Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Baby and the Bathwater

At the dawn of the Middle Ages, Western Christendom began to teach that it was immoral to bathe. This has a long history in the ascetic branches of the church (and its predecessors in Judaism - cf. John the Baptizer). In fact, two of the Seven Ecumenical Councils actually wrote Canons (laws) against public baths (Laodicea and Trullo). In practice, it was far from uniform. One bishop is remembered for two things: his wit and the fact that he bathed twice daily (Sisinius, the first sissy?). Meanwhile, St. Augustine was asked if it was okay to use baths that had cultic connections (cf. 1 Cor. 8).

The real reason, as Clement of Alexandria (2nd c. AD) demonstrates, was a condemnation of licentiousness. Baths were seen as lusty both to the senses and to the sex. They were indulgent, and thus to be avoided (even though some room was left for acknowledging their benefits). Avoiding baths became rather extreme (such that in the Arabian Nights, a Muslim suggested that once Christians were doused with baptismal water they felt entitled to avoid bathing for the rest of their lives).

What we need is an encyclical or ecumenical council or something that says it's pious to bathe. That way, the French can claim they don't wash because they like staying secular.

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