Zelophehad’s Daughters

When Filthiness Was Next to Godliness

Posted by Kiskilili

The decaying infrastructure that marked late antiquity left Roman baths–once a popular site not only for physical cleansing but also for social intercourse–in ruins. At roughly the same time, a new ethos began to blossom in early Christianity, one that placed an odd value on filthiness as part of its larger program of asceticism. In the first place, as a general rule Christianity exhibits a paucity of rituals of physical cleansing, baptism being the single exception of note. (“They never wash,” a gardener reports with churlish indignation in A Thousand and One Nights, “for, at their birth, ugly men in black garments pour water over their heads, and this ablution, accompanied by strange gestures, frees them from all obligation of washing for the rest of their lives.”) But beyond this mere lacuna in ritual practice, many early medieval Christians enthusiastically embraced dirt as an appropriate method of transcending concerns with the corrupt physical world. “By a deliberate squalor [a virgin should make] haste to spoil her natural good looks” was St. Jerome’s sage advice, and his friend Paula concurred: “a clean body and a clean dress mean an unclean soul.” In other words, it wasn’t enough simply to abstain from sex: those aspiring to especial holiness must also abstain from beauty. Alousia, a state of holy filth achieved by refraining from washing, was enthusiastically embraced by characters of particular piety. St. Agnes, for example, diligently avoided ever washing any part of her body in her brief life (she didn’t make it past 13), where St. Godric took a vow against personal hygiene for the duration of his pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

(The tenor for disinterest in physical cleanliness is set already in the gospels: although he washes the disciples’ feet, Jesus displays a flagrant disregard for Jewish ritual washing, apparently uncoupling the association between physical and ritual (and by extension moral) purity (see Mark 7:1-23; Luke 11:37-54). Because cleansing the body plays an important religious role in both Judaism and Islam, medieval Jews and Muslims were almost certainly the cleanest members of early medieval society. In Moorish Spain especially, since Muslims showed an affinity for regular ablutions, Christians, defining themselves in opposition to their overlords, embraced dirt as a virtual tenet of Christian faith.)

All this and more fascinating material can be discovered in the pages of Katherine Ashenburg’s The Dirt on Clean, an eminently readable and entertaining chronicle of hygienic habits in Europe and North America from antiquity to the present, one of those fun books that elevates a nearly invisible aspect of quotidian life to a subject of investigation and illuminates a hitherto unfathomed polychromic spectrum of behaviors, each considered ordinary in its own ambience, across time.

Reintroduced to Europe by Crusaders’ contact with Near Eastern habits, public baths were to enjoy a centuries-long popularity in the High Middle Ages that only finally petered out by the Renaissance. Although perhaps a cultural flowering in other respects, the Renaissance witnessed a new nadir in personal hygiene: scholarly opinion gradually gathered force that bathing was one factor in the spread of plague, both as a result of the moral laxity that was said to pervade public baths and the physical dangers to which water left one vulnerable. A film of sweat and grime on the skin, it was insisted, was a prophylactic coating against miasmatic disease which might otherwise waft in through the pores; washing was therefore to be shunned. As late as the nineteenth century, proverbs in certain quarters of society underscored a persistent aversion to getting wet: “people who take baths die young”; “if you want to reach old age, don’t take the oil off your skin.”

Perhaps predictably, advertising played a major role in seizing a tentative newfound concern with personal hygiene and exploding it into mass mysophobia in the twentieth century. The phenomenal success of the advertising industry in this regard is not difficult to comprehend: some of our deepest anxieties are preyed upon, both fears about our personal well-being and apparent powerlessness against the legions of invisible shock troops that microscopy has opened to our view, and insecurities that our bodies, unbeknownst to us, might betray us in public and broadcast that we are in fact made up of human flesh rather than the papaya blossoms or vanilla wafers whose scents we hide behind. In both cases the purported problem lies outside our ability to easily assess, making us especially vulnerable to merchants’ tactics (better to be safe than sorry). Although on the surface current North American attitudes toward hygiene could not be further from those of the fragantly pious saints of the early Middle Ages who made dirtiness a centerpiece of their devotion, in certain respects our mindset echoes their own, once again fetishizing a mortification of and desire to transcend the flesh, this time by attention to rather than disregard of the body, and now in the service of the no less demanding gods of Beauty.

As a concluding note, are there any uniquely Mormon attitudes toward either ritual ablution or dirt?  

