This is another installment in my series, History for Fantasy Authors.
There were scores of trades and crafts that organized into guilds. This is an essay about one of them, a guild that existed in Augsburg, Germany in the late Middle Ages. It’s not typical, and that’s part of why I think it’s worth examining. I hope it will give you some ideas for new settings and new ideas about guilds in your own writing.
Bathhouses had little to do with getting clean. A bath was more like a spa, a place in which to get healthy or to maintain health. It was also like a spa in that it was a place to hang out, to relax and have some casual fun.
Bathhouses were a place for conversation. Business was transacted here, for most patrons of wealth and power came to the baths at least occasionally. It was the perfect place for making business deals and also for making social contacts so important to medieval town life. That father of the girl your son is so crazy about? You’ve probably met him at the baths.
The bath house was also a prime place for gambling, prostitution, and just plain fooling around. It is no coincidence that the public bathhouse began a long decline in the 16th century, as a result of the attempts to regulate public morality during the Reformation.
Bathhouses, too, were an important place where some basic health regimens were practiced. The quality of the water was of paramount importance and a matter of civic pride, especially where the town was lucky enough to have hot springs. The more the water stank, the better it must be! Massages were common, just part of the general atmosphere of relaxation. As you can see from the pictures, music and food were also part of the regimen.
Of more specifically medicinal benefit was the practice of bleeding. In some cases, a cut was made and a cup was filled, then the wound was closed. Also common was use of leeches. The benefits of bleeding were so widely accepted, both popularly and by doctors, that one could go nearly anywhere in Europe and find a practitioner.
Medieval baths were inherited from the Romans (indeed, a number of them were of Roman make). They had three sections with three baths (think swimming pool, not bathtub): one hot, one tepid, one cool. A full course would entail time spent in each, but it was also possible simply to come in and hang out in one. A great deal of weight was given to regulation of one’s body temperature for general health.
A bathhouse had an entire staff, consisting of journeymen who handled the massages and bleeding, and hired servants who did things like brought in food or played music or cleaned up. With such a large staff, you can see that a master bathhouse keeper was more of a small businessman than a craftsman.
Journeymen in a bathhouse were in different levels, trained and untrained. The untrained could cut hair and give massages, but could not do any surgical procedures such as cauterizing a wound. There was no requirement for a masterpiece with a Bathhouse Keeper, but he was required to take a test that included the preparation of plasters and unguents. He was also required to be able to explain the guild regulations.
Bathhouses typically catered to both sexes, sometimes with separate facilities, sometimes with separate times, but sometimes all together (though often with separate pools). In the countryside, a bathhouse looked almost like a modern hot tub, with a dozen or fewer people sitting in a pool with wooden sides, with food on a board and musicians playing outside.
By the way, bathing the way we moderns think of it, with soap and for the purposes of cleaning away dirt, was not at all the function of a bath house. Any decent person regularly washed face and hands, pretty regularly washed their feet. The rest of the body … eh. Once a year was good. But at the bath house you might be scraped and oiled, which had much the same result.
For the Writer
A bathhouse would be a great place to set a scene. It could be for a meeting, either open or clandestine. You could use one of the staff to pass a secret message. Especially after hours, it could be for some dark deed (the doors were normally locked, but locks can be picked or bribes can pry them open). The bathhouse could also be a place where someone wounded could slink in through a back door in a way that would be difficult at the shop of a barber-surgeon.
With that in mind, rather than have your character go to a doctor (who in the Middle Ages mainly just dispensed medicines) or to a surgeon, why not have them slip into the bathhouse? There they could be hidden treated for any number of ills, including magical ones. For that matter, what would be the magical aspects of a bathhouse?
Given how socially important a bathhouse was, a bathhouse keeper would be a great secondary figure in a story that takes place mainly in one town.
It also would be a great place to find a body.
How about you? Does this stir up any ideas? Care to share?
- A Short History of Bathing before 1601 (has a good bibliography at the end)
A number of books on daily life in the Middle Ages will have a section on bathing. You will find more detailed information, though, if you look at the early modern period.
E.L. Skip Knox is the creator of the fantasy world called Altearth, a place where magic is real, monsters roam the land, and the Roman Empire never fell.