The Southern Lands

The Roman Catholic Church's homilies and exhortations on cleanness were constant throughout these centuries, treading a fine line between the virtue of civility and the vice of vanity. Officially, the Church stood as the defender of Roman civilitas, and encouraged civilized ablutions as an obeisance to God; but excessive grooming 'in the Italian manner' was condemned, as we see in Notker the Stammerer's cautionary tale for wide-eyed novice monks of The Deacon Who Washed Too Much:

There was a certain deacon who followed the habits of the Italians in that he was perpetually trying to resist nature. He used to take baths, he had his head very closely shaved, he polished his skin, he cleaned his nails, he had his hair cut short as if it had been turned on a lathe, and he wore linen underclothes and a snow-white shirt.. .Just how unclean his heart was became apparent by what followed. As he was reading, a spider suddenly came down on its thread from the ceiling, touched the deacon's head with its feeler and then ran quickly up again... when he came out of the cathedral he began to swell up. Within an hour he was dead.6

Nature, in clerical terms, meant your pious inner nature, not your lowly corporeal self. Baptism and lustral bathing were clerical duties; and since bathing and cleansing were known to be medically therapeutic, providing hot baths, grooming, and clothes for the poor was a righteous and pious act.7 Decent but not lavish clerical grooming regimens, at fixed hours and at fixed seasons, were included in all monastic Rules, and laundries were provided, even though the number of times allowed for 'shifting' the clothing was severely rationed. Most monks were clean-shaven and carefully tonsured: the wearing of beards was regarded as lowly or hermit-like. The Church tried very hard to curb public morals and 'the habits of the Italians', but only partially succeeded. The constant lure of the hot southern lands, and their wicked sensuous ways, was irresistible to the rest of Europe.

Around the Mediterranean, baths, dancing girls, and Romanstyle feasting had continued within Islamic culture. Few northern courts were as luxurious as the stronghold Norman raiders had wrested from Arab rulers in southern Italy and Sicily during the twelfth century, where the energetically self-cultivated Norman kings Roger I and Roger II spent much of their time enjoying their Arabic hunting lodges, pleasure pavilions, the hot springs in the north of the island, and at their new palace at Zisa (meaning 'magnificent' in Arabic). On Christmas Day in 1184 an Arab observer noted that 'the Christian women all went forth in robes of gold-embroidered silk, concealed with coloured veils and shod with gilt slippers ...bearing all the adornments of Muslim women, including jewellery, henna on the fingers, and perfumes'.8 When Roger II conquered Thebes and Corinth in the Peloponnese in 1147, he had carried off all their stock of silk cloth, along with all their craftsmen and looms, to strengthen his conquered Arab cloth industry (which included the silk workshops of the royal harem, the Tiraz, at Palermo—another custom which the Normans had 'appropriated with enthusiasm').9

Islam also undoubtedly influenced the twelfth-century courts of Anjou and Aquitaine across the Mediterranean in Provence— a hotbed of 'courtly love' and the sensuous clothing that was the badge of the new romantics. All tribal courts had their poets or bards to entertain them at the feast, and courtly romantic lais (lays) from the poets of southern Provence spread northwards and became part of the ideology of chivalry;including the court poets who blossomed in fourteenth-century Middle English.10 The Middle English poem Cleanness conjured up a courtly vision of the Lord of Heaven with his perfectly groomed heavenly hosts, in the form of a long sermon on sexual purity, the 'pearl' of virginity, and keeping the sabbath clean:

So clean in his court is that king who rules all, So upright a householder, so honourably served By angels of utter purity without and within, Beautifully bright, in brilliant mantles...

But watch, if you will, that you wear clean clothes

To honour the holy day, lest harm come to you When you approach the Prince of precious lineage, He hates not even hell more hotly than the unclean . . . They shall see in those shimmering mansions, Who are burnished as beryl, bound to be pure, Sound on every side, with no seams anywhere, Immaculate and moteless like the margery-pearl . . . 11

Beds, sex, baths—and nature—were constantly associated in the literature and imagery of romance. Some of the best-known and best-loved images of medieval art are probably the crimson-embroidered tapestries now at the Musee Cluny, Paris, showing a high-born lady with her unicorn (a symbol of virginal purity) experiensing all the delights of the senses, in a series of flowery woodland glades;and in the same collection, and in the same style, is another tapestry illustrating the sensuous outdoor romanticized courtly bath. Courtly baths frequently made their way into stories and poems in scenes of trickery, transgressions, and lover's trysts. In one French courtly love poem the boiling hot bath prepared for the noble husband was given to the adulterers instead; in the early medieval German poem Parsival, the hero was attended by beautiful maidens strewing the floor with rose petals, and given a truly Homeric knightly bath.12 The twelfth-century Order of the Bath at the Anglo-Norman court was equally romantic and sumptuous: it was created as a lustral bath of purification, signifying their passage into adulthood, for the young elite warriors, the 'companions of the king', and lasted two days with the holy evening vigil, the bath, and the ceremonial knighting, followed by games, sports, and feasts. The English Royal Wardrobe bath accounts in the fourteenth century show large expenditures in which the chivalric bed and clothes cost as much as, if not more than, the chivalric bath. In 1327 King Edward III was knighted, crowned, and bathed at the same time:

cloth of gold diapered, to cover his Bath for his knighthood, sheets for the same, and washing his feet, a tunic and a cloak of Persian cloth for his vigil, and tunic, cloak, and mantle of purple velvet, with fur lining the same, and red curtains, with shields of his Arms on the corners for ornamenting his chamber on the night before he received the Order of Knighthood.13

9 Tapestry depicting a heavily romanticized courtly bath in the early 1500s, set in a woodland glade, surrounded by sensuous delights (food, music, sweet smells).

Sicily was an earthly paradise for northerners that did not last. However, the concentration of luxury in the hands of the eager Norman arrivistes set off another chain of events that did last. Frankish Palermo had become the foremost centre of Hellenic and Arabic studies and the commercial and cultural clearing house of three continents, drawing traders from around the southern Mediterranean and scholars dispersed from Alexandria. Just across the water on mainland Italy was a small southern spa town called Salerno, one of Europe's first medical centres of learning; and the health education that emerged from Salerno and later universities fully restored the old classical advice on how to 'take care of yourself'.

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