Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.01.07

Marie Guérin-Beauvois, Jean-Marie Martin (ed.), Bains curatifs et bains hygiéniques en Italie de l'Antiquité au Moyen Âge. Collection de l'École française, 383.   Roma:  De l'École française de Rome, 2007.  Pp. 428; figs. passim, pls. passim.  ISBN 978-2-7283-0782-1.  €65.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Sandra K. Lucore (
Word count: 2030 words

The genesis of this publication lies in the symposium that took place at the École française de Rome in March of 2004. The organizers refer to the fortuitous presence at the time at the École of two scholars: Janet DeLaine, a specialist in Roman history with a particular expertise in baths; and Jean-Marie Martin, a medievalist whose research on southern Italy has highlighted the abundant and varied references to baths in the written sources. Yet there is a broader context for the interest in the topic of this symposium, reflected in previous French scholarly efforts, both in Rome and elsewhere.1

The stated aim of the sixteen papers in this volume is to examine elements of continuity and discontinuity between antiquity and the middle ages in the practices of hygienic and curative bathing. None of these papers addresses specifically the topic of lustral bathing or ritual purification, primarily for two reasons. First, the editors emphasize the inherent difficulty in attempting to define the sacred character of water or religious healing practices related to water in antiquity. Furthermore, whereas the practices of hygienic and curative bathing are more distinct, and can be more clearly distinguished in the archaeological record (hygienic baths as opposed to thermal sources), ritual or lustral bathing can be seen as an offshoot of hygienic bathing, and except in the case of particular Christian rituals (baptism) or Jewish practices (use of the miqvah), such bathing practices do not require special bathing facilities. For this reason the conference was organized around a more clearly perceived distinction between curative and hygienic bathing.

The majority of the papers in this volume address topics related to the medieval period primarily. Among those that address antiquity none focuses on bathing in the Greek world, a significant omission in view of the body of evidence that exists for Greek baths and bathing customs in south Italy and Sicily, areas central to the geographical focus of the symposium. To be fair, the incompletely published state of these Hellenistic examples has made them less prominent in the scholarship than they merit; the real problem, however, is that until very recently these Greek baths were not considered primarily for their inherent characteristics, but instead commonly have been understood as yet more examples of the chronologically and geographically wider phenomenon of a uniform Greek thermal culture. By not having addressed the Greek evidence in Italy, the fundamental question of continuity of Greek bathing practices in the Greek world more generally, and thereby the particular significance of the Italian examples, is overlooked.

South Italian (Velia) and Sicilian (Morgantina, Syracuse, Megara Hyblaea, Gela) Greek baths include multi-spatial complexes that provided a variety of bathing experiences, including individual hygienic baths and heated communal soaking pools. Furthermore, innovative technology applied to the construction of these buildings produced among the earliest existing evidence of aboveground vaulting. Bathing as a complex social and leisure activity undertaken in elaborate vaulted spaces was the hallmark of the Roman bathing experience, especially as it was provided by the imperial thermae, and in any discussion of the varied sources for these Roman developments the nearby Greek predecessors repay closer consideration.2

In his summarizing remarks at the end of the volume, Xavier Lafon raises this issue of the omission of the Greek evidence, but to make a very different point. Because the starting point in antiquity for the symposium papers is Rome, there is a certain implied continuity into the early Middle Ages that appears logical. Furthermore, because the very different bathing practices of the Greek world are not under consideration, one cannot appreciate that Roman bathing instead, according to Lafon, must be understood as an interlude between Greek and medieval practices. In Lafon's view, bathing in the latter two periods was fundamentally focused on a much more modest custom of individual hygiene (leaving aside the issue of curative thermal bathing); however, if one considers the Greek evidence in Italy of a more elaborate social experience and developed construction technology, the notion of a rupture between Greek and Roman practices is untenable.

