Jo here, but It’s our anniversary, so we’re heading into a special week. Yes, it’s been a full year of heroic journey, goal, motivation and conflict, learning and growing. All that good stuff in fiction, some of which we’d rather avoid in real life.*G* But we’ve survived and enjoyed, and we hope the readers here have,
too. If there was a highlight of the year, let us know in a comment below. If you’re a lurker who never posts, uncloak and speak. There will be prizes!
We Wenches thought we’d do a combined blog for this event, and run it all week, and we’ve settled on the subject of nakedness in the past — the fiction and the non-fiction — sparked by a reader question. I hope you enjoy the following and please, share your comments and insights, including on the crucial question — in fiction, do you prefer accuracy on this point, or behavior more in sync with modern ways?
It really wouldn’t be right to expose a naked Cabbage Patch Kid on the internet, so I offer this 16th century print of men in a public bath.
In the responses to Susan/Miranda’s recent blog, The Shirt Off His Back, Kay asked an excellent question: "I have a question though. All those clothes made me think of the smell, which made me think of bathing, which made me think of two movies: Valmont and Vanity Fair. In those movies they showed women bathing in a tub with some kind of cloth draped over the tub and with a shirt/blouse/chemise worn. Does anyone know what that was all about? Was that Hollywood or was it real?"
SS: Anyone wish to answer? To be honest, I haven’t a clue if Regency ladies bathed beneath sheets in their shifts….
MJ: SS, the question from the reader was interesting. Given the vast variety of history, there were probably women who bathed covered up. Though I wouldn’t have expected them to be French. <G>
MJP, who has absolutely no actual knowledge on this subject–but covering up does sound plausible
SS: While looking for images as illustrations, I stumbled across this magnificent Regency "bamboo bath room" from a grand house in Wales, from the book Regency Style by Steven Parissien. Note the caption, "This early nineteenth-century bath and its integral shower had its own coal-fired hot water supply." Pretty neat, no matter what one was wearing in the water!
LC: This is well worth a blog. Women did wear a shift in the bath. I’m conscious of historical inaccuracy when I bathe my heroines naked, and one of these days I’ll probably drape the bath with linens and put them in a shift, but it is just so weird–and did they wash over the shift or under it? I don’t know the details–or forgot them if I knew them.
JO: I have had people bathe in tubs lined with cloths. It sounds decadently comfortable to me, but also practical in protecting people from rough or cold surfaces. I have no sources on what people wore, but it doesn’t make much sense to me that they bathed in a shift. Not saying they didn’t, but why, in the privacy of their home? Now when using a public bath or a part of the house that was less private, then yes. Before the mid 18th century very few houses had corridors around bedrooms, so people could be wandering through.
MJ: I’m sure that both were done. History isn’t homogeneous, after all!
LC: The question is, what exactly is meant by “naked”? I vaguely remembered reading the word in reference to someone who was wearing only underclothes. So I hied me to the Oxford English Dictionary, and here’s what I found:
A. adj. I. 1. Unclothed, having no clothing upon the body, stripped to the skin, nude. Also, occas., having only an under-garment on.
Here’s a relevant citation, dated 1761: “The streets were…filled with naked people, some with shirts and shifts on only, and numbers without either.”
Also, apparently, getting naked for sex was not a big thing, either, for men or women. But this may apply mainly to adulterous sex–given the complications of getting dressed and undressed, it makes plenty of sense.
And so I turn to THE FORBIDDEN EROTICA OF THOMAS ROWLANDSON and flip through the pages. Lots of people having sex in various positions. Several orgies. The majority of times, the people are wearing clothing, though (primarily in the case of women) not much of it (shifts or dresses open to show breasts and privates, stockings and garters). The exceptions are drawings imitating old masters, and scenes portraying figures from other cultures, e.g., ancient Greeks or Arabian harems. One naked man in a wooden tub but no women in tubs. Ah, and near the end I come upon one curious picture of a couple having sex on a strange cushioned chair with two wheels, with this note: “What sets this conception off from the rest of Rowlandson’s work, with only occasional exceptions, is the total nudity of the fitures. For the academically trained artist, even in bawdy illustrations, apparently total nudity demanded to be set in a context that made definite allusions to classical antiquity.” Later, “when Rowlandson does draw with contemporary immediacy the figures in erotic poses are almost invariably clothed or partly clothed.”
To get an idea of what his erotic art is like, (Warning: it’s explicit), check out these prints on Wikipedia.
SS: My guess is that most people in our favorite historical past had sex partially clothed because the clothes were too complicated to remove entirely, but still obliging because of their lack of undergarments. Also before central heating, even a palace was cold. In addition, there’s that whole emphasis on civility, that Man (esp. Gentle Man) is better than the low Beasts, and being naked is reducing things to an unsettling equality.
