The Failure of the Baths

The etchings and literature of the early 1500s captured a way of life that was just about to go into a steep decline. In England, Henry VIII closed the stews of Southwark and Bankside in 1546; the brothels and stews of Chester were closed in 1542. In France the four steam baths at Dijon were suppressed in 1556;in 1566 they were closed throughout the Duchy of Orleans, while those at Beauvais, Angers, and Sens were gone by the end of the century. In Paris there were 'only a handful by the end of the seventeenth century'.65

No single cause is sufficient to account for the disappearance of such deep-rooted customs. Wilhelm Rudeck suggested reasons that were primarily material, and economic, citing syphilis and the rising cost of fuel as the two main factors that put bathhouses out of business in Germany.66 Recent historians have preferred to emphasize the fear of the plague, poisonously infiltrating steamed-open bodies, and this certainly fits with the reappearance of severe epidemic plague in the sixteenth century; but then why did the baths not disappear earlier, after the Black Death? Rudeck probably underestimated the effect of the general decline of rurally based peasant culture; and the popular urban roots of the moral Reformation, especially in certain areas of growing population. There were changes in the political climate that either put puritanical religious reformers, or activists of the Catholic Counter-Reformation into power, many of whom were ascetics who were likely to view the bathhouses as hotbeds of sexual uncleanness and political dissent.

Pressure from growing urban populations meant that, by the end of the fifteenth century, the bathhouses (like the bawdy houses) were increasingly seen as places of lawlessness and social disorder; they disturbed the regular inhabitants, breaking the fragile trust of the community, and the numbers of arrests and prosecutions grew.67 But arguably it was the arrival of acute epidemic syphilis in 1493 which achieved what endemic plague, rising costs, religion, or lawlessness had failed to do: it closed them immediately and peremptorily, and when or if they reopened, they were never the same again. The innocence was gone.

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