Although we tend to openly scorn ascetic practices of other traditions, certain forms of abstemious behavior play a prominent role in our own worship, particularly fasting, and to a lesser degree limiting meat consumption (an injunction perhaps universally ignored but at least somewhat present in our consciousness). Bathing and physical cleanliness are both pleasurable; why is refraining from washing any different from refraining from eating? The obvious reasons revolve around the social repercussions of refusing to bathe, especially acute in present-day North America and of inestimable significance to an image-conscious institution. A two-pronged value is ascribed to fasting: it teaches us self-denial, and it facilitates our aiding the community. Stinking, while it may serve the first goal, is, in contrast, viewed as a virtual assault on the community.

When it comes to ritual cleansings, our repertoire of ablutions is perhaps only slightly more expanded than that of mainstream Christianity (and somewhat different in character, as we lack a clear equivalent to holy water in Catholicism, for example). In addition to full-immersion baptisms, we also undergo various anointings (there’s a possible connection between oil and cleanliness going back to a time when oil may have been applied to the head to kill lice); and now-muted symbolic ablutions in the temple (we perhaps recoil from the indecorousness of our spiritual ancestors bathing each other naked, although the result of our revised ceremony is an attenuated connection between physical and spiritual purity in which, as in the gospels, the former receives less stress at the expense of the latter).

Finally, an association between cleanliness and moral probity recurs throughout Restoration scripture (see for example D&C 88:74; 1 Nephi 15:34, etc.) and public discourse. Among other things, this pattern underscores an implicit valuation of actual, physical cleanliness. While it makes perhaps intuitive sense to describe sin as a contaminant, the connection is not entirely clear to me. “Pure” describes something no part of which is not indigenous to it. If our “natural” state is one of depravity (see Mosiah 3:19), then we are most “pure” when we yield to sin, and it is grace that is the element that is specifically out of place (i.e. “dirt”). On the other hand, if the “natural man [sic]” is something to be “put off,” it is hardly “natural” at all, but in fact itself a foreign entity in our characters. 

19 Responses to “When Filthiness Was Next to Godliness”

  1. 1.

    Sheesh, Kiskilili. We already knew you had a dirty mind, but do you really have to blog about such filth?

  2. 2.

    I have to go wash my eyes out with soap now.

  3. 3.

    Wow. I had no idea that early Christians valued dirt so much. That sounds disgusting. I would much rather smell like papaya and vanilla than natural body odor. Gross.

    But, relating this all to religion. Sheer genius. Perhaps I’ll suggest that book you recommended for my book club! What do you think? Would a bunch of Mormon women like it?

    St. Agnes died at 13? I’m actually amazed she lived that long, since she never washed anything.

    Also, reading about the way people used to think that washing led to disease makes me wonder if there are things today that we’re doing the exact opposite way because we don’t know any better. Hmm . . .

  4. 4.

    What can I say, Kaimi? I guess I’m a sewer rat when it comes to morality.

    Careful, Marta–that film of dirt in your eyes might be protective.

    Yeah, Jessawhy, I really value my deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, soap, etc., with their scents of coconut and peach blossom and citrus fruit. Basically, I’d rather smell like a plant than a person, and I’d rather other people did to. Anyway, it’s a fun, very readable book, but it does have a number of anecdotes that make you go “sick! were these people for real?”

    Not only do you wonder about our current expert opinions, you also really appreciate what incredible luxury we live in; we take things like hot running water for granted. I don’t think early Christians generally embraced filth–that was the sort of activity like celibacy that pious people were praised for practicing; more likely they lived in filth by our standards because they just didn’t have easy means of staying clean.

  5. 5.

    Fun post,, k.

    I’ve sometimes wondered what sex would have been like before our modern standards of hygiene. It seems like it would be tough to feel very amorous when your partner was grimy and stank, but then maybe I’m just so enveloped in my own modern culture I can’t step outside of myself to visualze what it really would have been like back then.

  6. 6.

    Heh–Ashenburg actually addresses this in the introduction, suggesting (reasonably) that those used to the smells were likely not as repulsed as we are and people seem to hook up in surprising circumstances. Interestingly, she also suggests that smelling each other’s body odor is not necessarily a turn-off to sex (although it may be in our culture): in fact, some of what we’re smelling is each other’s pheromones, which could serve as an aphrodisiac. She quotes Napoleon writing to Josephine while on campaign as saying, “I will return to Paris tomorrow evening. Don’t wash.”

  7. 7.

    “I will return to Paris tomorrow evening. Don’t wash.”

    Hubba Hubba! That is sooo funny.

    On the topic of filthiness = spirituality, I had several very spiritual roommates, and also some mission companions who were spiritual giants.

