7. Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity
, Virgina Smith. 2007.
I raced through this, of course, because I wanted to be sure I hadn't missed anything in my medieval/renaissance hygiene research. But I finished it because it's a good read.
The author starts out with primate grooming rituals, which she refers back to throughout the book, and moves on to ritual purity in early civilizations. Though I'm not entirely convinced she really integrated either of these hooks completely-- primates, after all, groom each other for social reasons, not themselves; and her links between bodily and racial purity are less well-defined than I'd like. On the other hand, the links in each era between ideas of cleanliness and ideas of health are shown and analyzed. The style incorporates solid information, intriguing description, and useful little snippets of primary sources (in translation) to keep the reader engrossed.
However, this isn't just a standard re-hashing of the stuff everyone knows. For instance, most of us probably forgot about the total depilation/shaving an ancient Eygptian priest underwent-- and almost none of us would have made the connection that this depilation was to prevent lice and fleas from hitching a ride into the sanctuary. Smith gives more, and better, coverage to Mesopotamian and Greek hygiene practices than I've seen elsewhere. Her coverage of the Romans is less detailed, but one can go elsewhere for that. Smith addresses both the ascetic movement in early Christianity and its opposite, showing that neither side had it all its own way. Unlike most histories of cleanliness, this one devotes a goodly amount of time to the medieval and Renaissance periods, as well as the 1600s and 1700s. Her discussion of cleanliness and hygiene movements in the 1800s is well-filled with political and social detail, linking the social with the physical. She spends less time on the 20th century, though giving the usual nod to the cleanwashing of the American and British mind. But unlike The Dirt on Clean, she doesn't draw too many social criticisms from it.
It's compulsively readable. However, a sense of progression of time within eras gets sacrificed-- a problem that's easy to have when you try to compress centuries into short chapters. There's also the problem that while there are nods to other cultures, we're really dealing here with Western Culture. Smith has read Vigarello and Biow, and other scholars on the ideals and history of cleanliness, as well as doing her own research. So there's pieces of France, Germany, even Italy represented. Still, it's pretty clearly centered on Western Europe and English-speaking America.
And yet-- I would never have found many of the quotes here myself. The book definitely contradicts much of what we learned growing up and in history class, which is no surprise; but the calm and steady way this scholar-- for scholar she is-- sets up the facts, diverse as they are, will be impressive to those tired of either funny, polemic or just plain silly books on the history of hygiene.
The website about this book is at http://cleanpure.info/