[Sca-cooks] Spices: a thought and a question

Volker Bach carlton_bach at yahoo.de
Sat May 2 07:04:22 PDT 2009

--- Daniel & Elizabeth Phelps <dephelps at embarqmail.com> schrieb am Sa, 2.5.2009:

> A further question on bathing. 
> It is my understanding that in certain locales people were
> afraid to bath lest they be suspected of being either secret
> Jews or Moslems.   Does anyone know if this
> is likely ture or false?

It's probably a mixture of true and false. There is good reason to think that this was an issue in post-Reconquista Spain and Portugal, and possibly in Anjou Sicily (though I have not found any literature on the inquisition there, just that they, too, expelled or forcibly converted the Muslim population). The Spanish inquisition was extremely worried about false converts and alongside kosher/halal eating, the use of ritual washing (five times a day for Muslims) or baths (the mikve for Jews) would have been one of those "signs your neighbour may be one of Them". I don't have it here, but I recall reading that there were quite a few people who made it their business to watch and report their neighbours' dietary habits, SDaturday work schedule, and other such things. 

At the same time it is probably an overstatement. We know that medieval people enjoyed being clean. Handwashing is mentioned in pretty much every manners book I've come across, Trotula writes about steam baths in detail, and On the Puteolan Baths was copied again and again over centuries as a relevant text (though some of the illustrations are pretty fanciful - I suspect because washing in a Medirterranean climate needs less technology than it does in the typical northern estuve we are so familiar with). Given the Lateran Council thought it scandalous how Jews and Muslims were indistinguishable from Christians in everyday life, I can't see any good evidence for a great gap in personal hygiene. It is possible that this emerged in the centuries up to 1492, but I doubt it. 

Of course it could have become something of a cultural identity meme: "Jews and Muslims always wash, they're weird that way. Good Christians don't overdo it." I rather suspect that it is a case of wilful misinterpretation.  Historians of the past were delighted with any shred of evidence for how medieval people stank. 


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