Modesty Washed Away in the Bath

Virtues of Women
Virtues of Women in public baths

In Rome, “when there was at first much less freedom in this matter than in Greece, the bath became common to both sexes, and though each had its basin and hot room apart, they could see each other, meet, speak, form intrigues, arrange meetings, and multiply adulteries. At first, the baths were so dark that men and women could wash side by side, without recognizing each other except by the voice; but soon the light of day was allowed to enter from every side. ‘In the bath of Scipio,’ said Seneca, ‘there were narrow ventholes, rather than windows, hardly admitting enough light to outrage modesty; but nowadays, baths are called caves if they do not receive the sun’s rays through large windows.’ … Hadrian severely prohibited this mingling of men and women, and ordained separate lavaera for the sexes. Marcus Aurelius and Alexander Severus renewed this edict, but in the interval, Heliogabalus had authorized the sexes to meet in the baths.” (Dufour, Histoire de la Prostitution, vol. ii, Ch. XVIII; cf. Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Art. Balneæ).

 

In Rome, according to ancient custom, actors were compelled to wear drawers (subligaculum) on the stage, in order to safeguard the modesty of Roman matrons. Respectable women, it seems, also always wore some sort of subligaculum, even sometimes when bathing. The name was also applied to a leathern girdle laced behind, which they were occasionally made to wear as a girdle of chastity. (Dufour, op. cit., vol. ii, p. 150).

 

Greek women also wore a cloth round the loins when taking the bath, as did the men who bathed there; and a woman is represented bathing and wearing a sort of thin combinations reaching to the middle of the thigh. (Smith’s Dictionary, loc. cit).

At a later period, St. Augustine refers to the compestria, the drawers or apron worn by young men who stripped for exercise in the campus. (De Civitate Dei, Bk. XIV, Ch. XVII).

 

Lecky (History of Morals, vol. ii, p. 318), brings together instances of women, in both Pagan and early Christian times, who showed their modesty by drawing their garments around them, even at the moment that they were being brutally killed. Plutarch, in his essay on the “Virtues of Women,”— moralizing on the well-known story of the young women of Milesia, among whom an epidemic of suicide was only brought to an end by the decree that in future women who hanged themselves should be carried naked through the market-places,— observes:

“They, who had no dread of the most terrible things in the world, death and pain, could not abide the imagination of dishonor, and exposure to shame, even after death.”

 

In the second century the physician Aretæus, writing at Rome, remarks:

“In many cases, owing to involuntary restraint from modesty at assemblies, and at banquets, the bladder becomes distended, and from the consequent loss of its contractile power, it no longer evacuates the urine.” (On the Causes and Symptoms of Acute Diseases, Book II, Chapter X.)

 

Apuleius, writing in the second century, says:

“Most women, in order to exhibit their native gracefulness and allurements, divest themselves of all their garments, and long to show their naked beauty, being conscious that they shall please more by the rosy redness of their skin than by the golden splendor of their robes.” (Thomas Taylor’s translation of Metamorphosis, p. 28.)

 

Christianity seems to have profoundly affected habits of thought and feeling by uniting together the merely natural emotion of sexual reserve with, on the one hand, the masculine virtue of modesty modestia — and, on the other, the prescription of sexual abstinence. Tertullian admirably illustrates this confusion, and his treatises De Pudicitia and De Cultu Feminarum are instructive from the present point of view. In the latter he remarks (Book II, Chapter I):

“Salvation — and not of women only, but likewise of men — consists in the exhibition, principally, of modesty. Since we are all the temple of God, modesty is the sacristan and priestess of that temple, who is to suffer nothing unclean or profane to enter it, for fear that the God who inhabits it should be offended…. Most women, either from simple ignorance or from dissimulation, have the hardihood so to walk as if modesty consisted only in the integrity of the flesh, and in turning away from fornication, and there were no need for anything else,—in dress and ornament, the studied graces of form,— wearing in their gait the self-same appearance as the women of the nations from whom the sense of true modesty is absent.”

 

The earliest Christian ideal of modesty, not long maintained, is well shown in an epistle which, there is some reason to suppose, was written by Clement of Rome.

