“Ladies in a state of Nature; that is, in plain English, stark naked”
James, Bishop of Nisibis, in the fourth century, was a man of great holiness. We are told by Thedoret that once, when James had newly come into Persia, it was vouchsafed to him to perform a miracle under the following circumstances: He chanced to pass by a fountain where young women were washing their linen, and, his modesty being profoundly shocked by the exposure involved in this occupation, he cursed the fountain, which instantly dried up, and he changed the hair of the girls from black to a sandy color. (Jortin, Remarks on Ecclesiastical History, vol. iii, p. 4).
Procopius, writing in the sixth century after Christ, and narrating how the Empress Theodora, in early life, would often appear almost naked before the public in the theatre, adds that she would willingly have appeared altogether nude, but that “no woman is allowed to expose herself altogether, unless she wears at least short drawers over the lower part of the abdomen.” Chrysostom mentions, at the end of the fourth century, that Arcadius attempted to put down the August festival (Majuma), during which women appeared naked in the theatres, or swimming in large baths.
In mediæval days, “ladies, at all events, as represented by the poets, were not, on the whole, very prudish. Meleranz surprised a lady who was taking a bath under a lime tree; the bath was covered with samite, and by it was a magnificent ivory bed, surrounded by tapestries representing the history of Paris and Helen, the destruction of Troy, the adventures of Æneas, etc.
As Meleranz rides by, the lady’s waiting-maids run away; she herself, however, with quick decision, raises the samite which covers the tub, and orders him to wait on her in place of the maids. He brings her shift and mantle, and shoes, and then stands aside till she is dressed; when she has placed herself on the bed, she calls him back and commands him to drive away the flies while she sleeps. Strange to say, the men are represented as more modest than the women. When two maidens prepared a bath for Parzival, and proposed to bathe him, according to custom, the inexperienced young knight was shy, and would not enter the bath until they had gone; on another occasion, he jumped quickly into bed when the maidens entered the room. When Wolfdieterich was about to undress, he had to ask the ladies who pressed around him to leave him alone for a short time, as he was ashamed they should see him naked. When Amphons of Spain, bewitched by his step-mother into a were-wolf, was at last restored, and stood suddenly naked before her, he was greatly ashamed. The maiden who healed Iwein was tender of his modesty. In his love-madness, the hero wanders for a time naked through the wood; three women find him asleep, and send a waiting-maid to annoint him with salve; when he came to himself, the maiden hid herself. On the whole, however, the ladies were not so delicate; they had no hesitation in bathing with gentlemen, and on these occasions would put their finest ornaments on their heads. I know no pictures of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries representing such a scene, but such baths in common are clearly represented in miniatures of the fifteenth century.” (A. Schultz, Das Höfische Leben zur Zeit der Minnesänger, vol. i, p. 225).
“In the years 1450-70, the use of the cod-piece was introduced, whereby the attributes of manhood were accentuated in the most shameless manner. It was, in fact, the avowed aim at that period to attract attention to these parts. The cod-piece was sometimes colored differently from the rest of the garments, often stuffed out to enlarge it artificially, and decorated with ribbons.” (Rudeck, Geschichte der öffentlichen Sittlichkeit in Deutschland, pp. 45-48; Dufour, Histoire de la Prostitution, vol. vi, pp. 21-23. Groos refers to the significance of this fashion, Spiele der Menschen, p. 337).
“The first shirt began to be worn [in Germany] in the sixteenth century. From this fact, as well as from the custom of public bathing, we reach the remarkable result, that for the German people, the sight of complete nakedness was the daily rule up to the sixteenth century. Everyone undressed completely before going to bed, and, in the vapor-baths, no covering was used. Again, the dances, both of the peasants and the townspeople, were characterized by very high leaps into the air. It was the chief delight of the dancers for the male to raise his partner as high as possible in the air, so that her dress flew up. That feminine modesty was in this respect very indifferent, we know from countless references made in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It must not be forgotten that throughout the middle ages women wore no underclothes, and even in the seventeenth century, the wearing of drawers by Italian women was regarded as singular. That with the disappearance of the baths, and the use of body-linen, a powerful influence was exerted on the creation of modesty, there can be little doubt.” (Rudeck, op. cit., pp. 57, 399, etc.).
In 1461, when Louis XI entered Paris, three very beautiful maidens, quite naked, represented the Syrens, and declaimed poems before him; they were greatly admired by the public. In 1468, when Charles the Bold entered Lille, he was specially pleased, among the various festivities, with a representation of the Judgment of Paris, in which the three goddesses were nude. When Charles the Fifth entered Antwerp, the most beautiful maidens of the city danced before him, in nothing but gauze, and were closely contemplated by Dürer, as he told his friend, Melancthon. (B. Ritter, “Nuditäten im Mittelalter,” Jahrbücher für Wissenschaft und Kunst, 1855, p. 227; this writer shows how luxury, fashion, poverty, and certain festivals, all combined to make nudity familiar; cf. Fahne, Der Carneval, p. 249. Dulaure quotes many old writers concerning the important part played by nude persons in ancient festivals, Des Divinités Génératrices, Chapter XIV).
Passek, a Polish officer who wrote an account of his campaigns, admired the ladies of Denmark in 1658, but considered their customs immodest.
