Monday, October 25, 2010

To Bathe or not to Bathe?

Dinner and a Bath (15th Century)
Last night I heard a comment commonly bandied about concerning the people of the Middle Ages; it accused them of being infrequent bathers. The speaker indicated that he had learned at a medieval museum that the people of that time bathed only once a year, if that. This is a claim I've heard many times before, and I have always wondered how much credence to give it.

When pondering this subject, the first thing that came to my mind was a counterexample: Charlemagne, a man who was very fond of his baths. His biographer Einhard wrote:

He enjoyed the exhalations from natural warm springs, and often practiced swimming, in which he was such an adept that none could surpass him; and hence it was that he built his palace at Aix-la-Chapelle, and lived there constantly during his latter years till his death. He used not only to invite his sons to his bath, but his nobles and friends, and now and then a troop of his retinue or body guard, so that a hundred or more persons sometimes bathed with him. 

But although Charlemagne enjoyed his baths, I suppose he can hardly be used as conclusive proof that most medieval people did as well. Charlemagne was a privileged emperor living during the late eighth and early ninth centuries. This is the very earliest portion of the Middle Ages and Charlemagne's life does not give demographic evidence of the European civilization at large. To prove or disprove the charge of infrequent bathing, we need evidence from later in the Middle Ages that deals with a greater segment of the population.

To gain that evidence, I turned first to Jackson J. Spielvogel's respected textbook Western Civilization. Dealing with the Carolingian period, Spielvogel asserts that aristocrats bathed at least once a week and monks indulged in a weekly Saturday night bath to prepare for the Lord's Day. Moving a few centuries forward, Spielvogel writes that: "Private and public baths...existed in medieval towns, and it is fair to say that standards of hygiene were rather high in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Paris, for example, had thirty-two public baths for men and women."

There were periods of medieval history when these high standards of hygiene declined. The plague hit Europe in the mid-fourteenth century, and Spielvogel records that, "One immediate by-product of the Black Death was a greater regulation of urban activities.... Viewed as unhealthy places, bathhouses were closed down, leading to a noticeable decline in cleanliness."

Although Spielvogel is a reliable secondary source, he does not cite any primary source evidence for his claims about medieval bathing; I was delighted to find a scholarly article titled "Tubbed and Scrubbed: An Overview of Bathing in the Middle Ages" with a little more bibliographical backing to it. In "Tubbed and Scrubbed" Master Giles de Laval does an excellent job looking at written and pictorial primary sources to establish that bathing was a prominent feature of medieval life. "The perception that medieval people never bathed and lived their lives in a state of filth is completely absurd," says de Laval, "and no more true of medieval society than it is of modern society."

De Laval talks about how many bath houses (such as Charlemagne's) were relics from the Roman Empire that continued to be used after the Roman period. In addition to this, travelers to Constantinople and the Crusaders to the Holy Land reintroduced the bath house to areas of Europe that had forgotten it. Concurring with Spielvogel's claims, De Laval says:

By the mid 13th century, bath houses were so numerous in Paril that the estuviers, or proprietors of such establishments, were permitted to form their own guild. Paid criers went about the city at daybreak, announcing that the water was hot and inviting customers in. The price of admission was set by law at two denieres for a steam bath, four for bathing afterwards.
Bathing, according to De Laval's sources, was a matter of politeness.

The 14th century Italian Book of Manners...noted that bathing and changing one's linen regularly was civil and mannerly towards others. According to the precepts of chivalry of Ramon Lull, one of the duties of the squire was to heat water for his lord's bath.
Besides being a courtesy to others, bathing was also considered to have medicinal properties. Gilbert Anglicus in his Compendium Medicinae (1240) encourages patients to take steam baths to soften the skin and open the pores and also to wash themselves in warm water.

Looking at this source material, it seems inevitable to conclude that the people of the Middle Ages were not such infrequent bathers as is commonly reported. Why then is this "myth" (as de Laval calls it) being "perpetuated by schoolroom history, Hollywood movies, and outdated scholarship"?

