If we were living 400 years ago, readers would likely consult the Almanac to see if it was time for their first, and perhaps only, bath of the year. Though the ancient Egyptians, the Jews of Israel, the Greeks and Romans, and the Muslims in Spain all made bathing a habit, it was regarded as a perilous undertaking in the colder climate of central and northern Europe.
An English folk saying held that:
They who bathe in May will soon be laid in clay;
They who bathe in June will sing a merry tune.
In the Middle Ages, the church also disliked bathing because it involved uncovering the body. In Scandinavian villages, Christian influence did not overcome the tradition of a weekly sauna attended by the entire community. The Norsemen used bundles of willow switches in the sauna to loosen the week’s grime.
In Europe, soap was a luxury item and heavily taxed. It seems that washing up was an optional activity in the eyes of the authorities. People in Venice made their soap at night to avoid the tax man. The soap makers of Britain also paid a high tax, which was repealed in 1853.
Reformers argued that poor chimney sweeps could not afford soap because of the tax on it, and the sweeps suffered from skin cancers caused by soot and poor hygiene. At last the people of England and northern Europe embraced bathing, agreeing with their southern neighbors that uncleanliness was not next to godliness.