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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Getting One’s Priorities Right

Bathhouse of Vadum Iacob Castle

In the Gulf War between the coalition led by the United States and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, when Israel was in the firing line, people here were required to carry gas masks at all times. Unlike the surgical masks that have now become ubiquitous, these were large and bulky. They could not be continuously worn, but when not needed they could not be conveniently slipped into a pocket or handbag. They were carried in boxes on shoulder straps, and by the time the threat of a gas attack was over these boxes had become a sort of fashion statement. Children painted them and adults carried colourful versions that could be obtained in a variety of designs to suit any outfit.

It is remarkable how quickly we learn to accept change, and even change that is substantial and previously unimaginable to our way of life. Over the past decades I have travelled on several occasions to Australia to participate in conferences, transiting in Hong Kong, Beijing or Bangkok. It had always seemed strange and somewhat disturbing to me to see large numbers of people in cities in the Far East, and in Asian communities in Australia wearing surgical masks. I understood that this was a reaction to the recent outbreaks of deadly viruses and increasingly extreme pollution, but for some irrational reason I found it mildly offensive. In these past few weeks I have learnt otherwise. What I find now is that what disturbs me is observing from my window occasionally passers-by on the generally empty street below who are without masks.

Even the worst disasters have certain positive outcomes. Following the current health crisis, perhaps one upside is likely to be an increased awareness of the importance of hygiene. When things eventually return to a semblance of normality, when the curve is flattened and people start to return to the streets, when we put aside the masks and plastic gloves and hand sanitisers, we will no doubt slip back into many of our former ways. But at least, these items will no longer seem quite so absurd or unnecessary to us as they formerly had, and perhaps many more of us will remember to sneeze into a tissue or into an elbow. Humanity will have taken another small step forward.

Generalisations are often made regarding attitudes towards cleanliness in medieval Europe, the most common being that people did not bathe, or at least avoided as best they could any contact between their bodies and water. Like most generalisations, this not entirely accurate. It is true that in certain settings bathing was discouraged for fear of encouraging immoral behaviour. In some monastic houses it was restricted to three times a year. And for much of the lay community bathing was an expensive luxury. But in the larger European cities there were often many bathhouses, even entire neighbourhoods given over to bathing and related occupations (notably of course, prostitution), and, as we can observe in numerous contemporary illustrations, baths (often large barrels or wooden tubs) were to be found in the better private houses as well. Nonetheless, bathing as part of a healthy regime as it had been in ancient Greece, or as the luxurious and leisure-seeking lifestyle of ancient Rome, was long buried by the morals of a society that had come to regard such behaviours as licentious and depraved.

An acquaintance with Muslims, with whom frequent bathing and general bodily cleanliness were integral aspects of religious and social life, appears to have had an influence on the Frankish settlers in the crusader states. Just how great an influence can be observed at the Templar fortress of Vadum Iacob (Jacob's Ford) in the north of Israel.* When the Templars began to build this fortress on the border of the kingdom in 1178 they had, so it would appear, three priorities in mind, two of which seem quite understandable, the third, perhaps slightly remarkable. The first was to be able to defend themselves; the second, to have enough food and water. The third was to be able to have a bath. To fulfil the first priority, they hurriedly put up a massive defensive wall. For the second they dug a deep well, built a large bread oven and bought livestock within the castle walls. For the third they constructed a bathhouse adjacent to the well which supplied the water, and the oven which was the source of heat. When the castle fell to Saladin in August 1179 it was far from complete. There was, as yet, no hall, no chapel, no dormitory or refectory, and as far as can be seen at present, no latrine. But there was a bathhouse. Bathing, for the Templars was clearly not something to be regarded as a luxury.

*On Vadum Iacob see Ronnie Ellenblum, Crusader Castles and Modern Histories, Cambridge, 2007, pp. 258-74. On Frankish bathhouses see Benjamin Z. Kedar, "Frankish Bathhouses: Balneum and furnus - a functional dyad?" in Iris Shagrir, Benjamin Z. Kedar and Michel Balard, eds., Communicating the Middle Ages. Essays in Honour of Sophia Menache, Abington U.K. and New York, 2018, pp. 121-40.

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