Katherine Ashenburg - Clean: An Unsanitised History of Washing (4 stars)

Katherine Ashenburg



For germophobic Westerners in the 21st century, it’s customary to shower at least once a day before applying any number of perfumes and deodorants; anything less would be considered a sign of slovenliness. Yet, as Katherine Ashenburg points out in her exhaustively researched history of cleanliness, the desire to disguise our body odour with scents resembling exotic fruit or home baking is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Indeed, for 17th century French aristocrats, changing shirt was a quite sufficient means of casting off the dirt of the day.

‘But didn’t they smell?’ and ‘How could they bear to have sex with each other?’ were apparently the two most frequently asked questions Ashenburg encountered during the research for this tome. It’s precisely this prudish attitude to body hygiene that the author seeks to challenge in her highly entertaining, nicely illustrated history of washing, which proceeds from the Roman and Greek social baths through religious cleansing rituals to the rigorous bathing of today.

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