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The Ceremony of the (Bubble) Bath – Ancient and Modern

Illustration of chamber pot being emptied into medieval streetTo my mind, the best way for a History teacher to grab the children’s attention in a lesson is to tell them something memorably gross.  

If you “did” the Middle Ages in a British school, you will certainly remember learning about the medieval concept of emptying a chamber pot out of an upper floor window, with a cry of  “gardy-loo”. It’s corrupt old French for “look out for the water!” – a euphemism if ever there was one. The use of molten tar to stop an amputated limb from bleeding (talk about a sledgehammer to crack a nut!)  went down well in my Year 7 History class. Miss Edwards was not pleased that we kept going up to ask her about it individually, all wanting to hear the horrible description from her own lips for ourselves.

Need a great fact about the ancient Egyptians? Mummification techniques are always a good starting point: e.g. pulling the brain out through the nose with a gadget  resembling a crochet hook.  (There’s some cross-over for needlework lessons there, too.)

Studying the ancient Romans is always good for a few cries of “Ewww, miss!” with their unendearing habit of eating dormice (how much meat can there be on a dormouse?), as is scraping the previously oiled dirt off a bather’s skin with a tool called a stygil. Would this practice really make a person cleaner rather than dirtier? we wondered. The idea made my class very glad to go home to our suburban baths with our bottles of Matey bubbles.

Roman Baths Aquae Sulis   9

Although my own  school education has itself receded into ancient history, those lessons  “doing” the Romans come back to me vividly on a visit to the wonderful Roman Baths Museum in the ancient city of Bath. In the cool, dark room alongside the series of small plunge pools, I stand reading a notice on the wall: the procedure for taking an ancient Roman-style bath. You disrobe and step into a series of successively hotter baths, before the old oil massage/stygil service is provided by an obliging slave. The final rinse and shine is provided by an optional leap into a cold plunge pool (eek!) To me, it reads like a refresher course: I’ve never forgotten that old school history lesson.

Dozens of overeas tourists pass this notice by unread, but with their audioguide at their ear, they hear the litany of the bath repeated in French, German, Japanese, Dutch.   No-one speaks: the museum is too awesome and this dim and shady atmosphere acts as a further damper on conversation. Unusually, the Roman Baths were also a temple, and the reverential atmosphere of a holy place still hangs over the gently steaming green waters. There’s also a sense of intruding on people’s privacy: images of “real” living Romans going about their bath ritual are projected onto the ancient walls of the place. More than once, I see one out of the corner of my eye and believe a real person is about to plunge into the pools.

Bottle of Matey Bubble Bath (modern packaging)And then I’m struck with a sense of the bizarre. What would the average bathing Roman think if he could see the multi-million,  high-technology tourist attraction that his daily bath venue has now become? I try to think of an equivalent that might remain from 21st century life a thousand years down the line. Certainly not the single, small bath of modern times, generally taken alone. It simply does not measure up, even for the biggest bath addict who plans their ablutions with military precision: entering the bathroom armed with a book to prop up on the bath rack, perfumed bubble bath, scented candle, glass of wine and bar of chocolate. (Or is that just me?) There’s nothing in there to gladden the heart of 22nd century children, no gross rituals to send a ripple of excitement around the History classroom.

Nor is it the socially unifying force of the ancient Romans. The closest thing we have to the Roman Bath House is probably the modern gym. Will the modern obsession for joining a gym in pursuit of physical fitness stand the test of time? (It’s never worked for me, even now.) I suppose it could make an interesting tour:

  • visit the self-torture machines and try to detect what each one is for
  • try to work out why so many people joined the gym each January and never went in other months of the year
  • list gym etiquette tips, such as bringing your own small towel to wipe your sweat off each piece of equipment after use (ok, so that one is slightly gross)
A head of Minerva found in ruins of Roman bath...
The goddess Minerva, found in ruins of Roman baths in Bath, England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The lost property book would make no less interesting reading that the tiny scraps of lead that have been fished out of the spring in Bath. These listed the items stolen from people while they bathed and were sued to solicit vengeful curses from the goddess Minerva. This makes for an endearing display, reminding us that these ancient Roman bathers were ordinary people, just like us.

Another interesting exhibit would be the curious snacks and drinks containers obtained from vending machines – and a collection of coins and coin-like tokens found stuck inside them. I can hear the future’s children now: “Did they really drink that bright blue stuff? Did Powerade give them superpowers?”

But sadly there’s nothing there to truly compete with the allure of the ancient Roman baths. I say, bring back the stygil!

If you enjoyed this post, you might like the previous one inspired by the same visit:

New Beginnings and Old Friends in Ancient Cities


English author of warm, witty cosy mystery novels including the popular Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries and the Gemma Lamb/St Bride's School series. Novels published by Boldwood Books, all other books by Hawkesbury Press. Represented by Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agents. Founder and director of the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival. Course tutor for Jericho Writers. UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors. Lives and writes in her Victorian cottage in the heart of the beautiful Cotswold countryside.

10 thoughts on “The Ceremony of the (Bubble) Bath – Ancient and Modern

    1. Gosh, that’s a frightening thought, Laura! I sometimes think how cumbersome it must have been in olden days to have to read from scrolls and even clay tablets. I wonder whether generations to come will feel the same about print books, as opposed to e-readers? I hope not! Much as I love my Kindle, there’s nothing like a public library for engendering a lifelong love of books! Thanks for such an interesting comment, Laura!

  1. Wow it seems like you had a lovely trip down memory lane. Glad you like the new displays at the Roman Baths and glad you enjoyed your visit to Bath!

    1. Thank you very much! I’m sure I won’t leave it so long till we visit again next time – and we’ll allow much longer for our visit, too, as there’s so much to take in!

    1. It’s probably about that long since my previous visit too, actually – I was amazed at the transformation. They seem to treat it as an ongoing development project – the latest part of the display opened just six weeks ago! Definitely worth another visit if you’re in the neighbourhood. I’m now planning to revisit the Costume Museum again soon, as I haven’t been there since it had it’s multi-million pound makeover a few years ago. Watch this space as I’m sure that will inspire another post too!

      1. i wish the untied states had a bath like room does that would be so cool . if we did i would go in on e to cool of my bad temper and the warm pool foe relaxing and having fun with friends and couples.

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