“Everyone sleeps naked as at birth, and none consider it shameful to dress or undress before others. No notice, even, is taken of the guest, and in the light one garment is taken off after another, even the chemise is hung on the hook. Then the door is bolted, the light blown out, and one goes to bed. As we blamed their ways, saying that among us a woman would not act so, even in the presence of her husband alone, they replied that they knew nothing of such shame, and that there was no need to be ashamed of limbs which God had created. Moreover, to sleep without a shift was good, because, like the other garments, it sufficiently served the body during the day. Also, why take fleas and other insects to bed with one? Although our men teased them in various ways, they would not change their habits.” (Passek, Denkwürdigkeiten, German translation, p. 14).
Until late in the seventeenth century, women in England, as well as France, suffered much in childbirth from the ignorance and superstition of incompetent midwives, owing to the prevailing conceptions of modesty, which rendered it impossible (as it is still, to some extent, in some semi-civilized lands) for male physicians to attend them. Dr. Willoughby, of Derby, tells how, in 1658, he had to creep into the chamber of a lying-in woman on his hands and knees, in order to examine her unperceived. In France, Clement was employed secretly to attend the mistresses of Louis XIV in their confinements; to the first he was conducted blindfold, while the King was concealed among the bed-curtains, and the face of the lady was enveloped in a network of lace. (E. Malins, “Midwifery and Midwives,” British Medical Journal, June 22, 1901; Witkowski, Histoire des Accouchements, 1887, pp. 689 et seq.).
Even until the Revolution, the examination of women in France in cases of rape or attempted outrage was left to a jury of matrons. In old English manuals of midwifery, even in the early nineteenth century, we still find much insistence on the demands of modesty. Thus, Dr. John Burns, of Glasgow, in his Principles of Midwifery, states that
“some women, from motives of false delicacy, are averse from examination until the pains become severe.“
He adds that
“it is usual for the room to be darkened, and the bed-curtains drawn close, during an examination.”
Many old pictures show the accoucheur groping in the dark, beneath the bed-clothes, to perform operations on women in childbirth. (A. Kind, “Das Weib als Gebärerin in der Kunst,” Geschlecht und Gesellschaft, Bd. II, Heft 5, p. 203).
In Iceland, Winkler stated in 1861 that he sometimes slept in the same room as a whole family;
“it is often the custom for ten or more persons to use the same room for living in and sleeping, young and old, master and servant, male and female, and from motives of economy, all the clothes, without exception, are removed.” (G. Winkler, Island; seine Bewohner, etc., pp. 107, 110).
“At Cork,” says Fynes Moryson, in 1617,
“I have seen with these eyes young maids stark naked grinding corn with certain stones to make cakes thereof.” (Moryson, Itinerary, Part 3, Book III, Chapter V).
“In the more remote parts of Ireland,” Moryson elsewhere says, where the English laws and manners are unknown,
“the very chief of the Irish, men as well as women, go naked in very winter-time, only having their privy parts covered with a rag of linen, and their bodies with a loose mantle. This I speak of my own experience.”
He goes on to tell of a Bohemian baron, just come from the North of Ireland, who
“told me in great earnestness that he, coming to the house of Ocane, a great lord among them, was met at the door with sixteen women, all naked, excepting their loose mantles; whereof eight or ten were very fair, and two seemed very nymphs, with which strange sight, his eyes being dazzled, they led him into the house, and then sitting down by the fire with crossed legs, like tailors, and so low as could not but offend chaste eyes, desired him to sit down with them. Soon after, Ocane, the lord of the country, came in, all naked excepting a loose mantle, and shoes, which he put off as soon as he came in, and entertaining the baron after his best manner in the Latin tongue, desired him to put off his apparel, which he thought to be a burthen to him, and to sit naked by the fire with this naked company. But the baron… for shame, durst not put off his apparel.” (Ib. Part 3, Book IV, Chapter II).
Coryat, when traveling in Italy in the early part of the seventeenth century, found that in Lombardy many of the women and children wore only smocks, or shirts, in the hot weather. At Venice and Padua, he found that wives, widows, and maids, walk with naked breasts, many with backs also naked, almost to the middle. (Coryat, Crudities, 1611. The fashion of décolleté garments, it may be remarked, only began in the fourteenth century; previously, the women of Europe generally covered themselves up to the neck).
In Northern Italy, some years ago, a fire occurred at night in a house in which two girls were sleeping, naked, according to the custom. One threw herself out and was saved, the other returned for a garment, and was burnt to death. The narrator of the incident [a man] expressed strong approval of the more modest girl’s action. It may be added that the custom of sleeping naked is still preserved, also (according to Lippert and Stratz), in Jutland, in Iceland, in some parts of Norway, and sometimes even in Berlin.
Lady Mary Wortley Montague writes in 1717, of the Turkish ladies at the baths at Sophia:
“The first sofas were covered with cushions and rich carpets, on which sat the ladies, and on the second, their slaves behind them, but without any distinction of rank in their dress, all being in a state of Nature; that is, in plain English, stark naked, without any beauty or defect concealed. Yet there was not the least wanton smile or immodest gesture among them. They walked and moved with the same majestic grace which Milton describes of our general mother. I am here convinced of the truth of a reflection I had often made, that if it was the fashion to go naked, the face would be hardly observed.” (Letters and Works, 1866, vol. i, p. 285).