Spring Baths

There were certain particular times of the year when the baths became the centre for openly erotic mass revelry: spring carnival time, the time of Fleshly Lust. It was also the Galenic time for bleeding and purging: 'Spring (Ver)... good for all animals and for the products that germinate from the earth. Dangers: Bad for unclean bodies. Neutralisation of dangers: by cleaning the body.'58 The 'bucolic' spring festivals included the wearing of flower garlands and bringing flowers and leaves into the house, and (as in the English May Day) always involved a ritual excursion by youths and maidens into the surrounding countryside. All monthly calendars of scenes from the agricultural year, almost without exception, including the great Très Riches Heures du duc de Berri, show spring—the month of May—as a festive time of lovemaking, bathing, boating, swimming, picnicking, and music-making. The general theme is fertility and rejuvenation, and the rites of youth. The so-called 'fountains of youth' scenes, and the outdoor 'love gardens' (Liebesgarten) of the German bath houses were favourite etching subjects in fifteenth-century art. So common are these spring calendar scenes that we cannot see them only as scenes of knightly or aristocratic revelry: the local river did just as well if you could not afford the 10 pfennigs it might cost you to enter the most fashionable local baths. Or you might 'bring out your baths' in your own garden, or on the front porch. French carnival records—especially court records—show how the local bathhouse featured heavily as a destination for the procession, and as a base for the town or village party to come. It was a natural headquarters for the notorious société joyeuse—the groups of young men that organized the communal charivari.59

Most erotic spring bath evidence stood little chance of survival during the succeeding centuries—such as Count von Edelstein's infamous painted fresco Of Fleshly Lust, which he enjoyed in his bathhouse at Wiesbaden in the 1390s, and which was apparently 'shocking through its fleshliness, and soaked in sensual voluptuousness'. It showed scenes from the famous Wiesbaden Festival—which, in a reversal of the urban springtime exodus, was obviously the time when rural inhabitants came into town from the countryside to have some carnival fun. The festival itself was observed with pious horror and sadness by a visiting monk:

Everyone brings food, drink, money, strange dresses are worn along the way. In anticipation of enjoyment they are already playing, singing, gossiping, as people who would expect the absolute epitome of happiness to come. When they arrive at the baths, the food is spread out . . . In the baths they sit naked, with other naked people, they dance naked with naked people, and I shall keep quiet about what happens in the dark, because everything happens in public anyway...

Of course he made sure he stayed until the bitter end:

The coming and the going of this ridiculous festival is not the same. When, after everything has been eaten, the cupboards go back empty, the pouches empty of money, they regret having wasted so much money. . . . Meanwhile they return home, their bodies are washed white, their hearts are black through sin. Those who went there healthy, come back contaminated. Those who were strong through the virtues of chastity return home wounded by the arrows of Venus... And so they experience through such events, when they return, the truth of the sentence that the end of all fleshly lust ends sadness.60

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