  8. 8.

    I tend to think that surrounding culture influences a lot of the practices/customs of Mormonism (or, to phrase it in a more faith-promoting way, I believe that God works within existing cultures). It makes sense to me that a lot of Mormon beliefs about cleanliness are derived from majority culture, and that, like you say, part of the cleanliness thing is a practicality issue (nobody wants to employ a stinky person). We don’t, for example, incorporate the idea of not bathing into fasting, though this is part of fasting in traditional Judaism (on Yom Kippur and Tisha b’Av, for example, fasting is defined as not eating, drinking, engaging in sexual relations, or bathing, among other things). The underlying idea is a very ascetic one – bathing and being clean are physical pleasures, and fasting is a time of self-denial.

    BTW -Have you read Aldous Huxley’s (1956) essay “Hyperion to a Satyr”? It discusses the connection between cleanliness, hygiene, culture and class (all this with Huxley’s characteristic sardonic wit). His basic argument is that class differences have been made less pronounced by the gradual implementation and universalization of hygiene standards, including sewage systems, etc. (Yes, it really is a funny and engaging read. :) )

    Last: Kevin- Huxley also mentions that lack of hygiene – oral hygiene – did indeed seem to be a social problem, at least in Shakespeare’s time. He quotes Julius Caesar, in which Casca explains that the crowd shouting during Caesar’s coronation had such bad breath that Caesar almost fainted:

    “the rabblement hooted and clapped their
    chapped hands and threw up their sweaty night-caps
    and uttered such a deal of stinking breath because
    Caesar refused the crown that it had almost choked
    Caesar; for he swounded and fell down at it: and
    for mine own part, I durst not laugh, for fear of
    opening my lips and receiving the bad air.”

    I’m thinking that even if Napoleon liked an unwashed wife, everybody would have been happier with toothpaste and mouthwash.

  9. 9.

    “Pure” describes something no part of which is not indigenous to it.

    Is this really meant to be the operative definition of “pure” as used in the scriptures?

    Also, assuming you are correct that this is the operative definition of “pure”, this does not create complications based on biblical and BoM concepts of putting off the “natural man”. The true nature of human beings is as spirit children of God and God’s desire is for us to learn that and act on it in mortality, thus putting off the natural man. Thus, using the definition of “pure” that you suggest controls is entirely consistent with the idea that the natural man (dirty/filthy in both body and mind) is to be put off and a clean body and mind are to be sought after by those who are disciplines of Jesus Christ (and thus striving to meet their true potential/nature by becoming celestial bodies through the Atonement of Christ)

    It is both intuitive and doctrinal that dirt and filth are not the ideal state of human existence. Far from being a twentieth century development we need look no further than the Jews to see a strong emphasis on physical and ritual cleanliness.

    That creedal Christianity put such a high premium on filth and squalor is persuasive evidence of the state of apostasy that existed during the period. Most Latter-day Saints recognize filth and squalor as being contrary to God’s will for the temporal and spiritual happiness of his children. I’m not sure that it’s just a result of twentieth century preoccupation with personal hygiene, which by the way many Europeans simpy categorize as an American thing and not a universal preoccupation. But many of us in the Church believe that espousing the Gospel naturally results in a heightened awareness of the importance of being clean in body and mind. Although one could argue that this is just a result of phariseeism in the Church, many Latter-day Saints might say, if they actually thought about it, that it relates to having received the Gift of the Holy Ghost after baptism by immersion for the remission of sins.

  10. 10.

    (that should be disciples of Jesus Christ)

  11. 11.

    When I was a whippersnapper, I was so obsessed with being clean that I would, inter alia, sit on the very edge of the pew so as not to flatten the crease on the seat of my pants. I don’t recall being a spiritual giant–more just a weird kid.

  12. 12.

    “Stinking, while it may serve the first goal, is, in contrast, viewed as a virtual assault on the community.”

    I’m not sure if I have read a funnier sentence in the Bloggernacle.

    Although it might be more appropriate to ask this on a different blog, would this type of assault constitute a hate crime against those who wash?

  13. 13.

    Peter, that’s just weird.

    Ray, in our culture stinking in church is probably a hate crime against yourself!

    Great points, Galdralag! I definitely want to read Huxley’s essay–that sounds absolutely fascinating about the eradication of obvious class differences! Thanks for the recommendation. I agree with you completely that cleanliness is just part of North American culture that’s shaping the Church, and in this case we haven’t even really incorporated it centrally into our tradition–if anything it hovers barely at the periphery.

