History of Spas and Bathing

focusing on specific areas from 16th to 19th century


Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Park, Sae Wok
Term Paper, AP World History Class, May 2007



Table of Contents


I. Introduction
II. Bath (England)
III. Spa (modern Belgium)
IV. The Russian Bath
V. Overall Europe from the 16th to the 19th Century
VI. Conclusion
VII. Notes
VIII. Bibliography



I. Introduction

Views of pre-sixteenth century attitudes toward washing and bathing are quite different within the historical community. However, generally, many regarded bathing as a social ritual. To Romans, during their golden age, Pax Romana, it was a daily social activity. While Roman manors often had their own smaller private bath houses, the Roman public more frequented relatively inexpensive public baths. In their top popularity, they included a variety of extra services such as food, wine, and music. After Roman periods, most medieval people bathed less often, but with the same social purpose. Most historians agree that bathing was more a matter of social mores than cleanliness. Although many argue that bathing was forbidden and wiped out between the fall of Rome and the Enlightenment, the Smithsonian, Jay Stuller, admitted that

"Gregory the Great, the first monk to become pope, allowed Sunday baths and even commended them, so long as they didn't become a 'time-wasting luxury' . . . medieval nobility routinely washed their hands before and after meals. Etiquette guides of the age insisted that teeth, face and hands be cleaned each morning. Shallow basins and water jugs for washing hair were found in most manor houses, as was the occasional communal tub..." (1)

Some sources also suggested frequency of bathing. 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" (2)

Certainly some periods were considered inauspicious for bathing, usually in winter. Most historians suggest that the decline in bathing, baths, and general washing may date to the period of the later plagues. Simple principles of contagion did suggest to Renaissance people that bathing with others was a significant risk. At that time, it was believed that immersing in water or opening the pores with a steam bath might also make one more vulnerable to disease.


II. Bath (England)

Bath is a city in southwest England. It is famous for its baths fed by three hot springs. According to its legend, Prince Bladud (3) , who had contracted leprosy, was cured after bathing in the hot muddy waters. In gratitude, Bladud founded the City of Bath around the springs in 863 BC. After the Romans built a reservoir near springs in A.D 80, Bath obtained its fame for the city of hot springs.
The three baths attracted visitors from considerable distances, especially from the 16th century. William Turner publicized his medical treatise on the use of the waters in 1562. A religious exile during Queen Mary's reign, he had travelled in Italy and Germany and observed many spas in operation. He suggested the need for substantial improvements, to the drainage system as well as the behavior of the visitors, and many were carried out over the next few years.
However, there were still complaints about the absence of covering over the baths and the lack of changing rooms. Despite this, Bath was now starting to attract visitors from mainland Europe. Many doctors set up house in the 'Bimbery' area (4) , often providing lodging rooms for visiting patients. From 1609, Bellott's Hospital provided accommodation to enable poor visitors to obtain water treatments.
Royal visits in 1574, 1613, 1615, 1634 and 1663 increased the fame and attraction of Bath. In June 1688, James II's wife, Mary of Modena, gave birth to the 'Old Pretender' (5) nine months after bathing in the Cross Bath.
In 1688, 1692, 1702 and 1703 Princess/Queen Anne visited Bath to take the waters and the frequency of her visits led to even greater aristocratic patronage. These visits set in motion a period of development in which Bath became 'the premier resort of frivolity and fashion', and led to the great rebuilding of the city.


III. Spa (modern Belgium)

Spa is a municipality located in the Belgian province of Liege, in the French speaking part of modern Belgium. As the well-known site of healing hot springs, Spa has been frequented as a watering place since as early as the 14th century. Though other sources of healing hot mineral springs have become famous throughout the world, it is the town of Spa which has become the origin of any place having a natural water source that is believed to possess special health giving properties.
In 1571, an English man, William Slingsby, discovered a mineral spring in Spa. In 1718, Peter the Great, after his visit in Spa, ordered to build spas around Russian hot springs. According to the record, he visited Spa about 5 times. Facilities to lodge and entertain guests of high social status were built. In 1821, many mineral springs were discovered. Since 1834, bathhouses and hotels showed mushroom growth. In the 19th century, Spa became so well known in overall Europe that it was considered as the recreation place. Some bourgeois even built houses near Spa.


