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Sociability and the Function of the Public Bath

The bath was not a place for sex. Men and women went separately on different days, as was established in a law decreed by James I.: "ni los homes se banyen en los mateixos banys los dies que.s banyen les dones"[nor are men to bathe in the same baths on the days when women bathe]. However, these regulations were to some extent a reflection of real problems that were to be eradicated. In 1324, James II was informed that in Valencia a few men violently forced their way into these establishments when women were bathing. As a result, he ordered the Royal Magistrate to prohibit males past the age of childhood from entering the baths of this city when women were bathing. The document does not address the issue of sexual abuse or rape. It only seems to allude to a conflict concerning the age limit of the males who could be admitted with their mothers, as is customary in the Muslim world. Nonetheless, the danger of disturbances is obvious. The charters of Usagre (1267-75) and Cáceres (1267-69) established a fine of one maravedí for any man or woman who entered the bath on the day reserved for the opposite sex, regardless of the situation. However, Ruíz-Moreno states that, according to the laws of Cuenca (1190), Iznatoraf (1190) and Zorita de los Canes (1180), "there was no punishment against a man for raping a woman who had entered the bath on a day designated for men. On the other hand, a man who raped a woman on a day reserved for women would face the death penalty".
The bath definitely presented serious possibilities for transgressing societal norms, in terms of unacceptable sexual behaviours, and for injuring the honour of women. This was a great destabilising factor, seeing, as R. Narbona points out, that objectively, the most susceptible groups to such behaviours belonged to the lowest levels of society. For this reason, the occasions were checked in a drastic and seemingly efficient way.
It appears that people rarely went or remained alone in the bath. On this point, there might have been noticeable differences between men and women, although information is lacking about the former group. We do know the case of the residents of Alcoi in the 13 th century who used to gather at a nearby bath to chat and discuss business. Women, on the other hand, were accompanied by children and servants, whose attendance was regulated by different charters, such as the Charter of Tortosa. The male children could accompany their mothers until the age of puberty, at which time, as we have seen, they had to go on the days reserved for men. In the Islamic world, the first time an adolescent went to the bath with the men was a very memorable event, a kind of rite of passage into manhood.
Neither the children nor the servants paid to enter. The latter helped their masters, bringing them buckets of water, rinsing them, massaging them. The use of servants—female servants—seems, however, to have been more common for women.
The known documents indicate that it was fairly typical for people to bring all the necessary bathing utensils with them. As a result, buckets were practically the only implements found in bath houses.
An incident that took place in a Valencian bath at the end of the 14 th century is worth a full description, as it offers us a vivid picture of what attending the public baths might have entailed for a group of women: who they went with, what they did and how they did it, with the added interest of a conflict. This was the case of the Bany d'En Suau or the Market Bath, whose proceedings before the Criminal Magistrate have been preserved. The trial started a few days after the event, on 15 October 1397, and went on until at least 18 February 1398. We will try and reconstruct the events based on the statements of Joan Suau and Tomasa de Montpaó. [See the Spanish version of this section for the original quotes, which are in the Valencian language.]
The conflict took place on a Saturday—the day before the Sunday festivities—in autumn, in the middle of October. That day, Tomasa, the wife of a smith named Gil de Montpaó, went to the En Suau bath accompanied by other women: "they came to said bath in order to bathe, as it is customary". The small group was formed by Tomasa, her daughter and her sister-in-law, the wife of Garcia de Montpaó, and one of the latter's Moorish servants.
According to Joan Suau, the aforementioned Tomasa, "against customary practices in the bath", went in with a large quantity of different sized garments, "in the way someone would carry his washing" and, positioning herself among the other women in the bath, she took out the clothes and began to wash them, using cold and hot water as she pleased, depending on which suited her needs, in spite of the complaints of the other bathers:
"She took said clothes and, in the middle of the other women who were there to bathe in said baths, against the will of said women, taking hot and cold water as she pleased in order to do her washing, she washed said clothes in said bath, in an unaccustomed place, where such a thing is never done".
