When Katherine Ashenburg told people that she was writing a history of washing, everyone had the same question about our ancestors: "But didn't they smell?" The short answer is yes. Fastidious time travellers would be fine if they revisited ancient Greece or Rome, when all classes were frequent visitors to communal baths. According to Ashenburg, there was a hiatus of a smelly century or so, after the fall of Rome, until the Crusaders brought back tales of wonderful hamams, sparking a craze for warm, shared bathing. (In fact, as Rome fell in 476AD and the First Crusade took place in 1099, there may have been many centuries without a bath.) A blissful century or two of bathing followed, but then the bubonic plague arrived, and with it the belief that opening the pores was terribly dangerous: for the next 400 years or so, very few people dared risk exposure to water. Not until the middle of the 18th century did washing come back into fashion.
The early Christians were especially dirty. Unlike other faiths, Christianity offers no practical advice about washing: a symbolic immersion in water accompanies baptism and it is usual to wash the newly dead, but the years in between are a desert. Occasionally clerics would wash the feet of the poor in imitation of Christ, but this was more for show than for hygiene. To be pure in heart was considered far more important than bodily purity. Spanish depictions of the saints sometimes showed them sitting in their own excrement: 4th- and 5th-century hermits and monks often chose filth as a badge of honour. This kind of mortification of the flesh was known as alousia, the state of being unwashed. St Agnes never washed any part of her body in her 13 years of life. St Francis promoted dirt.
When the Christians recaptured Cordoba from the Moors in 1236, the city had 300 hamams as well as hot and cold water in private bathrooms. Such ample opportunity for public nudity was deemed highly decadent and the hamams were shut down. Moors who converted to Christianity were not allowed to take baths and a damning piece of evidence during the Inquisition, levelled against Moors and Jews alike, was that the accused "was known to bathe".
Ashenburg is interesting about status and bathing. She quotes George Orwell, who in 1937 recalled words often heard during his childhood: "The lower classes smell." Somerset Maugham wrote, in 1922: "I do not blame the working man because he stinks, but stink he does." While Vita Sackville-West complained: "And my God how workmen smell . . . How I hate the proletariat."
Orwell believed that "the chasmic, impassable quality of class distinctions in the west" owed much to this middle-class disdain for the perceived lack of hygiene among the working class. In fact, Ashenburg says, such social distinctions only came about in the period of urbanisation during the Industrial Revolution. The ancients encouraged bathing for all, including slaves; the early-medieval communal baths of Europe were similarly egalitarian. During the four centuries of unwashing, royalty may even have smelled worse than anyone else, given that the health risks associated with water were too grave to be tried on such important people as kings.
Ashenburg is a lively and entertaining guide, but there are puzzling holes in her account. Only a page or two is given to soap, reflecting how it was hardly used until the 19th century, except for washing of clothes. I would have like more: its constituents, how much it cost, what it smelled like at various points in its genesis; perhaps a paragraph on carbolic and coal-tar soaps. (What has happened to coal-tar soap?) She barely mentions scent. Laundering is given scant attention, housework none at all; yet these are surely areas closely connected with bodily cleanliness.
Although she brings her narrative up to date, she says nothing of the current craze for colonic irrigation, but devotes several pages to the equally absurd Sixties fashion for vaginal deodorants. More seriously, she omits to mention the link (in the public imagination, at any rate) between New York bathhouses of the late 1970s and the spread of Aids, this despite the book's repeated assertions of the sexual licence of bathhouses and the resulting moral opprobrium across millennia. Clean is about European and North American custom - Ashenburg lives in Toronto - but, frustratingly, the rest of the world doesn't get a look-in. She does no more than allude to Japanese and Indian washing rituals.
If there are deficiencies here, there are also excesses. These may be the fault not of the author, but of the publisher. Whoever the culprit, someone must have decided that a history of washing would be too taxing for the general reader. Accordingly, almost every page of text is broken up like crazy paving to include little boxes of extra text or drawings. It's maddening. Nevertheless, this is a sparkling, discursive and witty history: good, clean fun.
Cressida Connolly's most recent book is "The Rare and the Beautiful: the Lives of the Garmans" (Fourth Estate)