National Library of New Zealand
Harvested by the National Library of New Zealand on: Oct 8 2008 at 8:35:42 GMT
Search boxes and external links may not function. Having trouble viewing this page? Click here
Close Minimize Help
Wayback Machine
GayNZ Logo & Link
Wednesday 08 October 2008

Proclamations of the Red Queen

22nd April 2008

Those Filthy Christians!!!

Posted by: Craig Young

Whenever conservative Christians get all het up about ‘cleanliness’, ‘purity’ or ‘hygiene’ metaphors, it might well do to remind them that at the beginning of their faith’s existence, they themselves regarded malodourousness as next to ‘godliness.’

When one examines the history of personal hygiene, one should not readily assume a consistent history of ever more sanitary improvements, as standards of sanitation and cleanliness vary from historical period to historical period. The Romans were scrupulous about it, building lavish formal baths and inventing indoor plumbing for purposes of human waste disposal. Unfortunately, things lapsed after the fifth century CE and the loss of large-scale urbanisation. Bathing was felt to infringe on male virility, and as there was no germ theory of disease, kitchen hygiene and food spoilage were utterly horrendous, and one was indiscriminate about where one defecated or urinated.  At the best, this was into a chamberpot- whose contents were thrown into a reeking open sewer.  Add this to contaminated water supplies and the absence of medical sepsis, and one can see why feudal life expectancy was short, and why the Bubonic Plague wreaked such havoc across Europe from the fourteenth century onward.

And early Christians were no better. Smelliness was a sign of divine favour, for it symbolised unwillingness to go along with decadent luxurious notions like washing every day and applying bodily fragrances. In fact, Muslims and Jews had far more stringent standards of personal hygiene due to their own religious observances. Unfortunately for the Jews, these high standards of health and hygiene led to pogroms when thick village Christian peasants, opportunist nobles and clergy noticed they weren’t dying of plague as much due to these health improvements.  Hermits were especially praised if they were filthy.

Thankfully, the Renaissance came along, and indoor plumbing was re-invented. However, European hygiene standards continued to fluctuate, and even the standards of the sumptuous courts of Louis XIV and Charles II left much to be desired, until there was finally mass sanitation and waste disposal, indoor toilets, and the discovery of germs and bacteria as vectors of disease, leading to improvements in food hygiene. Along with the development of reliable refridgeration, surgical hygiene, women’s menstrual sanitary products,  and awareness of one’s bodily odour which led to development of male and female perfumes and fragrances, we finally arrive at today’s far less olfactorily challenged world.

Granted, there are still a few hiccups, as anyone unfortunate enough to live near pubs frequented by first-year university students can tell you, mostly involving disgorged food and drink and negligence of inside ablutionary facilities when urinating. If National does win the next general election, it’ll be interesting to see if it still  introduces anti-social behavioural orders (ASBOs), which could concievably restrain individuals from these situational deviant acts of ill-hygiene.


Katherine Aschenberg: The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitised History: New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux: 2007.

Virginia Smith: Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity: Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2007.

Tags: General

0 responses so far ↓

  • There are no comments for this post...

Leave a Comment


(Required but not displayed)