The other women, faced with a shortage in the supply of water ("la fretura que passaven de la aygua"), called a woman named Elena, a servant at the bath and Joan Suau's slave, to attend to them properly, "to supply them properly", and threatened to leave the premises.
In Tomasa's defence, the events are described in a very different, if not opposite, way. She and her companions said "we went to the bath called the Market Bath simply to bathe". Once adapted to the interior of the baths, Tomasa immediately began to use the services of her sister-in-law's Muslim servant, to fetch water for her. First a bucket of hot water, where she admits to having put clothes to soak, and later a tub of cold water to mix with the hot: "the Moorish woman… brought Mrs. Tomasa a bucketful of hot water, where she put her clothes. And then, using a tub, she brought her cold water to cool down the hot."
According to Joan Suau's lawsuit, Elena, "a good woman of good status", politely said to Tomasa the following words: "Lady, for the love of God, don't do so much harm by trying to wash so many clothes in the bath, you have so many that it looks like you are doing your whole washing, and normally people don't wash so many clothes at the bath", which indicates that it was not unusual to wash a few clothes in a public bath.
As for the rest, Tomasa's version again differs substantially. Elena came to the place where this woman was and, "very tempestuously", took the bucket of water that Tomasa was using with the intention of taking it away. Then, Tomasa, not knowing that Elena was a slave, told her "quite simply" to leave the bucket alone, "for she had had them brought and had cooled down the water".
Joan Suau admitted that he kept his slaves "captive" to "serve in this bath". Among these women was Elena, a Tartar, who Suau had assigned to "attend to the people who come here for bathing". This individual also testified that the captive earned four sueldos a day, "doing her lawful and honest chores, in said bath as elsewhere". Also, again according to Suau, when faced with Elena's polite requests, Tomasa reacted by pushing her on to the floor and, as she was falling, she hit a bench and was not able to get up:
"With great harm, disdain and injury to the above mentioned Mr. Johan Suau, master of said Elena, a captive and a servant, she acted diabolically and with evil intent… she took the said Elena… and, while lying on the floor, she pushed the said slave so hard… that she fell and hit the bench, so hard was the cruel blow that she couldn't get up until another woman helped her up".
Joan Suau added that, because of the blows she received, his Tartar slave was in danger of dying, and if she managed to survive she would be "injured and confined to a chair for the rest of her life". He then suggested monetary compensation for the damage this event had caused him, taking into account that in his opinion the life expectancy for a Tartar is about a hundred years.
As we have seen, Tomasa's explanation differed radically. When she protested in a fair and restrained way, Elena rudely tried to take the bucket away. Suau's slave then responded by screaming at Tomasa "you mean whore, you will get my pail!", snatching the bucket away and hitting her on the head with it: "and she pulled so hard that she took said bucket from Ms. Tomasa and with said bucket she gave Tomasa such a blow on her head that she almost killed her."
Immediately, the other women that were in the bath "and were in said establishment" advised Tomasa to quickly leave the place: "Lady, get out of the bath and be careful that she doesn't kill you! Leave at once!" And very carefully, "fearful of the said slave, she left the hot room and got her clothes to dress herself without having bathed". But the alleged assault did not end there since, according to Tomasa, Suau's slave followed her. As she was going to get dressed, the Tartar, blaspheming and insulting her, took her clothes and threw them on the bath floor. Then, Elena attacked Tomasa, hitting her in the stomach with her head and scratching her breasts until the victim was able to get loose and flee:
"The said slave, not having enough with what she had done… chased Ms. Tomasa and violently took away her clothes, which she was trying to put on in order to leave for fear that the said slave would hurt her, and she threw them around the bath while blaspheming and insulting Ms. Tomasa. And she has a reputation for this. Also she says… that, to make matters worse, the slave jumped on Ms. Tomasa and with her head she gave her a great blow on the stomach and scratched her breasts and her chest, and she would have certainly killed her if the latter hadn't made an effort to leave the bath, or at least, the place where she was."
