Protestant regimens


... For it is my hope and my desire that [this work] will contribute to the common good; that through it the higher physicians will somewhat raise their thoughts, and not devote all their time to common cures, nor be honoured for necessity only; but that they will become instruments and dispensers of God's power and mercy in prolonging and renewing the life of man, the rather because it is effected by safe, convenient, and civil, though hitherto unattempted methods. For although we Christians ever arrive and pant after the land of promise, yet meanwhile it will be a mark of God's favour if in our pilgrimage through the wilderness of this world, these our shoes and garments (I mean our frail bodies) are as little worn out as possible.1

Thus in 1623 Francis Bacon opened his 'History of Life and Death', Part III of his famous Instauratio Magna, a rallying cry for the reform of European science. Three hundred years later Europeans would be stripping off their heavy clothes and exposing their naked skin to water, exercise, light, and air, and often living until they were 80, all in the name of prolongevity hygiene—truly a triumph for 'safe, convenient and civil' methods. The early modern period starts the final countdown to modernity, 1500-2007. From now on the scene shifts to northern Europe and the interrelationships between the British Isles, France, and Germany (in particular), and their many long-lasting contributions to the modern European hygienic renais-sance;and more especially to the story of English Protestantism, with its enthusiastic adherence to ideologies of health and purity.

Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the classical discipline of hygiene was the subject of intense speculation and equally intense beliefs, in which humanism played a significant role. The idea of political cleansing or 'purging' entered European discourse with a vengeance between 1500 and 1700, brilliantly and viscerally heralded by the ascetic Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), the godfather of humanism. His extraordinary burlesque on the excesses of late medieval life Folly's Praise of Folly (1511) was an instant hit throughout Europe (with forty-three editions in his lifetime); his next manifesto, Antibarbari (1514), railed against a corrupt Church, and corrupted Church scholars writing corrupted barbaric texts: 'what disaster it was that had swept away the rich, flourishing, joyful fruits of the finest culture, and why a tragic and terrible deluge had shamefully overwhelmed all the literature of the ancients that used to be so pure'.2 Reform of the Catholic Church was Erasmus' aim;but the Protestant Reformation in northern Europe became a massive and irreversible social revolution.

In England the break from Rome created a new national identity permeated and defined by both Protestantism and humanism. When Bacon wrote in the 1620s, there was already an army of English Protestant readers and authors ready and willing to accept the Baconian challenge to go out and 'experiment' on the natural world. These efforts created a distinctive school of English science and hygiene, which later evolved into a full-blown scientific project. Following the upheavals of the Civil War and the Restoration, a peaceful religious settlement after 1688 gave English scientists a renewed opportunity to cleanse learning and deliver it from the obscure 'Rubbish of the Schools'. Open experimentation and transparent proof was to provide the new 'clear gaze' of natural science—the light that was to illuminate the next century's Enlightenment. Protestantism itself was thoroughly caught up in the triangular philosophical relationship between Reason, Flesh, and the Soul that we have seen before, in Greece and Late Antiquity—and it was set firmly against the Flesh.3 The Flesh, however, remained naturally of the most immediate concern to most populations, most of the time. Throughout both of these centuries Flesh was privately pampered, and everywhere on display.

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