My first book of 2017 and possibly a sign of slight change in my reading habits since I started this blog. A year ago I would rarely reach for non-fiction, but over the course of 2016 I read more non-fiction than I would expect, so this follows the new pattern in my reading. It is one of my Christmas gifts and seemed like a good read after the Christmas period of overeating.
Katherine Ashenburg takes us on a journey through the ages and investigates habits related to cleanliness trying to find out how we got to our current obsession with clean and smell-free bodies. She does focus mainly on western Europe and United States, only mentioning other cultures when comparing their habit with western ones. We start our trip in ancient Greece, then move on to lavish Roman thermae. As Christianity starts Ashenburg investigates the relation between religion and cleanliness, how for different religions cleanliness is a requirement for prayer and how Christianity abandoned the concept of bodily cleanliness, not setting any specific requirements around it. Then as she takes us further on our tour we find out the connection between cleanliness and politics.
Somehow cleanliness gets disconnected from health, as we progress throughout the ages water start being perceived as a threat, especially after Black Death and recurring epidemics after it. People started believing that public baths were the reason for people falling ill, water opening the pores for the disease to enter the body. Gradually people simply stopped bating almost completely. 16th and 17th century being probably the dirtiest in history, when common belief was that changing into fresh shirt is all it takes to maintain hygiene.
Later a new connection is formed, that cold baths may actually be healthy, a lot of water treatments are developed. People start bathing, but being clean is not the objective, being healthy is. At this point also access to water facilities starts differentiating according to class, it is all connected to industrial revolution. Finally Ashenburg moves on to the 20th century with it;s obsession of cleanliness and more common access to bathrooms, she investigates how hygiene industry worked hand in hand with advertising to create new standards and make them higher than ever.
It was a ver interesting book, setting the matter of common bath in the context of social and political history. Fascinating read with lots of examples and quotes from literature, letters and scientific books, but never boring or overwhelming. A good start to 2017 reading!