IV. The Russian Bath

Russian bath, also called Russian banya or bania for centuries was an essential part of living in Russia. People from Tsars to peasants not only washed there, but also used it for religious ceremonies, to heal when they get sick, women give birth and young couples find seclusion. A German scientist, Adamus Olearius in the 17th century wrote

"In Russia there were no city, no village in which there would be no steam baths. Russian may bear extreme heat. Lying on shelves of the bath, order to beat and rub their body with hot birch besom that I could not bear in any way. After such heat Russians became red and are poured by cold water. In the winter, having jumped out of the bath, roll in snow, tinder their body as if soap, and then again enter into the hot bath. Such change of opposite actions favours to their health". (6)

Every noble household had its own steam house. In towns and villages there was invariably a communal bath, where men and women sat steaming themselves, beating one another, and rolling around together in the snow. Peter the Great was a great admirer of bania. Because of its reputation as a place for sex and wild behavior, he attempted to stamp out the bania as a relic of medieval Russia and encouraged the building of Western bathrooms in the palaces and mansions of St. Petersburg. But, despite heavy taxes on it, noblemen continued to prefer the Russian bath and, by the end of the 18th century, nearly every palace in St. Petersburg had one.
Going to the bathhouse was regarded as a way of getting rid of illnesses; it was called the "people's first doctor". There were lots of magical beliefs associated with it in folktales. The bania's role in rituals was to ensure the woman's purity : the bride was washed in the bania by her maids on the eve of her wedding. It was a custom in some places for the bride and the groom to go to the bath house before their wedding night. These were not just peasant rituals. They were shared by the provincial nobility and even by the court. Having lots of significance, until the 20th century, Russian bathing was even a favorite topic in the travelogues of visitors to Russia : Casanova in 1774, Tooke in 1779, Porter in 1809, Cox in 1884, and so on.


V. Overall Europe from the 16th to the 19th Centuries

After the principles of contagion became known in Europe,the tendency of public bathing significantly declined. It lost its fame for social purposes. Few enjoyed bathing. Instead of it, perfume became popular in Europe. People sprayed perfume to conceal their odor. According to the record, Louis XIV, in his lifetime, bathed once. He often washed his face with expensive wine and it was his only effort for cleanliness.
Despite its decline, bath was still popular in some areas. Especially, after scientists proved hot spring's benefit for health care in the mid 17th century, the European nobility and the upwardly aspiring bourgeoisie, regardless of whether they were suffering or not, recognized in the medicinal recommendations a welcome reason to initiate a new travel culture. Thus, trips to spas became a status symbol and one of the most popular leisure time pursuits. Some intellectuals such as Sebastian Kneipp, the author of "My Water Cure" (7), also developed and formulated hydrotherapy, one method of healing by watering, further stimulating the popularity of spas. It was obvious that many commercialized bathhouses came into being existence to attract those riches. Thus, spa facilities were established at hot springs. Supplementary ones were also prevalent. Lodging, dining services and entertainment systems such as public parks, chamber music showed huge development in those areas. In Spa, Europe's first casino was opened in 1774 (8) .
Spa towns because favourite locations for international political negotiations. In 1818, the Congress of Aachen/Aix-la-Chapelle convened in Aachen. The Carlsbad decrees or resolutions were agreed upon by statesmen of Russia, Austria and Prussia convening in Karlsbad / Bohemia (modern Karlovy Vary / Czech Republic). During World War I, the German Army High Command chose to establish itself in Spa (Belgium).


VI. Conclusion

            In the past, public bathing was prevalent in Rome. People not only washed their bodies but communicated and played in it. Social purposes were given a great deal of importance. However, a great decline of bathing came from the pest and other contagious diseases. Many started to believe bathing with others considerably raises the possibility of catching diseases. From then on, only the places believed to promote health care such as hot springs were frequented by nobles. Because of their expensive cost, peasants were hard to utilize them.
Gradually, as the belief of contagion vanished, bathing slightly retrieved its popularity. With the great advent of scientific technologies, proving bath's efficacy, bathhouses acquired their fame and popularity for health care and finally developed into great economic systems like today's one.


VII. Notes

(1)      Stuller
(2)      Shahan
(3)      Prince Bladud : According to Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 12th century 'History of the Kings of Briton', he was the 9th King of the Britons and supposed father of King Lear
(4)      Bimbery area : the area between Beau St, Bath St, Hot Bath St and Bilbury Lane
(5)      the Old Pretender : James Edward, the son of James II of England and his second wife Mary of Modena
(6)      Olearius
(7)      My Water Cure : a book written by Sebastian Kneipp in which he presented his water cure, tested for more than 35 years and published for the cure of diseases and the preservation of health with one hundred illustrations and a portrait of the author.
(8)      according to Wikipedia : Spa, Dutch language edition


IX. Bibliography

1.      Article : Bath, in : Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, Micropaedia, vol.1 pp.956-957
2.      Article : Spa, in : Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, Micropaedia, vol.11 p.60
3.      History of Bathing in Aachen, posted by City of Aachen
4.      Article : Carlsbad Decrees, from Encyclopaedia Britannica, online version
5.      Russian Bathing History, from Pranas
6.      Russian Bania, by Mikkel Aaland
7.      Article Spa (town in Belgium), from Wikipedia
8.      Article Spa (stad), from Wikipedia, Dutch language version
9.      Article : Bath, Somerset, from : Wikipedia
10.     Bath's Bathing History, from Bath Tourism Plus
11.     History of Bath until 1601, by Jennifer A. Heise
12.     Global Bathing Culture, posted by Munhyang, Korean language site
13.     Article Sebastian Kneipp, from Wikipedia