One of the most irritating misconceptions about the Middle Ages is that people back then bathed once a year or so – it is a myth I keep fighting. I am very happy to say that recently my article on this subject has been published by JSTOR Daily (available HERE). It is quite a long text, and I could not elaborate more on each artwork I referred to – but here, on my blog, I decided to provide some extra information.
Of course I am always happy to talk about Central Europe, and especially Cracow. In my article, you may find a miniature depicting soap makers holding up their guild’s coat of arms, which comes from the Baltasar Behem Codex (Jagiellonian University Library in Cracow, BJ Rkp. 16 IV) – an early-16th century cartulary of the municipal council of the city of Cracow, containing municipal regulations, privileges and guild statutes, decorated with 27 miniatures. I have wrote about some other miniatures from that manuscript in a post on scatological humour (available HERE).
Statut of the soap makers’ (and candle makers’) guild in Cracow dates back to 1449, and they had also their tower within Cracow city walls (well, they shared the tower with the sword makers). The tower no longer exists, but it is commemorated by a plaque.
Medieval Cracow, as all the other European cities, used to be encircled with very solid city walls, with over 40 towers. Actually it was a double line of walls, the inner one 7 m high and 2,5 m wide, with a moat 3,5 m deep. Each tower was taken care by particular guild – members of the guild were responsible for keeping the tower in good condition, and in case of the attack on the city, they were supposed to fight and defend their tower. To encourage craftsmen of the guilds to practice shooting (in case of a siege of the city), paramilitary fraternities organised yearly contests. In Cracow it is Kurek’s (Cockerel’s) Fraternity (Bractwo Kurkowe), which still chooses their “king” every year. The aim of shooting competition is a figure of cockerel, and a silver cock is an award that is granted to the winner. A miniature depicting this competition can be found in aforementioned Baltasar Behem Codex. In the early 16th century competitors were still using crossbows, by the end of that century replaced with firearms.
Cracow Cockerel’s Fraternity still exists, but Cracow medieval city walls have not survived. By the end of the 18th century they were in a very poor condition, and in the early 19th century they were demolished and replaced by garden and alleys surrounding historical city centre. The only survived fragment (four towers, one with a gate) was spared because Feliks Radwański, professor of the Jagiellonian University, managed to convince authorities that due to artistic and historical values this part of the city walls should not be demolished. Allegedly he also argued that the demolition would cause winds to blow harder along Floriańska street, which may result in indecent blowing up skirts of respectable mothers and wives. Nobody in the 19th century Cracow would risk that!
Anyway, back to bathing business – soap maker’s tower has not survived, nor has another tower: of the bath workers, whose guild in Cracow dated back to 1405. There were 12 public bathhouses in medieval Cracow, plus private baths in houses of most wealthy citizens. In the 14th century not only the city, but also nearby villages had a system of water distribution – wooden waterpipes provided fresh water all around Cracow. Wastewater was managed by the net of wastewater canals, partly private, partly municipal. It seems that all of that worked well in the 14th and 15th centuries, but later the system broke – in the 16th century the king in one of his letters complained that Cracow is shamefully dirty because apparently some sewage ended up on the streets, as well as in the river.
It was also Early Modern times when Europeans changed their hygiene habits, and so gradually throughout subsequent centuries bathing accessories disappeared from survived household inventories. But in the 14th and 15th centuries people were used to keep their bodies clean. (On the subject of late medieval bath houses and bath attendants see also my previous posts HERE and HERE)
Bathing was not an everyday activity, but daily hygiene was maintained by washing in basin in a bedroom. This is very well pictured in a mysterious painting of a lady in her toilet in the collection of the Fogg Museum at Harvard University. It is most likely, as I mentioned in my article, copy after a lost masterpiece of one of the most important Early Netherlandish painters, Jan van Eyck (d. 1441).
Until the 1960s, before the Fogg Museum purchased their picture from a private art dealer, the lost painting by van Eyck was only known from another work, “The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest” by Willem van Haecht (1628, Rubenshuis in Antwerp). Inside the depicted chamber, far in the corner in the middle row of the paintings, we spot van Eyck’s lost work. It has been attributed to van Eyck based on similarities to other compositions by that artist, e.g. the famous so called „Arnolfini Portrait” (about which I wrote HERE).
The Fogg Museum painting depicts a naked woman, washing herself; her gesture of touching her womb is inspired by a famous ancient sculpture of Aphrodite of Knidos. The lady is accompanied by her servant. Scholars used to understand this painting as a depiction of a Biblical story—perhaps that of Bathsheba, a married woman spotted from afar by King David as she bathed on a rooftop (on that story, see my post HERE). This, however, is not convincing identification of the subject of this picture.
It was quite common in the Early-Netherlandish painting that the artists depicted Biblical scenes in contemporary setting – still, particular scenes required certain elements to be read correctly. For example, Hans Memling showed Bathsheba emerging from her bath faithfully illustrating 15th c. domestic furniture and equipment. Nevertheless, we may identify the subject of this picture correctly because in the background we can see king David looking at Bathsheba from his terrace. This detail is missing in the Fogg picture.
Perhaps, as Peter Schabacker suggested in the Fogg Museum Annual Report of 1974-1976, van Eyck drew inspiration from the Book of Judith. Judith was a young Jewish widow, who saved her people from defeat against the Assyrian forces led by Holofernes, whom she seduced and later beheaded in his sleep. And this is how she prepared for her mission:
“When Judith had stopped crying out to the God of Israel, and had ended all these words, she rose from where she lay prostrate. She called her maid and went down into the house where she lived on sabbaths and on her festal days. She removed the sackcloth she had been wearing, took off her widow’s garments, bathed her body with water, and anointed herself with precious ointment.” (Judith 10: 1-3, NSRA)
On the other hand, there is also a possibility that van Eyck’s lost masterpiece was entirely unrelated to the Bible; it may have simply depicted a lady preparing herself for a romantic meeting. As it happens, bathing was an important motif of secular medieval culture. In 1456, the Italian historian Bartolomeo Fazio noted that Cardinal Ottaviano Ubaldini della Carda owned van Eyck’s pieces depicting women in their baths. Fazio described one of these paintings; its composition was clearly different than the one we know from the Fogg picture, but it proves that van Eyck painted other “bathroom” nudes, though those works have not survived.
Another misconception about medieval visual culture is that the art back then was solely religious and not at all erotic – the Readers of my blog already know that it is not true. The thing is, that what survived is mostly religious art because it was venerated and preserved reverently for subsequent centuries due to its subject, even if its stylistic forms went out of date. Meanwhile, vernacular wart was more likely to had been replaced; and especially nudes, as indecent, could have been destroyed in subsequent centuries. The lost van Eyck’s picture may thus be considered a combination of both “lost” aspects of the medieval culture: profane depiction of a naked lady washing herself should remind us that in the Middle Ages people were neither prude nor dirty.