Medieval Bathing Link Round Up – watch out there’s nudity!

I knew almost nothing about how people in pre-modern Europe took baths at the start of yesterday and then fell down a rabbit hole and learned all sorts of things.

So to start:

  • Obviously, I knew the Romans had communal baths and England even has a town named after the fact (Manchester*)
  • Jewish and Islamic cultures had there own things going on with baths and bathing.
  • Russia, Finland and Scandinavia had a whole bunch of other things going on with saunas.
  • Yes, there are blogs about medieval baths.

This article seems to be a very good overview of baths and bathing

“The use of couple bathing as a romantic prelude to coition is demonstrated in 14th through 16th century illustrations. Legal history suggests that ordinary public bath-houses were often segregated by gender, or different times or days were restricted for each gender. Private bath-rooms in castles, such as the one at Leeds, could often accommodate multiple bathers as well.”

Running through this is history are several contrasting themes:

  • Baths as a source of cleanliness and the association of cleanliness with virtue and health.
  • Baths as a recreational activity, a luxury and a source of luxury.
  • Baths as sexy.
  • Baths as not-at-all sexy as you had to have your bath by yourself in clothes and with cold water.
  • Baths as social activities.
  • Baths as a dangerous source of disease (not without cause because people mingling but often based on spurious theories).

Fair to say that the messages around baths and bathing were a bit mixed for much of European history.

I don’t know how well sourced some of these claims are so please do your own due diligence. However, I liked this snippet:

“Meanwhile, the Anglo-Saxons believed that the Vikings were overly concerned with cleanliness since they took a bath once a week.”

And this snippet with accompanying picture:

“In her book Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity Virginia Smith explains,”By the fifteenth-century, bath feasting in many town bathhouses seems to have been as common as going out to a restaurant was to become four centuries later. German bath etchings from the fifteenth century often feature the town bathhouse, with a long row of bathing couples eating a meal naked in bathtubs, often several to a tub, with other couples seen smiling in beds in the mid-distance.””


The Wikipedia article has a broad survey of public bathing

This post is another broad overview:

“King Henry III even had a special room for the purpose of washing his hair.”

And here we get an overview that includes brushing your teeth:

*[OK not Manchester but it is funnier if it is Manchester]

Speaking of Fantastical Drawings…

Has the secret of the Voynich Manuscript been revealed! No, probably not. See here for background

The Guardian article relates to a claim in the foreword of a new facsimile edition of the infamously inscrutable book.

“Pointing to the fact that the pictures show only nude women and no men, Skinner told the Guardian: “The only place you see women like that bathing together in Europe at that time was in the purification baths that have been used by Orthodox Jews for the last 2,000 years.”

He believes the drawings were of an invention designed by the mysterious author that aimed to ensure an efficient supply of clean water to a mikvah. “I think there is no other explanation for what they are: it is either rank fantasy by the author – which doesn’t really fit with the medical, herbal and cosmological sections of the manuscript – or it is a mikvah,” he said.”

Here is an example of one of the women bathing images:


I’m not saying that the original author couldn’t have been both Italian and Jewish. Italian is not unlikely given the book’s history and learned Jewish doctors were writing books in fifteenth-century Italy. It’s as good as guess as any. However, the idea that the pictures must represent something the original author must have seen doesn’t hold water. While the detailed plant images suggest drawings of real (but perhaps unusual) plants, the various ‘women bathing’ images are very inventive:


[more here ]

The work overall is very visually imaginative, so while it isn’t impossible the author was inspired by ritual baths, “women having a bath” wouldn’t be the hardest thing to imagine for the author without having a particular inspiration – particularly compared with women having a bath in convoluted, quasi-organic contraptions that spill around the whole page.

Maybe the author just liked the idea of having baths with other women or just liked imagining women naked having baths in really freaky plumbing. Either way, the author clearly had an extraordinary visual imagination (if not always the best drawing skills).


Interactive Map!

Sadly, I can’t make an interactive map on the blog because of the way WordPress works. However, over in my more tinkering friendly workshop…

That was a fun exercise – basically, it uses Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) and Javascript. The SVG is exported from the graphic program I made the original map in but I can access each layer programmatically. Learning is fun! Nerdy learning is funner! Nerdy learning with graphics is funnest!

Speaking of fun – Paul Weimer has written a defence of fantasy maps (or at least a defence of the good ones)

Revisiting the Map of Middle Earth

So I’m back on a map kick it seems.

I thought I’d look at the most classic of fantasy maps again but from a different perspective. Part of the problem and the attraction of Tolkien’s original map is the additional detail and a sense of a bigger explorable world. What happens if we strip that away and while we are at it making the right-angle problem a bit worse?


Continue reading “Revisiting the Map of Middle Earth”

Some Fantasy Map Links Round Up Thing

This article by Alex Acks at is nearly a month old now but I did mean to post a link to it because it is is very good: The article looks specifically at the iconic map of Middle Earth by J.R.R.Tolkien. (Also read this previous column which is less specifically about maps but more about geography )

More recently Alex Acks has written a more general set of geomorphological issues with fantasy maps in the provocatively titled I Don’t Like Fantasy Maps

A broader discussion of maps in fantasy literature appeared mid-August at Longreads here by Adrian Duab (and also links to Alex Acks’s article)

And chasing links in that article will take you to the website home of a fun Twitter account that generates plausible looking fictional maps Worth checking out other things there including the original Deserts of the West and the Emoji Map generator. Also, a write up on Martin O’Leary’s map bots at National Geographic 

Going back to 2015 a more manual way of making less dodgy fantasy maps: 

While I’m here and heading back further in time:

Wired article on Jonathan Roberts 2013

And his blog on how to draw fantasy maps

A different Jonathan – Jonathan Crowe – with a 2013 article on another problem with fantasy maps: they are anachronistic and follow modern sensibility of maps rather than according to the pseudo-medieval settings of the books

A collection of notable fantasy maps from io9 in 2013

And last but not least a how-to from i09 in 2015

[ETA This article by Sarah Gailey about her map of alt-history Louisianna for River of Teeth  ]

[ETA Paul Weimer has a new post partly in response to Alex Acks’s post ]

[ETA Fantasy city generator ]