During parts of medieval history, the Church (which penned the majority of the historical documents and societal commentaries) had issue to take with frequent bathing; this can give the impression that the entire medieval society viewed hygiene with abhorrence. In the early medieval period, some ascetic branches of monasticism (holdovers from the patristic period) wrote that it was better to abstain from bathing in order to mortify the flesh; De Laval claims, however, that this attitude had been entirely "eroded" by the later Middle Ages, and that less austere religious orders such as the Cluniacs and the Dominicans enthusiastically approved of frequent bathing.

Unfortunately, immoral activities associated with bath houses caused other objections from the Church to surface during the later Middle Ages. Some bath house owners tried to make extra money by turning their establishments into brothels, causing the Church to decry bathing as an indecent activity. This occasional opposition from the Church may have given rise to the current view that all medievals viewed bathing with abhorrence and rarely practiced it.
So, were the medievals infrequent bathers? No. They may not have showered daily, but evidence indicates that bathing was popular and encouraged. Were the medievals smelly and filthy? Only to the same degree that nineteenth century Almanzo Wilder and his family in upstate New York were smelly and filthy. In Farmer Boy, Almanzo's future wife Laura Ingalls records that Almanzo and his family took weekly Saturday night baths, just like the Carolingian clergy did back in the eighth century. How positively medieval!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Home Sweet Home?

As some of you may know, my husband and I have been working on purchasing a house for the last several months. We wanted a place in the heart of Oregon City that would be big enough for our family to live in for at least the next ten years. At the beginning of August, we found what we were looking for. Then we set about the long process of becoming first time homebuyers.

It took phone calls to three separate mortgage brokers to get us preapproved for the house loan. After that we put in an offer. Since the house is a short sale, it took several weeks to hear back from the bank. Two days ago we officially received the offer acceptance, and the same day we had the house inspection done. Even though it was built in 1900, the house showed no major problems--the electric and plumbing had all been recently updated.

Our next step is the VA Appraisal which could take up to two weeks to happen. Lord willing, that will all go well, and we will be able to close the deal by November 15. The twins are due November 28, so it's a race against the clock to see if the house or the babies will get here first. But even if it takes longer than anticipated, we're still praying that Madison and 15th will be our new home sweet home in Oregon City.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Do You Libboo?

I've had a flood of writing projects pouring over my desk this summer, and autumn holds no promise of the waters subsiding.. Besides working on my next historical fiction novel (Road from the West), I am also part of a church team that is putting together a compilation of sermons by our pastor, Rev. Dennis Tuuri. Our first step was to transcribe the sermons. Our next step is to edit and re-organize them in book form.

One of our team members suggested using the website Libboo to help us with this project. Libboo is designed to help groups collaborate on writing projects in the different roles of editors, writers, critics, researchers, etc. Today I signed up for a Libboo membership and explored the website a little bit. Will it be useful for our team and the book we are compiling? I'm not sure yet.

Before I buy a book on, I always like to see the ratings and reader reviews. In the case of Libboo, I need to go out and find the reviewers--hence, this blog post. Have you ever used to work on a collaborative writing project? If so, did it work well for you? Do you know of any other websites that can be used for a collaborative writing project? I'd love to hear your feedback.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Back Cover Blurbs

My husband and I have lately been introduced to Dominion, a strategy game where you build up a deck of action and treasure cards to gain victory points. (As an aside, this is a great Christmas present for the game-lovers in your family.) The manufacturer's description of the game reads like this:

You are a monarch, like your parents before you, a ruler of a small pleasant kingdom of rivers and evergreens. Unlike your parents, however, you have hopes and dreams! You want a bigger and more pleasant kingdom, with more rivers and a wider variety of trees. You want a Dominion! In all directions lie fiefs, freeholds, and feodums. All are small bits of land, controlled by petty lords and verging on anarchy. You will bring civilization to these people, uniting them under your banner. But wait! It must be something in the air; several other monarchs have had the exact same idea. You must race to get as much of the unclaimed land as possible, fending them off along the way. To do this you will hire minions, construct buildings, spruce up your castle, and fill the coffers of your treasury. Your parents wouldn't be proud, but your grandparents would be delighted.

