by Ferdinand Bardamu
Christianity: bringer of filth and disease
Ecclesiastical censorship and suppression of Western scientific and technical knowledge facilitated the spread and transmission of disease across Europe. This operated in tandem with the Christian denigration of the human body as a vehicle for sin. Instead of searching for the natural causes of disease, as the Hippocratic writers once did, the official doctrine of the church discouraged the practice of medicine by attributing all bodily ailment to the results of sin and diabolical possession. This retarded progress in the healing arts, leaving Europe at the mercy of disease for hundreds of years.
The negative influence of Christianity in Europe is revealed by the estimated mortality rates from the 14th century Black Death, one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. This was always significantly higher in regions and among populations where Christianity happened to be the dominant religion. For example, although plague reduced the population of the Moslem world by one-third, this was still less than the estimated two-thirds for Europe. These macroregional differences in mortality are also reflected on much smaller geographic scales. England under the Plantagenets lost one-half of her population to plague, whereas Mamluk Egypt lost only one-third.
Among populations, Jews had lower death rates than Christians. Their apparent immunity to the disease aroused the suspicions of their European contemporaries, who implicated them in a clandestine plot to kill Christians. They were viciously persecuted as a result.
Why the differential rates in mortality between Moslem, Jew and Christian? Judaism and Islam have long maintained personal hygiene as an integral part of daily ritual practice; Christianity, because of its hostility to the body, shunned personal hygiene as worldly and materialist. The church in Spain, for example, regularly encouraged believers to avoid bathing to better distinguish themselves from the hated Moors and Jews. Differences in physical cleanliness between entire geographic regions and whole populations either mitigated or exacerbated the ravages of the bubonic plague.
The triumph of Christianity in late antiquity devalued human physical existence in the eyes of Europeans. Human sexuality was regarded as a necessary evil, to be avoided except for procreation in marriage. The church also discouraged Christians from bathing because concern for the body was viewed as an obstacle to salvation. Although it came very close, the church did not officially ban personal hygiene. Instead, the Christians who ruled Europe allowed the great network of public baths that once dotted the empire, including the aqueducts that supplied them with water, to fall into a state of permanent disrepair.
St. Jerome once said: “He who has bathed in Christ has no need of a second bath.” This injunction was taken seriously by Christian ascetics. They practiced ritual mortification of the flesh by refusing to wash themselves. They wore the same garments every day until they were reduced to rags. The stench that was produced was known by Christians as alousia or the “odor of sanctity.” Saints like Agnes and Margaret of Hungary were revered by Christians because of their rejection of physical hygiene.
In the Rule of St. Benedict of Nursia, only those monks who were sick and infirm were granted permission to bathe. Monks in good health and the young were encouraged to wallow in their own filth and excrement. Benedict’s rule was the most influential in the history of Western monasticism. It was embraced by thousands of medieval religious communities as a foundational monastic text.