Bathing in Central and Eastern Europe

For many years, historians have claimed that after the fall of Rome and before the Enlightenment, people seldom bathed or washed. A quick look at Central and Eastern European history debunks this idea. The images of bathhouses in German and Bohemian art, the historical mentions of bathhouses in Poland and Rus, give us plenty to work with. This article attempts to summarize the information that is available in English.

It appears that bathing in bathhouses, specifically vapor baths (hot air or steam sweating, followed by washing or cold plunges) was the preferred method in Eastern and Central Europe . Mentions of sweat baths go back Roman accounts of the Scythians' habit of taking sweat baths:

"These tents were made of thick felt, with all cracks carefully sealed up. Inside was placed a bowl full of red-hot stones, onto which cannabis seeds were thrown. According to Herodotus, the Scythians would howl with delight as they breathed in the fumes. Sitting in these tents was clearly one of their favorite pasttimes." (P. James and N. Thorpe, Ancient Inventions; NY: Ballantine, 1994, p. 342.)

Some writers, such as de Bonneville, suggest that the Finns acquired the habit of the vapor bath from Central Asia via Russia , but the Finns disagree. However, Finnish sauna is quite similar to the Russian bath and the vapor baths recorded in Germany , Poland and Bohemia : "The first examples of saunas were simple pits dug in the earth, with heated stones to generate the dry, hot atmosphere. Hot stones remain the hallmark of the sauna, radiating warmth into a small surrounding room, which today is typically built of wood. Dousing the stones with water creates a vapor... Body brushes, called vihta or vahta, and birch branches, are used to stimulate the skin and a healthy sweat." (von Furstenberg, p. 93)

Steam baths in wooden bathhouses in Russia are mentioned by the apostle Andreas in the Russian Primary Chronicle of 1113:

" They warm them to extreme heat, then undress, and, after anointing themselves with tallow, take young reeds and lash their bodies. They lash themselves so violently that they barely escape alive. Then they drench themselves with cold water and thus are revived. They think nothing of doing this every day and actually inflict such torture upon themselves voluntarily." (quoted by Allen)

The basic bath practices appear to have been the same in most of Northern/Eastern Europe: heat up rocks or a stove in an enclosed area, that is, the bathhouse. Apply water to the rocks to create steam. Sit on benches in the steam area, naked except for hats. When bathing in public or mixed groups, one might wear a light bathing costume (linen trunks for men, or a open-sided shift for women, as in described in 15th century Baden-Baden by Poggio Bracciolini). Beat oneself with bunches of leaves to encourage circulation. After or during sweating, cleanse the body with water from tubs or buckets, or plunge into a bath, river, or snow. German bathhouses included other amenities, such as soaking pools and areas for socializing, drinking and eating, which may have been inspired by Roman baths. I haven't found information about socializing areas being part of the Russian bathhouse. They may have come into the Russian bath experience due to contact with Islamic hammams (ritual bathhouses) which include such features.

The bathhouses were apparently locations for socializing and social mixing, and in some places involved interactions between bathers of the opposite sex despite church rules. Puskareva says,

"Contemporary observers reported that, in the tsar's household, the tsar and his retainers might meet in the bathhouse, which provided both bathing facilities and a sauna. However, it is unlikely that the women of the tsar's family, much less women of the lower classes, followed the same custom. Women did visit the bathhouse, but it was usually on holidays or on Saturday evenings. The tsaritsa and her daughters had their own section of the palace bathhouse. The Stoglav Church Council of 1551 prohibitedtmen and women, monks and nuns, from bathing together,' proclaiming those who did so as 'without shame.' But the common people did not observe this prohibition, and men and women bathed naked together. In the winter, they ran out of the bathhouse naked to roll in the snow in order to cool off, without regard for curious onlookers. It took more than a century before Russian bathhouses were divided into separate men's and women's baths." (p. 98)

Gothic-period Bohemian illuminations, featured in the Wenceslas Bible, depict female bath-house keepers in sleeveless dresses cinched at the waist with what may be a towel, waiting on male bathhouse clients with bucket and scrub-brush. The bathhouse attendants are also shown pouring water over clients and/or helping them wash.

In Gasawa, Poland, Duke Henryk the Bearded and Duke Leszek Bialy were attacked in the baths in 1227. In 1385, when Jadwiga of Poland was apparently concerned about the appearance of her prospective bridegroom, Jagiello of Lithuania, "she was only placated after a favorite young knight of hers, Zawisza of Olesnica, had been sent to inspect Iogaila in his bath-house and reported back favorably on the details of the barbarian's body" (Zamoyski, p. 43). According to Zamoyski, in the 1400s, "There were no less than twelve public baths in Krakow " (p. 58).

German vapor baths were obviously known in the 12th century, as Hildegarde of Bingen suggests herbs in mixtures to pour over the head in the sauna, to splash on the sauna rocks, to apply to the body and/or drink in the sauna, and to bathe in. While Throop translates the term used in the texts as 'sauna', the instructions do match a steam bath created with hot rocks, on which one pours water.

