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.
- 7 October 2008