judeo-Christian asceticism insisted that the cleansing of the inner soul was absolutely imperative, whereas the cleansing of the outer body was a worldly distraction, and its ornamentation a positive sin. In effect the extreme religious devotion that was previously reserved for the sanctified few, was being now urged by ascetics as daily practise for the masses.


Charlemagne's courtesie … the southern lands … the Salerno Regimen … grooming zones … the Trotula corpus … the public baths … bath-feasts … diplomatic baths … spring baths … the stews … the failure of the baths … syphilis

From this point onwards we move northwards into western and central Europe to investigate patterns of personal health and hygiene from the medieval period through to what later Europeans triumphantly called the Early Modern and Modern world – finally putting the economic and demographic disasters of the fall of Rome well behind them. The 'civilising process' that seeped through cash-strapped Europe in these medieval and Early Modern centuries, was the slow escalation of domestic luxuries, spread thinly over more ancient ways of subsistence life – hut life – that endured well into the twentieth century. Apart from the economy, the Church, education and baths, the greatest single difference in the physical regime of medieval personal hygiene (whether because of tribal history, northern geography or Christianity) was probably the development of underlinen and the close-fitting tailored garment,either of which can trap the body's evacuations in a layer above the skin, allowing foetid bacterial decomposition to take place; elsewhere in sub-tropical Eurasia robes and loose clothing remained the norm.

On the face of it, there is every justification for the old-style textbook descriptions of swarming lice and manure-like stenches in medieval life, but the closer you look, the more it seems an exaggeration. Like their biological ancestors medieval people certainly groomed themselves, and – so it seems – a great number of them tried to be as well-groomed and cleanly as it was individually possible to be. They improved their houses and their manners, dressed well, knew their medical regimens, and used baths and cosmetic care. To say that medieval faces, hands and bodies were always dirty, their clothes tattered and evil-smelling, or that the rushes on the floor were always greasy, would be to condemn generations of careful and hardworking medieval housewives, and the honour and dignity of their households.

Using the many available sources from the highly visible European upper ranks to reconstruct post-Roman European domestic life is rather like trying to reconstruct a whole society from 'society' magazines in c.2000 AD – you miss ninety per cent of the population. But even if the very rich were the tip of the iceberg, what they did and had many others would have aspired to. So far as the rich were concerned in c.800 AD, the long 'Romanesque' party had only just begun.


Humanist princes …. the (English) middling classes … printed advice and the sober life … spas and public baths … Puritan grooming … pure foods … cool air … cold eater … John Locke's Cold Regimen

… For it is my hope and my desire that [this work] will contribute to the common good; that through it the higher physicians will somewhat raise their thoughts, and not devote all their time to common cures, nor be honoured for necessity only; but that they will become instruments and dispensers of God's power and mercy in prolonging and renewing the life of man, the rather because it is effected by safe, convenient, and civil, though hitherto unattempted methods. For although we Christians ever arrive and pant after the land of promise, yet meanwhile it will be a mark of God's favour if in our pilgrimage through the wilderness of this world, these our shoes and garments (I mean our frail bodies) are as little worn out as possible.

Thus in 1623 Francis Bacon opened his 'History of Life and Death', Part III of his famous Instauratio Magna, a rallying cry for the reform of European science. Three hundred years later Europeans would be stripping off their heavy clothes and exposing their naked skin to water, exercise, light and air, and often living until they were eighty, all in the name of prolongevity hygiene – truly a triumph for 'safe, convenient and civil' methods. The Early Modern period starts the final countdown to modernity, c.1500-2006 AD. From now on the scene shifts to northern Europe and the inter-relationships between the British Isles, France and Germany (in particular), and their many long-lasting contributions to the Modern European hygienic renaissance; and more especially to the story of English Protestantism, with its special adherence to ideologies of health and purity.

Throughout the two centuries 1500-1700 the classical discipline of hygiene was the subject of intense speculation and equally intense beliefs, in which Humanism played a significant role. The idea of political cleansing or 'purging' entered European discourse with a vengeance between 1500-1700, brilliantly and viscerally heralded by the ascetic Dutch scholar, Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), the godfather of Humanism. His extraordinary burlesque on the excesses of late medieval lifeFolly's Praise of Folly (1511), was an instant hit throughout Europe (with forty-three editions in his lifetime); his next manifesto, Antibarbari (1514), railed against a corrupt Church, and corrupted Church scholars writing corrupted barbaric texts: '… what disaster it was that had swept away the rich, flourishing, joyful fruits of the finest culture, and why a tragic and terrible deluge had shamefully overwhelmed all the literature of the ancients that used to be so pure … '. Reform of the Catholic Church was Erasmus' aim; but the Protestant Reformation in northern Europe became a massive and irreversible social revolution.

In England, the break from Rome created a new national identity permeated and defined by both Protestantism and Humanism; when Bacon wrote in the 1620s there was already an army of English Protestant readers and authors ready and willing to accept the Baconian challenge to go out and 'experiment' on the natural world. These efforts created a distinctive school of English science and hygiene which later evolved into a full-blown scientific project. Following the upheavals of the Civil War and the Restoration, a peaceful religious settlement after 1688 gave English scientists a renewed opportunity to cleanse learning and deliver it from the obscure 'Rubbish of the Schools'. Open experimentation and transparent proof was to provide the new 'clear gaze' of natural science – the light that was to illuminate the next century's Enlightenment. Protestantism itself was thoroughly caught up in the triangular philosophical relationship between Reason, Flesh and the Soul that we have seen before, in Greece and Late Antiquity – and it was set firmly against the Flesh. The Flesh, however, remained naturally of the most immediate concern to most populations, most of the time. Throughout both of these centuries Flesh was privately pampered, and everywhere on display.


