Scabies, scandal, and scum at the Roman Baths

The Roman Baths in the centre of Bath is on most tourists’ to-do lists when they visit the fair city. The majority of books on the Roman Baths will tell you all about the Roman history and some of the bathing and grooming practices that were carried out there. But I know of only one book, Beastly Bath by Gideon Kibblewhite, that delves into the seedier side of the waters, where scabies, scandal, and scum were to be found at the Roman Baths.

In the video below, Scabies, scandal, and scum at the Roman Baths, I give a number of the quotes from Beastly Bath some context while I wander round the site and stick my camera into faces and places I come across.

I chose scabies for the title because in 1542 John Leland said that the Roman Baths were full of people “diseased with leprosy, pox, scabies and great aches”. While I was reading this quote aloud, my camera focused in on a tourist. As you’ll see in the video, he gave me quite a dirty look – and I’m not suggesting he was unclean.

I chose scum from the 1687 journal of Celia Fiennes, who is quoted as saying that the bits of dead skin floating on the water’s surface produced a scum that causes people to “break out into heat and pimples.”

In Beastly Bath, you will read many quotes about scandal: men and women “promiscuously admitted” to the Roman Baths where they would sit naked day and night with absolutely no modesty. “Panting breasts and curious shapes…amorous postures” would often result in “fornication”, and women who could not get pregnant would miraculously “often prove with child even in their husbands’ absence.”

The Roman Baths seem to have been a den of vice and sex where “anything goes” was the order of the day. As you will hear in the video, it was Emperor Hadrian who banned mixed and naked bathing during his reign (117-138CE). But it seems that the fashion for stripping off and diving in would come around again in later centuries. Just don’t get up to any scandalous behaviour there when you visit; the security guards look very tough.

For the legend of how the city of Bath’s marvelous waters were discovered by King Bladud, click here to read another of my blogs.

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