And to finish her story, Tomasa explained that the contusions that Elena suffered were self-inflicted. Outraged by not having finished her attack on Tomasa, the slave hit herself on the tile floor of the bath: "then, since she couldn't finish or kill Ms. Tomasa, she very maliciously laid on the floor, on the tiles of the said bath, and gave herself great blows." Tomasa, of course, considered herself to be a woman "of good reputation and polite". As for Elena's character, she claimed that she was "slandering, proud, tempestuous", and that "she often commits crimes like this and even greater ones". She added that she had been sold several times because of her bad behaviour.
The case of the Bany d'En Suau is certainly very interesting. Firstly, because it reconstructs the environment of the establishment:
- There was a service of hot and cold water at the disposal of the bathers, depending on their needs.
- It seems rather clear that the women remained seated or lying down on benches while they bathed.
- The hot water was served to the bathers in a bucket, and later it was mixed with the cold water that was brought in a tub.
- The room called the "casa calda" [hot house] and the vestibule are both distinguishable.
- The bath was totally or partially covered with tiles.
Secondly, this case is important in order to understand the normal habits of bath users. For example, the fact that the protagonist and her companions usually went to the bath on Saturdays indicates that bathing was a routine cleansing activity before the Sunday festivity. Also, the obvious need for servants stands out. The clients' own servants and those working at the bath were both needed to constantly supply the women with water–in this case, Tomasa's excessive demands disrupted the supply for the others. Discovering the custom of doing a small load of washing within the bath is also important: Tomasa's action only implied an excessive abuse of a common practice.
The historical reference to medieval baths most often quoted in Spanish is by the poet Jaume Roig. In a passage of his work L'Espill , he describes the night visits that the protagonist's wife makes to two baths in the city of Valencia. Both baths are documented: one is that of En Sanou, in the Sant Llorenç parish and, as luck would have it, the other bath cited in the text is the Bany d'En Suau, the same one where the aforementioned incidents between Tomasa and Elena took place. This coincidence allows us to make a clear contrast between two very different perceptions on how baths were taken.
In reality, the poet was not the least bit interested in bathing practices, although later on the female character reproaches her husband for not acknowledging the "colour", the "softness", the "smell" and "such smooth skin" she had acquired after the bath. This practice was actually not restricted to just bathing: once inside the bath house, she and her companions take off their clothes—and indicating that this must have been done in the warm room, with a suitable level of humidity and heat, with ample space—they unroll carpets ("tapits"), probably so as not to slip on the tiles, and they dance, jump and play on them. They have food, drinks and refined preserves brought in. They put on make-up and expensive perfumes made of "benzoin, amber, herbal essences and musk". Therefore, it seem that the effects of a visit to the bath house were not (exclusively) due to the beneficial property of the water. As P. Iradiel has noted, "softness" points to the realm of make-up and cosmetics and "smell" to the use of essences, balms, and sophisticated practices of perfumery.
Feminine beautification constituted one of the functions of the bath, though a secondary one. The story from The Bad Woman's Book of Tricks (Libro de los Engaños de las malas mujeres), from the beginning of the 14 th century, confirms that the first step of any woman who was undergoing a beauty treatment was to go to the bath. The bath was also the place to apply cosmetics. In the treatise De ornatu mulierum , Arnau de Vilanova recommends going to the bath before hair-removal or hair dying.
Iradiel has also pointed out the festive function that the bathing practice acquired simultaneously, in which the body was celebrated in a playful manner. But, it did not go unnoticed that the frequency of this leisure time "increases as we go up the social ladder". The contrast between Tomasa and the woman from Espill is very clear. The image of women washing clothes in tubs, amongst the hectic traffic of water buckets, seems appallingly coarse when compared with the elegant night gathering that supposedly took place in the same bath. One should think twice, however, before accepting Vigarello's notion that the medieval bath was a place of pleasures and feasting, an environment of bountifulness which recalls the verses of Jaume Roig. The sources used by this author are exclusively literary and are outside of the geographic realm of the hamman.