It is interesting how many strategy games nowadays tap into the "medieval" world to draw a crowd. It is also interesting how the "storyline" behind this game has almost nothing to do with the game itself. I almost laugh every time I read the part about wanting a more pleasant kingdom "with more rivers and a wider variety of trees."The game has little to do with any of those elements. Relying solely on this description, those who have never played Dominion would probably think that it is a board game like Risk or maybe even like Settlers of Catan.

The back of a book cover can often act the same way as this game description.The author (or publisher) tries to highlight the most interesting--or sensational--parts of the story to capture the attention of prospective readers. Sometimes the information on the back cover bares scant resemblance to the story inside.

Having written the back cover for I Serve, I know how hard it can be condense a 100,000 word novel into a 200 word blurb. For me, it was a necessary exercise, however, since I had no publisher or publicist to write it for me. It was also a valuable exercise and one that I will be glad to do again when my next book is finished. Who should know the book better than the author? If the author herself cannot explain the plot and themes in a half page of prose, then it seems likely that the plot of the novel is rambling and the themes are unclear. If the author cannot make herself interesting in 200 words, then it seems likely that 100,000 words on the same subject will prove more than a little tedious.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Erratic Muse October Giveaway

Miss Pickwickian over at the Erratic Muse is doing another book giveaway! For the rest of the month of October you can enter to win one of three books:

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life, by Donald Miller

On Writing Well: A Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, by William Zinsser

Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl: Wide Eyed Wonder at God's Spoken World, by N. D. Wilson

I haven't read anything by William Zinsser, but the other two authors are definitely worth the read. Donald Miller is a Portland, OR resident most famous for his spiritual autobiography Blue Like Jazz. N. D. Wilson has earned lots of acclaim in the last few years for his juvenile fiction Leepike Ridge and the 100 Cupboards trilogy.

You can enter this giveaway by commenting on Miss Pickwickian's post, becoming a follower of her blog, or posting about it on your own blog. The giveaway winner(s) will be drawn November 1 and will receive the book of their choice.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Finding a New World to Rebuild the Old

Ermatinger House, Oregon City
This week I spent three days substitute teaching at King's Academy, a small private school in Oregon City where I used to teach full time. In history class, my task was to cover European colonialism in the New World. As I lectured on where the Spanish, the English, the French, and the Dutch settled, the place names with which they marked their new territory began to jump out at me. New England received its title because that's what the colonists wanted to build there, a new society modeled on the England they had left. The Pilgrims named their colony Plymouth because it was from Plymouth, England that the Mayflower had sailed.

England was not the only country to utilize Old World place names when branding the New. Both Spain and France titled their American domains New Spain and New France. Scotch settlers up north Latinized their homeland and called their territory Nova Scotia. The Dutch named their settlement on Manhattan Island New Amsterdam after Holland's capital back home.

This recycling of old names began all over again when the inhabitants of the Eastern seaboard began to go West for more elbow room. Portland, Oregon, the metropolis closest to my house, was called Portland after the hometown of one of the city's founders.

The story has it that Francis Pettygrove (a native of Portland, Maine) went into partnership with Asa Lovejoy (a native of Boston, Massachusetts) to develop the area by clearing trees and building roads. They threw up a few buildings along the river, and it was then time to christen the new town. Each man argued persuasively for the town to be named after his place of origin; each man gathered an equal amount of adherents to his point of view. Portland or Boston, what would it be?

The argument took place in the Ermatinger House (now a museum located two blocks from my apartment in Oregon City) and lasted far into the night. Finally, some tired soul--perhaps Francis Ermatinger, the house's owner--suggested that the only way out of this deadlock was to flip a coin. And so they did. Pettygrove won two out of three coin tosses, and the new town was dubbed Portland, destined to become larger and more prestigious than its namesake in Maine.