"One who is virgichtiget, and from it as been made a bit mad, with a  divided mind and crazy thoughts, should take a sauna bath. He should pour the water in which oats have been cooked over the hot rocks. If he does this often, he will become himself and regain his health." (p. 12)

"One who is in pain from a stone should take parsley and and add a third part saxifrage. He should cook this in wine, strain it through a cloth, and drink it in a sauna. Also he should cook parsley and a third part saxifrage in water, and pour it, with the water, over the hot stones in the same sauna bath." (p. 42)

"Wild lettuce ... extinguishes lust in a human. A man who has an overabundance in his loins should cook wild lettuce in water and pour that water over himself in a sauna bath. He should also place the warm, cooked lettuce around his loins, while still in the sauna... If a woman's womb is swelling with uncontrollable lust, she should make a sauna bath with the wild lettuce. Sitting in the sauna, she should pour the water in which wild lettuce was cooked over the hot stones. She should place the warm, cooked lettuce over her belly..." (p. 49)

"A woman who is in pain from obstructed menses should take tansy and an equal weight of feverfew and a bit more mullein than either of the others. She should cook these in water from a freely flowing stream, which is tempered by the sun and air. Then she should put tiles in a fire, and make a sauna bath with the foresaid water and herbs. When she enters this bath, she should place the warm herbs on the bench and sit on top of them. If they become cold, she should warm them again in the same water. She should do this as long as she sits in the sauna so her skin and flesh, as well as her womb, may be softened by the humors of these herbs, and the veins which were closed might be opened." (p. 58)

Even non-medicinal baths might be scented. Adamus Olearius, in his Persian Travel Tales of the early 1600s, comments:

"The Germans who dwell in Muscovy and Livonia are very nice in their Stoves; they strew Pine Leaves powder'd, and all sorts of Herbs and Flowers upon the Floor; which, together with the Lye make a very agreeable Scent."

It's not clear how often people bathed, though. Shahan says,

"In the first volume of Janssen's History of the German People there are many details concerning the popular use of baths in Germany during the Middle Ages. Men bathed several times each day; some spent the whole day in or about their favorite springs. From the 20th of May to the 9th of June, 1511, Lucas Rem bathed one hundred and twenty-seven times, as we may see by his diary" (p. 291-292).

According to Magdalena z Wroclawia on the Slavic Interest Group list, "In my town there was a law (in XIII-XVc) which ordered every citizen to visit a public bath once a week. If someone didn't want to follow this ruled was condemned to 'tower,' or to pay some money." On the other hand, other authors suggest that some people went weeks, months or years without bathing.

The bundles of birch-twigs employed as massage-instruments in the Russian banyas are similar to the the Finnish implements; the Bohemian bathhouse keepers employed scrubbers of some kind which seem to be made of green branches tied to a stick (in a rather suggestive bundle, as shown in period pictures). Wooden buckets with bails were also depicted in the Bohemian illustrations. A thirteenth-century manuscript of Sachsenspiegel shows bathers massaging themselves with bunches of leaves (Lyons and Petrucelli, p. 364)

Sponges, wooden buckets with bails, and wooden tubs full of water of various sizes appear in the Bohemian illustrations, in Durer's sketch The Women's Baths, and in later illustrations of Russian baths; one appears to bake oneself in the banya, 'stove,' or bathhouse, while splashing water over oneself and others. An illustration from Jena in the Gothic period shows bathers both reclining on tiers of raised shelves or seats, and bathing in a wooden tub bath (though without the cloth lining depicted in illustrations of Western European baths). Inventories from the late 1500s in Prague mention bathtubs being stored in the courtyards of several middle-class homes.

Apparently, bathing in a tub was part of the bride's pre-wedding duties, as "On the eve of the appointed day, the bride's mother, girl friends, and female relatives arranged a ritual bath for her. After the bride had washed, the bath water was saved; it was supposed to have magical powers transferred from her body to excite love in her future husband. Although Orthodox clergy tried to stamp out the custom of collecting the "wedding water" the custom continued into the seventeenth century..." (Pushkareva, p. 32) While we don't know whether this bath would involve immersing the whole body, it's clearly one that involves standing water rather than, or in addition to, steam or dry heat.

Washing at other times is attested in the 16th/17th century text Domostroi; the author mentions washing upon arising, and before praying at the start of a new task. Ritual bathing and washing appears in the Domostroi also. The 17th century wedding ritual sections mention the groom's post-nuptial visits to the bathhouse, and the washing of the bride inside the house. The exchange of ceremonial, decorated 'towels' also appears in the Domostroi's descriptions of wedding arrangements.

In pre-Petrine Russia , the bathhouse was the focus of childbirth ritual, according to Levin:

"The usual location chosen for the delivery, at least in Northern Russia , was the bathhouse. Archbishop II'ia of Novgorod in the twelfth century formulated specific instructions on how to purify it, citing the precedent of Bishop Nifont. . . The bathhouse was warm, clean, and private. It could be placed off limits of the delivery and cleansing without disrupting village routines. Furthermore, the bathhouse had a religious significance in Finno-Ugric paganism. It served as a center for gathering, worship, religious dance, and personal repurification. The custom of giving birth in a bathhouse was ingrained to the point that women in the seventeenth century who gave birth out of wedlock and killed the newborn still went to the bathhouse for the delivery." ("Childbirth in Pre-Petrine Russia ," p. 51)

Puskareva points out that women underwent purificatory baths at the end of the forty days following child birth (p. 39)

Clearly, evidence for bathing in pre-seventeenth century central and Eastern Europe is not sparse, even in English-language histories. Hopefully others will take up the research in primary sources and report further on period hygiene practices.