On Bathing

This is not really culinary content, but too interesting not to share. The König vom Odenwald also wrote a short poem about why people bathe:

An extremely luxurious and probably imaginary bathing scene c. 1470, courtesy of wikimedia commons. Note the food, drink, and entertainment provided lavishly. This is the medieval equivalent of the Playboy Mansion – such a place may well have existed and fascinated people, but it was far from their everyday experience.
IV This is about bathing
Which never hurt anyone

From the treasure of my art
I must write about bathing.
For how many reasons do people bathe?
I will tell you if I am able.
My mind tells me
One man bathes for cleanliness
Another to escape the cold
More than dirt
The third thinks it is of some use to him
And bathes to combat boredom.
And who would criticise the fourth?
He bathes so he can sleep.
The fifth is of the opinion
To bathe so he can be bled.
The sixth bathes noisily
Because his skin itches
The seventh bathes quickly
To have his head washed
The eighth is not at home
And bathes slowly
Until his clothes have been washed
That is why he takes his time.
The ninth bathes in passing
To have his beard cut
The tenth also goes there
And bathes in order to save effort
The eleventh bathes knowing
That he will get paid for it
The twelfth is smart
And bathes so that he sweats
The thirteenth is of a nature
To want to bathe in company
The fourteenth bathes indoors
And thinks he should make love as well (
er suelle minne)
The fifteenth is displeased and also bathes
To rest and escape his home (lit. the smoke,
den rauch, meaning the hearth)
The sixteenth’s shoes are coming apart
He bathes until they are repaired
The seventeenth is wounded and not happy
He bathes to heal
The eighteenth thinks himself clumsy (ungeberde)
He bathes to sober up.
The nineteenth says “may it do me good”
And bathes so that he can drink.
The twentieth must run to the bathhouse
To escape his creditors
If he cannot do them justice
He hides out in the bath.
The Duke of Saxony – free of shame
Has done likewise, he said so himself
Thus, bathing has many purposes
Thus said the kuenig vom Otenwalde
Adieu - adieu - adieu – adieu
This poem is about the bath.

Contrary to widespread stereotypes, bathing was popular in medieval Germany. Given the labour and fuel expended, running a hot bath, like doing the laundry, was a major chore in a household. Where they did so at home, people often bathed weekly, but especially in cities, communal bath houses offered baths at affordable prices any day of the week. Much has been made of their questionable reputations. Their managers, the Bader, often also served as barbers and surgeons, offering medical services that could shade into the magical, and female bath attendants were suspected of selling more intimate services. Many erotic scenes from late medieval art are set in the bath.

That said, there is no reason to think this was universal. Most bathhouses very likely simply offered bathing and did good business doing so. Just as not everyone could cook at home, not everyone could bathe there, either. Workers’ contracts sometimes stipulate weekly ‘bathing money’, and baths along with distributions of food and drink were part of the charitable legacies wealthy people left to the church to ensure prayers for their souls.

The poem gives us an interesting view of the clientele of a bathhouse. People come to wash, to sweat, or for warmth and rest. Some seek medical treatment – in this case bleeding and relief from skin diseases – provided by the Bader, and while others evidently considered sexual encounters part of the experience, this was not universal or received well. Using a bath to either work up a thirst or deal with the aftermath of drinking also seems to be part of the alcohol culture of the time. Interestingly, the bathhouse is also a refuge for people who seek rest, want to escape the confines of their home, or simply wait to have their clothes laundered or their shoes repaired. It was not uncommon for people to own one set of clothes and one pair of shoes, so they could not easily go out while those were being cared for. Finally, the story of a duke of Saxony hiding from his creditors in the bath no doubt holds an interesting anecdote. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to verify it yet.

Der König vom Odenwald is an otherwise unknown poet whose work is tentatively dated to the 1340s. His title may refer to a senior rank among musicians or entertainers, a Spielmannskönig, but that is speculative. Many of his poems are humorous and deal with aspects of everyday life which makes them quite interesting to us today. The evident relish with which he describes food and the fact his work is first recorded in a manuscript owned by the de Leone family led scholars to consider him the author of the Buoch von Guoter Spise, but that is unlikely.

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