The age of elegance … the private parts … hygiene and hardiness … sea-bathing and fresh air … academic physiologies … child health … William Buchan … Revolutionary hygiene and Naturphilosophie … vitalist health care

'That the inhabitants of this kingdom have of late years changed their way of living in a very remarkable manner and greatly increased in luxury, is a truth of which every person, who has lived any time in it, must be sensible', wrote the economist Adam Dickson in 1773. By then the age of 'heroic' sectarian Protestantism had long passed – Quaker Friends no longer interrupted sermons or went naked in the street, while they were busy making their fortunes. Borrowing a phrase from John Bunyan, the old Dissenters were crossing 'the plaine of Ease', at the edge of which lay 'a little hill called Lucre, and in that hill a silver mine', beyond which stood 'Doubting Castle'. The new United Kingdom's population rose steeply from c.10.5 million in 1750, to 15.5 million in 1801. There were only four new bodies of English local civic Improvement Commissioners set up between 1700-1749 – over the next fifty years, by 1800, there were 567.

The hygienic changes during the first fifty years of the eighteenth century were still mainly personal and economic ones – most of them occurring in people's minds, and inside private homes. The result was a new market for health-care. The thriving eighteenth-century health-and-leisure industries were blatantly connected to the fast-accelerating 'wheel of fashion' – a new vortex of consumerism that had emerged from unprecedented European mercantile expansion and surplus wealth. But life was still harsh, brutal and short if you were born at the bottom of the heap; and there was only the germ of an idea, around 1750, that these immemorial conditions could be 'improved'. In the second half of the century, in England, France and Germany especially, there was renewed interest in utility of public hygiene, coupled with the first tentative moves towards hygienic public health policies, based on statistics and natural science. Just to keep these wider social developments in perspective, however, the leap of the imagination required to make a connection between the old idea of private hygiene and new idea of public hygiene, is reflected in this footnote from amateur health bibliophile and reformer Sir John Sinclair, uncertainly attempting to redefine personal hygiene, as a social science, in 1802:

Good health and longevity depends much upon personal cleanliness, and a variety of habits and customs, or minute attentions that it is impossible here to discuss. It were much to be wished, that some author would undertake the trouble of collecting the results of general experience upon that subject, and would point out to those habits, which, when taken singly, appear very trifling, yet when combined, there is every reason to believe, that much additional health and comfort would arise from their observance.

Only five years later, however, he was confidently advocating the new European philosophy of 'medical police', viz: '1. Police of Climate. 2. Police of Physical Education. 3. Police of Diet. Police of Public Amusements. 4. Police of Habits and Customs. Police of Public Institutions. 7.Police for the Health of Soldiers and Sailors. 8. Police to Prevent Contagious Disorders. And, 10. Police of Medicine and the means of promoting its improvement.'


Whig politics and mutual aid … physical Puritanism … inner cleanliness … drugs and cholera … popular physiology … sanitation and water … environmental hygiene … la luxe Anglaise … the hydro … late-century reform … germs … naturism … poverty and doubt

The legislative story of British public health reform has often been told; but the moral mission to cleanse and save the nation emerged from a whole penumbra of health reformers stretching far beyond the public facade of Sanitarianism. They included the many millions of silent consumers whose private health-care arrangements were already making their contribution to the new health industries – and to demographic statistics. In nineteenth-century Europe the average population growth-rate was roughly 60-70%; but in Britain the growth rate was nearer a staggering 140% (from c.15.5 million in 1801 to 41.4 million by 1901). Town dwellers were 20% of the UK population in 1801, 54% in 1851, 80% by 1901. In 1800 European public health philosophy was enlightened but barely off the drawing board; but the immediate problem facing Britain as its population grew so rapidly, was the looming question of long-term health investment, above and beyond the norm. Who was going to pay for the necessary bricks and mortar, and water supplies? Ever since 1688, political pragmatism ruled in British affairs. Legislation was tentative at first; but in the end the Utilitarian (or mercantilist) economic arguments were decisive. No public investment – no sanitation, no cleansing, no civilising process, no trade.


Eugenics and preventive medicine … the suburbs … suburban children … naturists and nudity … post-1945 hard-sell … flower power and multiculturalism … modern well-being … epilogue … future trends

In this last chapter we face, to some extent, a final reckoning – and we can barely do justice to it in the space that remains. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries are by far the best-documented and probably the most grimly fascinating of all the centuries embraced by the history of personal cleansing. They are probably also the most interesting period for us as individuals, as well as recalling many of our parents (and grandparents) own personal experiences. The sense of déjà vu is enormous. We can see older habits and customs persisting in domestic housing, cosmetic care, health education, therapeutics and general self-care – but the scale is utterly different. It is global, again. The tried and tested hygienic 'middle-class' life-style of the western industrial urban classes for the first time became feasible for a much larger proportion of the world population, beneficiaries of scientific medicine and a booming global economy. The economic equation between personal cleansing and domestic income is inescapable in these last centuries, as it was in every other era; but behaviouralism also still plays a vital part in our responses. Purificatory ideologies also went global – anti-pollution ecology became an international crusade, pollution fears have brought major world food industries to their knees and, tragically, purity-rules have also inspired mass 'ethnic cleansing'

The twentieth century itself was probably the most hygienic and cleansing-conscious era on record in all industrialised countries. It was punctuated by two world wars, both leading to periods of significant social transition. The whole period 1945-2006 has often been portrayed as one of extreme materialism and fully secularised personal hygiene – a new form of highly individualistic narcissism. But this may just be a trick of the light – many more people obviously embraced by economic consumerism, whilst the health objectives remained the same. The period 1900-1939 was also individualistic and narcissistic, and saw a huge rise in health consumerism and the ideology of the fit and beautiful body. Personal hygiene had now reached the stage of a general consensus.