What is it in human nature that prompts explorers and settlers to name a new world in remembrance of the old? Is it a sign of respect for their own origins, a healthy connection with the past? Or is it a restrictive nostalgia that tries to ignore or overcome the differences of the new by homogenizing it with the old?

Did the colonists have a vision that their New Jerusalem would be merely an exact replica of the Old Jerusalem? Or did the colonists choose to use the old names so that they could expand, improve on, and glorify everything good that the old places had stood for?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Counting on Their Fingers and Toes

Every medieval historian, whatever his race, invariably indulges in wild and picturesque exaggeration whenever he has to estimate numbers that cannot easily be counted. It is therefore impossible for us today to establish the actual size of the Crusading armies.
I came across this bold assertion a few weeks ago in Steven Runciman's History of the Crusades. It reminded me of many similar statements that I had read in the past, all of them calling into question the ability of ancient and medieval people to count in large numbers.

One prime example of this is Herodotus' count of Xerxes' invasion army which he places at 2.5 million men. Always eager to "show his work," Herodotus explains that Xerxes derived this number by counting off ten thousand men, herding them into a tight group, and drawing a circle around them; then the rest of the army was packed into that same circle section by section. After this, it was an easy matter to add up the groups of ten thousand and come up with a total figure. Other ancient sources give similarly high numbers for Xerxes' army.

Despite the manuscript evidence, many modern historians discount Herodotus' figure as highly unrealistic, positing that it would be impossible to keep such a large army supplied and watered along the route to Greece. The largest figure that they will concede for the Persian invasion army is 250,000, one tenth of Herodotus' 2.5 million. Herodotus may be lauded as the "father of history" in theory, but when it comes to counting heads, the Ph.D.'s born two and a half thousand years later consider themselves eminently more qualified.

Whenever I think about this mistrust of ancient and medieval statistics, I am reminded of the passage in Isaiah describing the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem. The Assyrian king Sennacherib taunts Hezekiah of Judah, claiming that Yahweh will not be able to deliver His people, the Jews. In response, God sends the Angel of the Lord into the camp of the Assyrians killing 185,000 men. If you believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, then here you have very clear proof of the large size of armies in ancient times. If the Assyrians could gather 185,000 men (or more) to besiege Judah in the 700s BC, why couldn't Xerxes, with his far larger empire, gather an army of 2.5 million in the 400s?

As far as the medieval chroniclers go, Steven Runciman may be right to distrust their figures somewhat. "Fulcher of Chartres and Albert of Aix tell us that the fighting men of the First Crusade numbered 600,000, while Ekkehard gives 300,000 and Raymond of Aguilers a modest 100,000." The discrepancies between these numbers are substantial; at the same time, all of the chroniclers report that the Crusader army was of exceptional size. But instead of averaging these statistics, or even taking the lowest one, Runciman upholds the modern notion that such a large number of combatants would be impossible to assemble and supply during this time period; therefore, he discards the chroniclers' statistics altogether.

Interestingly enough, Runciman goes on to say that, "when they are dealing with smaller numbers the chroniclers need not be entirely distrusted." Using these "smaller numbers" Runciman attempts to construct his own sum total of what the Crusader army could have amounted to. Whenever the chroniclers mention various contingents within the armies (e.g. Bohemond's knights, Godfrey's infantry), he pieces those numbers together. Finally, he comes to a reasonable total of "roughly 4200 to 4500 cavalry and 30,000 infantry." This number, he cautions, is only an estimate and must be taken "with reserve." A very wise caution since his opening statements claimed that it is, "impossible for us today to establish the actual size of the Crusading armies."

Although it is entirely proper for historians to compare and evaluate primary sources, it does seem rather odd to treat them with such blanket skepticism in this area. Somehow, it is considered more accurate to trust the conjecture of the modern scholar who lived one thousand years after the event than to give credence to the count of eyewitness chroniclers. We live in an age that exalts reason over revelation, and is it not perfectly reasonable to assume that the men who built catapults, castles, cloisters, and cathedrals could only count as far as their fingers and toes would take them?

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