Spinning Stories

Parisian washhouses and satire by ebutterworth
July 30, 2009, 5:31 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Public baths, or estuves, in early modern France had something of a reputation as sites of gossip and talk. This is perhaps not surprising since they served as a meeting place (single-sex) for men and women of the neighbourhood, where they would go to get washed and groomed, but also to share gossip and learn news. It’s also maybe unsurprising, given the hoary old clichés of women’s talkativeness and frivolity, that women were singled out in contemporary literature as particularly prone to gossip in these public places (others were the mill, the public oven, church, the market, or anywhere things were bought and sold). One early seventeenth-century satire, called The Cackling Women (Le Caquet des femmes), printed in 1622, makes fun of contemporary women’s calls for equality by portraying them in a washhouse, submerged in the water up to their necks or noses, rabbiting on about education and opportunity. (The image of women in together in the public baths was also supposed to be a titillating one for the male reader, I imagine.) But even in satire, these caricatured women make some good points: one says, responding to the idea that women’s reputation as gossips is just good fun: ‘But it’s about your honour: all that can only turn out to our disadvantage. If there’s a good jest, or joke, or mockery, it always falls on women, and women always have to put up with it; I don’t know how their backs cope with it all, they have to carry such heavy burdens sometimes.’

Some historical notes on public baths in Paris: built on the model of ancient Roman steam baths, they were found on the banks of the river, near the gates of town, or in quiet streets. They seem to have been places of ill repute since the Middle Ages: at least the city authorities tried to regulate their existence and operations, and may well have banned them outside the city walls, since by their very nature they were places that were difficult to police. People who ran these establishments (the estuviers) weren’t allowed to advertise their opening hours until the day itself, they were expressly forbidden to let men and women into the baths at the same time (they had separate baths), and they weren’t allowed to open on Sundays or other holidays. The baths were frequently closed for public health reasons, since contagious disease spread easily in the warm water, with bodies in such close proximity.

– All this information is from a nineteenth-century history of the public bath in Paris by P. S. Girard (‘Recherches sur les établissements de bains publiques à Paris, depuis le IVe siècle jusqu’à présent’, in Annales d’Hygiène publique et de médecine légale, Paris, vol. 7, 1832), where the author enthusiastically praises the progress in hygiene and cleanliness that washing (and public baths) has caused.


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