History of Spas and Bathing
focusing on specific areas from 16th to 19th century
Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
Park, Sae Wok
Term Paper, AP World History Class, May 2007
Table of Contents
II. Bath (England)
III. Spa (modern Belgium)
IV. The Russian Bath
V. Overall Europe from the 16th to the 19th Century
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"
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
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).
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.
(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
(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
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
9. Article : Bath, Somerset, from :
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
13. Article Sebastian Kneipp, from Wikipedia