“And if we see it to be requisite to stand and pray for the sake of the woman, and to speak words of exhortation and edification, we call the brethren and all the holy sisters and maidens, likewise all the other women who are there, with all modesty and becoming behavior, to come and feast on the truth. And those among us who are skilled in speaking, speak to them, and exhort them in those words which God has given us. And then we pray, and salute one another, the men the men. But the women and the maidens will wrap their hands in their garments; we also, with circumspection and with all purity, our eyes looking upward, shall wrap our right hand in our garments; and then they will come and give us the salutation on our right hand, wrapped in our garments. Then we go where God permits us.” (Two Epistles Concerning Virginity; Second Epistle, Chapter III, vol. xiv. Ante-Nicene Christian Library, p. 384.)

 

“Women will scarce strip naked before their own husbands, affecting a plausible pretense of modesty,” writes Clement of Alexandria, about the end of the second century,

“but any others who wish may see them at home, shut up in their own baths, for they are not ashamed to strip before spectators, as if exposing their persons for sale. The baths are opened promiscuously to men and women; and there they strip for licentious indulgence (for, from looking, men get to loving), as if their modesty had been washed away in the bath. Those who have not become utterly destitute of modesty shut out strangers, but bathe with their own servants, and strip naked before their slaves, and are rubbed by them, giving to the crouching menial liberty to lust, by permitting fearless handling, for those who are introduced before their naked mistresses while in the bath, study to strip themselves in order to show audacity in lust, casting off fear in consequence of the wicked custom. The ancient athletes, ashamed to exhibit a man naked, preserved their modesty by going through the contest in drawers; but these women, divesting themselves of their modesty along with their chemise, wish to appear beautiful, but, contrary to their wish, are simply proved to be wicked.” (Clement of Alexandria, Pædagogus, Book III, Chapter V. For elucidations of this passage, see Migne’s Patrologiæ Cursus Completus, vol. vii).

 

Promiscuous bathing was forbidden by the early Apostolical Constitutions, but Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, found it necessary, in the third century, to upbraid even virgins vowed to chastity for continuing the custom. “What of those,” he asks,

“who frequent baths, who prostitute to eyes that are curious to lust, bodies that are dedicated to chastity and modesty?

They who disgracefully behold naked men, and are seen naked by men? Do they not themselves afford enticement to vice?

Do they not solicit and invite the desires of those present to their own corruption and wrong? ‘Let every one,’ say you, ‘look to the disposition with which he comes thither: my care is only that of refreshing and washing my poor body.’

That kind of defence does not clear you, nor does it excuse the crime of lasciviousness and wantonness. Such a washing defiles; it does not purify nor cleanse the limbs, but stains them.

You behold no one immodestly, but you, yourself, are gazed upon immodestly; you do not pollute your eyes with disgraceful delight, but in delighting others you yourself are polluted; you make a show of the bathing-place; the places where you assemble are fouler than a theatre. There all modesty is put off; together with the clothing of garments, the honor and modesty of the body is laid aside, virginity is exposed, to be pointed at and to be handled…. Let your baths be performed with women, whose behavior is modest towards you.” (Cyprian, De Habitu Virginum, cap. 19, 21).

 

The Church carried the same spirit among the barbarians of northern Europe, and several centuries later the promiscuous bathing of men and women was prohibited in some of the Penitentials. (The custom was, however, preserved here and there in Northern Europe, even to the end of the eighteenth century, or later. In Rudeck’s Geschichte der öffentlichen Sittlichkeit in Deutschland, an interesting chapter, with contemporary illustrations, is devoted to this custom; also, Max Bauer, Das Geschlechtsleben in der Deutschen Vergangenheit, pp. 216-265).

sexes to meet in the baths
sexes to meet in the baths

Women,” says Clement again,

“should not seek to be graceful by avoiding broad drinking vessels that oblige them to stretch their mouths, in order to drink from narrow alabastra that cause them indecently to throw back the head, revealing to men their necks and breasts. The mere thought of what she is ought to inspire a woman with modesty…. On no account must a woman be permitted to show to a man any portion of her body naked, for fear lest both fall: the one by gazing eagerly, the other by delighting to attract those eager glances.” (Pædagogus, Book II, Chapter V).

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