  14. 14.

    John, there are a couple of reasons for which I’m not at all convinced by your thesis that alousia or dirtiness generally is an adequate diagnostic criterion of apostate behavior.

    (1) You suggest we look to Judaism for our cues as to what was acceptable before the Apostasy interfered (and thus should be now). One problem with this is, as Galdralag pointed out, ritually refraining from washing actually does play a role in Judaism, for example on Yom Kippur (starting at sunset tonight!). Why then is it absent from our own ideas of cultic abstention? Secondly, Judaism in which era? Rabbinic Judaism can hardly serve as our standard, both since (a) it rejected Jesus and (b) is itself bewilderingly multivocal (and texts such as the Mishnah don’t even attempt to arbitrate between different voices). In other words, if we look to Judaism for evidence of true doctrine, how do we avoid the charge that we’re arbitrarily plundering details of Jewish thought willy-nilly in order to engage in circular reasoning? It would be disingenuous to argue that Jews undergo ritual washings, we do only very rarely, but other Christians only do rarely as well and are therefore apostate.

    (2) Why did Jesus himself personally reject the Jewish tradition of ritual handwashing in the Lukan account cited above, if in fact cleanliness is a central aspect of “true doctrine”? Although it need not lead ineluctably to ascetic abstention from washing, it certainly doesn’t set a strong hygienic precedent when the purported founder of your tradition dismisses the importance of physical washing with a simple wave of the hand! (Nor does it set a strong precedent for the primacy of cultic ablutions.)

    (3) I’m not convinced Mormons have any coherent position on either asceticism in general or cleanliness in particular, so I disagree with you that we even have an emphasis on physical or ritual cleanliness.

    If we were taking cues from Judaism, or the Hebrew Bible, why not ask women to undergo purification following menstruation or childbirth? Or men after experiencing nocturnal emissions? (Or scores of other situations?) Although the Pentateuch is replete with commandments enjoining all sorts of physical ritual cleansing, we seem entirely unconcerned with its strictures and instead take refuge in the nebulous NT idea that the law was “fulfilled” and no longer applicable.

    In other words, we’ve rejected most ritual washings in our tradition partly because we’ve apparently eliminated cultic purity as a category separate from moral purity. All well and good, but theoretically we could still undergo these physical cleansings for moral transgressions, for example upon confessing to the bishop. The fact is, (a) ritual cleansing plays a very narrow role in our tradition; (b) an emphasis on physical cleanliness is barely at the periphery, and then only by metaphorical association with moral cleanliness; and when it comes to (c) ritually refraining from washing, there’s no obvious doctrinal reason why it’s not practiced, since other forms of self-denial play an important role.

    (Ashenburg actually discusses European hygiene separately from North American and suggests that it is leaps and bounds ahead of where it was in recent centuries.)

    I don’t disagree with the model you lay out for the natural man. I’m merely making up a definition for what purity commonly refers to in an attempt to better explicate its use as a metaphor for virtue (and, in our discourse, chastity in particular). The point is that, as they’re ordinarily used, “pure” and “natural” converge to some degree around the concept of “indigenous.” But in the model of the natural man we read in Mosiah, the two are at odds with each other.

  15. 15.

    Kisk, my reference to Judaism was not a thesis, nor was it as a source of true doctrine. Rather, it was to show that people had an interest in being physically and ritually clean long before those pesky Amurcans began making filthy people’s lives difficult in the twentieth century.

  16. 16.

    (in response to the assertion that cleanliness developed in the twentieth century)

  17. 17.

    I agree with John, the Natural man as described in the BofM is not our indigenous state. The Natural Man is the post contaminated, or fallen, man. It is not pure because it is already filthy.

  18. 18.

    I would say, doctrinally, we are not pure, under the definition taken as normative here, as the natural man because the natural man is not the intended “thing” that we are supposed to be. So no part of our true selves is indigenous to the natural man.

  19. 19.

    people had an interest in being physically and ritually clean long before those pesky Amurcans began making filthy people’s lives difficult in the twentieth century.

    Heh–undoubtedly. :) Those Roman baths and their High Medieval counterparts surely washed away some of the grime!

    In other words, living in the world it’s “natural” for dirt to adhere to us, and what we otherwise would be (our “pure” selves) is polluted by our interaction with the environment. Spiritual purification, rather than being “unnatural,” restores us to an even more “natural” state–a natural state that preceded our current natural state. Or maybe purity is a state that’s never been actualized in us mortals but exists in us as an ideal, so is nevertheless in some way a “pure” part of us.

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