Perhaps we could speak of two different uses of the public bath: on the one hand, the strong element of entertainment associated with the affluent classes' use of the baths and, on the other hand, the lower classes' orientation towards the needs and routines of hygiene practices: "to simply bathe". The former is obviously addressed more often in literary sources from the time, but these should be read with certain reservations and duly contrasted with other documents.
As we have said, the assumption that public baths were "houses of pleasure", or the idea that they were brothels in disguise, is even less credible. French medieval literature certainly shows the bath as a meeting place for lovers, who made themselves comfortable in private areas. Such areas, however, did not exist in the hamman and compartments were not found in the three rooms where people bathed. Immersion baths, where men and women could enjoy the water together, as seen in certain iconography from the Lower Middle Ages, did not exist in the hamman either. The vague remarks about "sensual pleasures", which even the Valencian historian Sanchis Sivera was known to make, hardly respond to the daily reality of the public baths known in the Iberian peninsula.
What is left then, regarding the real function of the bath, asides from its inevitable social aspect, is none other than the sophisticated practice of hygiene. Already in the 12 th century, a legend told by Aymeric Picaud shows a peasant from Navarra going to a "Saracen" bath after having spent the day threshing in the field. On the other end of the timeline we are working with, in 1567, we should recall the good sense shown by the famous Morisco from Granada, Francisco Muley Núñez in his reaction to the decree issued by Philip II which, among other things, intended to abolish the baths:
"The baths were developed for bodily cleanliness. It is not to be believed that women get together with men there, because where so many people go, no one can keep a secret: they have other opportunities to get together, especially seeing as men do not enter when women are inside...".
The words attributed to Hernando de Válor on the same subject are another valuable and expressive statement along the same lines: "Our wives shall live without baths, which were introduced so many years ago, and we shall see them at home, sad, dirty and sick, whereas cleanliness had made them happy and healthy".
Although their use was still important in the first third of the 16 th century, in the time of Philip II public baths were already scarce, rarely frequented, and looked down upon. The moral attitudes of the Counterreformation, with its aversion to nudity, together with epidemics, discredited the practice of bathing. Of course, it was not a question of serious plague epidemics, as the deadliest plague episodes had taken place two centuries before. The fear of syphilis, brought from the Americas, must have had a greater effect. Lucio Marineo Sículo attributed the disappearance of the baths in Toledo to this cause around 1530: "they wasted little time there because the people did not dare enter them for fear that the sick with buboes were bathing there". However, the fact that hamman-style bathing establishments did survive in cities like Seville and Valencia until after the 17 th century, forces us to qualify the incidence of syphilis, although in many cities the appearance of this disease did contribute to hasten the closing of bathhouses.
The affluent classes stopped attending the baths and references to the festive uses of these establishments disappeared. As Vigarello pointed out, the alternative to baths was the practice of "clothes hygiene", based on the frequent washing of garments, changing the shirt on a daily basis, and rubbing the body with lotions and perfumes. It should be remarked that this supposed hygiene consisting in a daily change of clothes and the use of aromas became less feasible as one went down the social ladder.
The location of the Valencian baths in operation during the 16 th and 17 th centuries, starting with the Bany del Carreró itself (later called "del Almirant"), points to relatively marginal neighbourhoods, away from the best areas of the city. Five or six baths remained, squeezed into alleyways (the ones of Carreró and la Corona), or in areas where people passed on their way in or out of Valencia (the Sant Llorenç and the Torres baths) or in student neighbourhoods (Bany de l'Estudi). In 1653 in 1653José Vicente Olmo wrote about the latter in his book Lithologia : " And not many days ago, on account of its indecency and great disadvantages, a warning has been issued against the bath adjacent to the University and across the biggest sanctuary in the city, the School of Corpus Christi."
We can finish with some verses by Jaume Orts, of the Valencian Academia de Nocturnos (end of the 16 th century), collected by Rubió, which gives us a good idea of how the baths were considered in the literary circles of the time:
Shoot with a shotgun
the meek husband
who tells his wife:
go to the bath, dear
When a woman leans
toward such desire,
bathe her in your room
with a resin cloth.
And if this hasn't softened her
And still she wants more,
set her hair on fire
and beat her with a stick...