Far too often people judge our ancestors by modern standards, and in the matter of personal hygiene it is commonly held that medieval people were dirty but did not mind because they were used to it. In an age when germ theory was still unknown people had no real idea of the risks to health from dirt, and some even suggested that bathing widened the pores and allowed disease to enter the body, but while sometimes misguided the medieval citizen was certainly concerned about cleanliness and generally endeavoured to keep themselves as clean as possible. How well they succeeded depended much more on their wealth and circumstance, and for the poorer members of society a bath was simply impractical. They had to make do with washing the face, hands and feet, and with changing their clothes as often as possible to stay clean. Bad smells were associated with corruption, decay and, most importantly, sin, and people wanted to avoid bodily smells in order to give the impression of spiritual cleanliness just as much as avoiding offending their neighbour’s noses.
A bath was a luxury many could rarely enjoy. You had to fetch sufficient water to fill a tub and then heat it, which took a lot of time and energy. However most towns had public bathhouses, so those that could afford it might bathe regularly, although even then this was as much a social activity as simply a way to keep clean. The rich of course could and did afford their own tubs, and had servants to do all the work, so would bathe many times a year. The components in this set would work equally well as a rich man’s indulgence or as a public bathhouse, and depict one of the more pleasurable aspects of medieval life.
We will start with the tub itself. This would have been wooden and generally lined with cloth, and this model is a good representation of one. The board placed across the middle (which is a separate item) was again very common and was used as a table for drinks, meals or playing games as the bathers soaked – remember bathing was in large measure a social event, just as it was in the Roman world. In this model we find a jug and some bowls, and a cloth spread over the board, all of which is great. The tub itself is big enough for two, which was common, and a pair of bathers are provided, both of which can share the tub.
Whether in a public bath or your own, the experience of bathing was much the same. You would be sponged down by an attendant – always a woman – while you soaked, and others would be concerned with keeping your water hot and seeing to your other needs. This set includes three such women, including one holding a tray and another with a towel. Given the hot and wet environment all are naturally fairly lightly clothed, but two in particular have very low necklines. The mix of lightly clad young women and naked wealthy men inevitably led to other activities, human nature being what it is, and bathhouses were often associated with licentiousness – some became little more than brothels – so all these figures are very appropriate.
The remaining figures are all of bathers. Some of course are naked, but not everyone bathed naked, particularly in public bathhouses. The wearing of hats or headgear was not unusual, and some were more comfortable with some form of loincloth. Both the standing female bathers are naked, with one in the process of getting dressed or undressed. The other seems to be washing her hair, which gives us a rare opportunity to see her hair down – medieval women were not permitted to have their hair down in public. One of the male bathers is removing his shirt, leaving just his braies (medieval pants) and cap, while another, also in his braies, has a coat over his shoulders and his hair covered, perhaps about to commence his bath or having just completed it; the third bather is completely naked.
We are well used to praising the sculpting abilities of Valdemar, and with these figures we see their skill with the unclothed human form, which it turns out is every bit as good as those more modestly attired. In all cases the proportions and musculature are excellent and, it must be said, beautiful. The naked man and the two female bathers in the second row are particularly fine examples of the species, but there are enough well sculpted figures with a rather less than perfect physique to keep the set rooted in the everyday. What clothing there is is entirely authentic and very well realised, while the standard of the poses is nothing short of breath-taking. The complexity of the figures undressing could never be done with a conventional steel mould, but the hard plastic and flexible mould allows for some superb figures that are free of flash and wonderfully three-dimensional.
Throw in the basket and bucket accessories, and you have a pretty comprehensive little collection of figures that illustrate the medieval bath experience very nicely and with considerable beauty. Whether it is a wealthy couple enjoying a quiet bath at home, or the many attractions of a public bath, this set does a splendid job and is certainly recommended to those with an interest in medieval life and its pleasures.