Bath Feasts

Prenuptial marriage baths and feasts are a worldwide phenomenon, roughly equivalent to our hen nights and stag nights. In Europe they survived well into the twentieth century in Russia, Turkey and elsewhere.50 In medieval Scandinavia the bridal party was given in the communal hot bathhouse, to which the bride and her female friends would walk in procession, preceded by men carrying jars of ale or wine, bread, sugar, and spices. The guests wore elaborate clothes and jewellery and received bathing hats and bathrobes from their hosts, but disrobing was common among 'the young men who come with naked legs, and dance in that attire'. By the sixteenth century, European marriage baths had become so expensive that some local authorities imposed restrictions, saying that young couples could not afford them. The lying-in bath was supposed to be more modest and intimate—but not if the lying-in was expensive, like the one Christine de Pizan visited in a rich merchant's house in Paris:

In this bed lay the woman who was going to give birth, dressed in crimson silk cloth and propped up on pillows of the same silk with big pearl buttons, adorned like a young lady. And God knows how much money was wasted on the amusements, bathing and various social gatherings, according to the customs of Paris for women in childbed (some more than others), at this lying-in!51

The lying-in bath (like the American 'baby shower') would have been hosted by the woman herself, for her female friends, her 'gossips': in fact her bath companions, since (judging from stories and woodcuts) women apparently did a great deal of socializing in the baths, and often held impromptu parties there, bringing their food and drink with them. The Italian, French, Portuguese, English, and Hungarian natural thermae were in full swing during this period, and in many if not most of them, the situation would have been similar to those described in the thermal town of Baden in 1416, with its two central public baths and twenty-eight private baths:

In some of the private baths, the men mix promiscuously with their female relatives and friends. They go into the water three or four times every day; and they spend the greater part of their time in the baths, where they amuse themselves with singing, drinking, and dancing. In the shallower part of the water, they also play upon the harp. It is a pleasant sight to see young lasses tuning their lyres, like nymphs, with their scanty robes floating on the surface of the waters. They look indeed like so many Venuses, emerging from the ocean . . . The men wear only a pair of drawers. The women are clad in linen vests, which are however slashed in the sides so that they neither cover the neck, the breast, nor the arms of the wearer... every one has free access to all the baths, to see the company, to talk and joke with them. As the ladies go in and out of the water, they expose to view a considerable portion of their persons; yet there are no doorkeepers, nor do they entertain the least idea of any thing approaching to indelicacy.52

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