In this collection of essays, a wide variety of archaeological and textual evidence, much of it presented here in detail for the first time, is brought to bear on general studies (historiography, typology, cultural and medical beliefs in the diverse benefits of water and bathing), on the examination of specific examples (baths in Pozzuoli, Puglia, Palermo, Rome and Latium and elsewhere, including the recently discovered Jewish miqvah in Syracuse) and on particular issues related to the role of the Church and its effect on the nature of bathing (regulations concerning monastic bathing, the development of charitable institutions with bathing facilities for the poor, and the associated rituals, including donation of soap). Perusal of titles in the table of contents makes apparent the emphasis on the Middle Ages. In spite of the comment above regarding the omission of the Greek evidence, this is a welcome and necessary corrective to what this volume makes clear has been an incomplete and often erroneous view of the role of bathing in post-antiquity. Research on medieval baths and bathing practices has come late, in comparison with interest in the ancient evidence. This is largely explained by the common presence of remains of baths throughout areas of the former Roman empire. The great imperial thermae did not survive the transition to late antiquity, and the disappearance of this major evidence of the personal and social significance of bathing has contributed to a widespread but ill-defined modern view that people in the Middle Ages generally did not bathe.

One effect of these collected papers is to suggest that scholars have not approached the topic of medieval bathing practices through an appropriate conceptual framework. No doubt bathing as it was known in antiquity, as a major focus of daily life for a wide spectrum of society, ceased to play the same role in the Middle Ages. Yet rather than read the reduction in the number and quality of bathing installations in the later period as evidence of a global lack of concern, the considerable changes that shaped later societies must be taken more directly into account. For instance, the decline of populations, especially in urban areas, would have reduced the need for facilities, but it also would have affected the infrastructure necessary to maintain thermal establishments. Fundamental changes in political and social institutions would have affected patronage and usage. In the case of Amalfi, for example, Amedeo Feniello's research on the Capuano bath, known from historical sources of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, establishes how the bath functioned as an element in political exchange for this prominent family. This suggests that at least for noble families bathing was resonant of something more than simply personal hygiene.

Equally problematic is the assumption that along with the demise of the imperial thermae at the end of antiquity the idea of bathing as something pleasurable and enjoyable also largely disappeared, or at least was of insignificant consideration because of the effects of more restrictive economic and social conditions, as well as the influence of Christian thinking. Étienne Hubert examines the archaeological and literary sources for bathing in Rome and Latium from the end of antiquity through the Middle Ages. The increasing role of the Church in emphasizing the hygienic, charitable or ritual purposes of baths is clearly documented, yet the role of bathing for social and recreational purposes also is attested by the presence of baths in papal and aristocratic residences. Even when bathing took place among the poor in facilities owned or sponsored by the Church, one can imagine that, the accompanying Christian rituals notwithstanding, pleasure was a part of the experience. Examination of the varied evidence undermines the notion of a monolithic influence of the Church that resulted in a uniform medieval bathing culture and adds to a more nuanced view more in accord with the disparate nature of the sources.

Jean-Marie Martin most directly addresses the central question of the symposium in his discussion of just how clearly the existing archaeological and textual evidence allows one to distinguish between hygienic and curative bathing and thereby addresses the issue of continuity. His essay focuses on Campania, an area rich in thermal sources, in the seventh to thirteenth centuries and presents a useful summary of developments from antiquity in these two forms of bathing. The urban baths of antiquity were ultimately abandoned from the early centuries of the Middle Ages, from which point hygienic bathing was transformed in relation to social, economic and religious changes. Curative bathing, on the other hand, followed a different course. Although the sources for understanding the history of the use of the thermal baths of Pozzuoli and the Phlegrean Fields are few they give an impression of continuity.

Peter of Eboli's De balneis Puteolanis is an exceptional document of the thirteenth century and is therefore cited in any discussion of bathing in the Middle Ages. Silvia Maddalo turns her attention to the manuscript itself, which was dedicated to Frederick II as a reflection of his interest in matters of natural science and the ancient past in general. Maddalo knows the text very well as a result of her extensive publication on the topic, and her brief but illuminating discussion includes particular reference to the accompanying images (generously illustrated in this volume) as ideal counterparts to the baths in their actual state, an interesting commentary on the manuscript as factual document and ideal guide.