I went to a standard primary source/famous dirty book of the mid-18th century — "Fanny Hill" by John Cleland– and granted that that was dealing with professional sex rather than romantic, it seems that it’s about fifty-fifty whether the lovers fully disrobe or not. Then, too, blushing Fanny refers to being "naked to my shift", and feeling that being seen thus is the same as being out-and-out naked. Another factor seems to be age: the young and beautiful strip down at will, but the older folks just flip up petticoats and unbutton breeches.
Two hundred years earlier (and in Italy), the people in Aretino’s "Dialogues" are so overcome with lust that they don’t bother to undress. Yet in the accompanying in illustrations, everyone’s always naked. Maybe, like in the creaky "Joy of Sex" from the 1970s, the better to show the famous postures?
JO: Or not. I have some testimony from adultery trials about that. I’ll post it later. Even primary sources can be so very confusing.
LC: It does seem to fit in with some other things, though. For instance, that doctors would examine women patients by talking to them, and did not necessarily touch them. No physician ever actually felt the gigantic lump in Fanny Burney’s breast. They apparently took her word for it, then did the mastectomy.
JO: That’s the great advantage of a good midwife. She’d poke and pry as much as she needed to.
MJ: I think it was Lord Chesterfield that gave his (illegitimate) son some night shirts with a neat little hole in the middle to be used only for copulation. (Can’t remember the wording, but that was the general idea.)
mjp, thinking this will make a very cool blog by whoever is brave enough to take it on–and that does NOT include her!
JO: LOL! That nightshirt would make a good scene in a book, but I don’t think I’m going to take THAT on!
SK: There are plenty of instances of covered baths in medieval woodcut illustrations — look up images of Bathsheba, for instance, which often has bathing scenes, and you’ll probably find a woman wearing a turban and often some kind of light covering in the tub, either something draped over her, or a tent over all, which probably created a sauna effect. Wooden baths were draped in sheets before the water was added for comfort and to help slow inevitable leaks.
JO: I suspect the cloths in this case are to avoid the roughness and even splinters from the wood. These baths look to be made like barrels, and they certainly knew how to seal a barrel. Good thought on a kind of sauna. The tents would also provide some privacy and a shield from draughts — always a hazard in England. Which reminds me, though slightly off topic here, that I have a quote from Mrs. Thrale (friend of Dr. Johnson) about sea bathing in Brighton in the late 18th century. She and her daughters went to be dipped in the sea pre-dawn in NOVEMBER! Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr! "Cold but pleasant," she describes it. Then they returned home to set out for London, a whole day’s journey. They really were tough in those days.
In the recent Marie Antoinette movie, there are a couple of scenes where Marie (Kirsten Dunst) is bathing, and she’s wearing very fancy translucent shifts while having a good long soak. And women were examined by their doctors under sheets, the doc groping around blindly even during births, so the whole bathing with a cover-up makes sense. Poor Fanny Burney!
But like the knitted sleeping caps that men often wore, this stuff does not get mentioned in even the most accurate of historical romances. And with good reason! 😉
JO: After we’d hashed over this I did a little research and I think it makes some interesting general points. The following is from Volume II of THE HISTORY OF PRIVATE LIFE, Revelations of the Medieval World, Ed by George Duby.
"Medieval literature has much to say about exposure of the body to oneself and others, as well as about the function of clothing (were clothes worn for protection, modesty, or embellishment?) and the perception of nudity. The fact that clothing was worn reveals exhibitionistic impulses and latent feelings of shame. Literature shows us the embarrassment that people felt when stripped naked, as well as their implicit or explicit rejection by others; yet nakedness could also be an occasion for jubilation, at least for men, in whose self image the nude body played an important part."
The following is my precis on what follows: Nakedness is equated with loss of civilization, either by punishment or injury/derangement. In literature, people who encounter a naked man will assume him wicked or deranged. Such men are normally portrayed as hairy and thus beastlike. But communal male nakedness was often part of rites of sociability and social cohesiveness, especially in a bath. (See above.) In contrast to modern ideals of manly duty, in one story, the damsel thinks "if he were bathed and steamed, his skin would be white and soft." How would that go over in modern historical fiction?
This communal bathing as manly ritual could be seen as similar to modern team locker rooms and the fuss about whether women reporters should be allowed in. Old ideas die hard, but perhaps if that’s okay it should be okay in reverse? Is it? I don’t know. One thing that’s struck me over this discussion is the persistent gender differences. Female nudity has generally been acceptable when total male nudity isn’t, and that’s still the case today, isn’t it? It’s not that I’m wanting to see naked men all over the place, but I do wonder if allowing men to conceal their privacy, we’re letting them have an unequal advantage. Comments?
Back to medieval literature. Nakedness of women in medieval fiction is usually at the command of a lord or king, either in relation to the selection of a bride or punishment. It is shameful if not private, and always linked to sexual desire.
There’ll be more on Wednesday, but get commenting now.