The Clean Body: A Modern History – Dirty secrets from the past

Book review: How we evolved from superficial wash-ups to a germ-obsessed world today

A Welsh miner’s wife washing her husband after work, June 1931. Photograph: James Jarche/Getty

A Welsh miner’s wife washing her husband after work, June 1931. Photograph: James Jarche/Getty

Louis XIV became king of France as a toddler in 1643 and ruled for an astounding 72 years. More astonishing, perhaps, is the number of times the Sun King bathed during his long reign: twice. When he was in his twenties and suffered convulsions, doctors prescribed bathing as a form of therapy; the king, however, quickly rejected their advice. The baths, he complained, left him with severe headaches.

The monarch who built the opulent Palace of Versailles and transformed France into a military powerhouse stuck with a hygienic routine that was rigorous for the times – after a daily rubdown from his servants, he rinsed his hands in scented water and, every other day, wiped his face with a moistened towel. To Louis and his fellow 17th-century aristocrats, being clean required frequent changes of clothing throughout the day, not soap and water. “The cleanliness of our linen and its abundance,” noted the French writer Charles Perreault in 1688, “are worth more than all the baths in the world.”

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