The significant contribution of this very interesting and useful collection of papers is perhaps not so much the questions that are answered as the expanding of the boundaries of the inquiry. After reading through all the essays, Janet DeLaine's opening discussion of the modern tradition of scholarship on baths in ancient and medieval Italy takes on further clarity. The cumulative effect of the information presented in this volume would appear to lead away from the viability of one single historical account and support the necessity of multiple accounts instead, the interconnected threads of which will be clarified through continued research on the topic.

This volume is of the high quality that one expects from publications of the École française de Rome. The editors provide a good introduction that lays out the major issues, and the conclusion by Lafon is a useful summary of the strengths of the contributions and suggestions for future research. The inclusion of a detailed index is a welcome feature, and the individual summaries are helpful. Chapter numbers would be useful in the Table of Contents. The format is standard, the essays carefully edited and the illustrations mostly of high quality and sufficient in number.

Table of Contents:

Marie-Guérin-Beauvois and Jean-Marie Martin, "Introduction méthodologique," p. 1-19;

Janet DeLaine, "Historiography: origins, evolution and convergence," p. 21-35;

Nathalie De Haan, "Terme romane: tipologie tra uso e utilityà," p. 37-51;

Jean-Marie Martin, "Les bains dans l'Italie méridionale au Moyen Âge (VII-XIIIe siècle," p. 53-78;

Silvia Maddalo, "I bagni di Pozzuoli nel Medioevo: il De balneis Puteolanis," p. 79-92;

Marie Guérin-Beauvois, "Les aquae: sujet medico-religieux ou theme littéraire. Essai d'interprétation," p. 93-114;

Jens Koehler, "Termalismo antico e tardoantico a Civitavecchia," p. 115-126;

Étienne Hubert, "Les bains à Rome et dans le Latium au Moyen Âge: textes et archéologie," p. 127-142;

Amedeo Feniello, "Il bagno dei Capuano ad Amalfi (XII-XIII sec.)," p. 143-151;

Sante Bortolami, "Le terme euganee nel Medioevo: dettagli di un paesaggio fisico e sociale," p. 153-175;

Didier Boisseuil, "Les stations thermales entre Moyen Âge et Renaissance: l'exemple de Bagno a Morba en Toscane," p. 177-216;

Giuliano Volpe, Caterina Annese e Pasquale Favia, "Terme e complessi religiosi paleocristiani: il caso di San Giusto," p. 217-261;

Alessandra Bagnera et Annliese Nef, "Les bains de Cefala[u?]\ (prov. de Palerme): contexte historique et fonctions," p. 263-308;

Laura Sciascia, "Dal bagno di Entella alla pila di Caterina: immaginario e realtà dei bagni nella Sicilia medievale," p. 309-319;

Marilyn Nicoud, "Les vertus médicales des eaux en Italie à la fin du Moyen Âge," p. 321-344;

Paola Zanovello, "Fons Aponi: sacro e profano tra Antichità e Medioevo," p. 345-364;

Angela Scandaliato, "I bagni ebraici: l'esempio di Siracusa," p. 365-386;

Xavier Lafon, "Conclusion," p. 387-396;

Index Nominum et Locorum, p. 397-418;

Résumés, p. 419-425;

Sommaire, p. 427-428.


1.  For example, on baths and bathing in the Roman world see, Les thermes romains. Actes de la table ronde organisée par l'École française de Rome (Rome 11-12 novembre 1988), Rome, 1991 (Collection de l'École française de Rome, 142). A conference organized by the École française d'Athènes around the subject of water and health in the Greek world explored many topics relating to baths and bathing practices: L'Eau, la Santé et la Maladie dans le Monde Grec. Actes du colloque organisé à Paris (CNRS et Fondation Singer-Polignac) du 25 au 27 novembre 1992. BCH Supplement XXVIII (1994). More recently, French interest in the origins and evolution of baths and bathing in the eastern Mediterranean has resulted in the Balnéorient project, an ambitious effort which aims to research and document the phenomenon from antiquity through the period of the hammam.
2.   This author's expertise is in baths and bathing practices in antiquity, in particular the Greek world. The study of Greek baths and bathing customs is undergoing a revision that already has changed significantly our understanding of the phenomenon within that particular context. The broader issue of continuity that is the focus of the École française symposium will continue to be more fully addressed as this evidence becomes better established through publication of the research in progress.

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