We often hear that in times gone by, people didn’t wash and smelled bad. Well, wait… What does “times gone by” refer to? Basically, this refers to the entire human history up until the second that just passed. This is not serious. We must be more specific. For the purpose of addressing this topic, we’ll focus on the period from the 16th to the 18th century, i.e. the modern age. Let’s rephrase the question. Is it correct to say that during the early modern age, people didn’t wash and smelled bad? There is another problem. Of course. Because to say that they smelled bad involves a value judgment. What we are doing is applying our 21st century sensitivities onto an age when the mind-set was different from our own. We should therefore throw this question away and start over by taking a look at History. Let’s ask the following question: what were the personal hygiene practices of the modern age and what underlying medical tenets were they based on? Because we cannot discuss hygiene without referring to medicine. Before we delve into this, let’s give a few anecdotes in order to place ourselves in the context and understand the thinking of that era. Louis XIV, everybody knows Louis XIV, Louis the Great, the powerful king who loved grandiose luxury in his Versailles palace, except… Louis XIV took very few baths in his life. One early on in his marriage, twenty in 1665 following his physician’s instructions, and one last one in 1715, i.e. thirty years later, which was merely a foot bath at that. Another anecdote: At the beginning of the 17th century, Henry IV of France wrote to his minister, Sully “Come, I need you, we have important matters to discuss.” To which Sully responded (I am paraphrasing): Listen… I am in the middle of taking a bath… this is something new that I am trying. I will join you as soon as I am done. Henry IV then told him: No, no, no! Stay home! I don’t want to see you! Take your bath and lock yourself inside! What was happening? Why this visceral reaction to bathing which clearly, was perceived somewhat… negatively. Well, in the modern period, people were distrustful of water. They believed that keeping clean meant having a good layer of grime to prevent what was called “bad humors” from penetrating the skin. Therefore, personal hygiene was part of an entire system of thought. Personal hygiene is associated with food and drink the influence of the weather, and everything that is external to the body. The skin must block outside influences, hence the usefulness of having a layer of grease. The body is in contact with the outside,and it was even said that it is in resonance with the universe, that the body is a microcosm within a macrocosm, and that it is connected with the planets, the weather, plants, and minerals. Everything! The world is condensed within the human. But what is inside the human being? What defines humans? According to Ancient medicine, there are four main humors that determine a person’s health. First, there is the blood, which is the life force and elixir of vitality. Then you have yellow bile which is the gastric fluid that is used for digestion. Phlegm (sweat, tears) cools and lubricates the body. Finally, black bile, which is never pure, is responsible for obscuring fluids. These four major humors interact with each other, they give and sustain life. When one of these humors is in a state referred as plethora, i.e. in excess, it must be expelled. It worked because it was part of a coherent system that explained the world as well as illness. So, the conception of cleanliness in the period between the 16th and the 18th century was related to the humoral theory. But how come there was a fear of water? In ancient and medieval times, water was not feared. We’ve even found baths, including thermal and steam baths, as well as magnificent medieval illuminations depicting people bathing in rivers. What brought on this fear of water in the modern era? Well, they considered that bathing was a pagan ritual, but even more importantly, that there was an increased risk of contamination with serious diseases in baths. This is why they feared and shunned the water. However, this doesn’t mean that they didn’t keep clean. There were personal hygiene routines, one of the important ones being the rubbing cloth: an immaculate white piece of cloth, with not a stain on it, used for rubbing the hands and the face. Cleanliness was cleansing through rubbing. When did all this change? When was the use of water re-introduced into personal hygiene practices? When did people start washing themselves with water again? Bathing regained importance at the beginning of the 18th century. At that time, warm water was used to relax and stay healthy, while cold baths were said to tighten the skin and heal as well. A number of physicians prescribed bathing to their patients for healing purposes. Another element is that the theory of humors gradually became obsolete. Physiology came to the fore along with new personal hygiene practices. Gradually we came to the sensitivity of today: skin, like streets in the city, should be open, because air and blood circulation are vital to health. Nineteenth century medicine came to be known as the hygienist medicine and this is when water took over. It was introduced everywhere. One must wash as much as possible in order to avoid diseases of all kinds. The movement continues towards improved cleanliness, more soap, and less germs. Really? In January 2017, the Swiss daily “Le Temps” ran a story about “paleo” less soap, fewer showers, and less laundry. We almost come back to the idea that the less we wash, the cleaner we are! It’s funny because we thought that our standards in relation to cleanliness were set. Does this mean that we go back and forth from time to time? Of course! Above all this shows that history is not an endless trend towards higher standards for personal hygiene. We are returning to early modern age practices. Perhaps we should be more moderate in our views and judgement about this period, and avoid applying our sensitivities to times gone by.