The French Court: opulence, grandiose, the height of luxury. The source of absolute filth. But what one calls dirty is entirely in the eye of the beholder. What we can good hygiene today was largely impossible 200 years ago. Technology and medical knowledge we take for granted now didn’t exist 200-400 years ago. Regardless of that lapse in knowledge the traditions set forth by the French Court, particularly during King Louis XIV, still shape what we consider a luxury bathing experience today.
King Louis XIII (1610 -1643)
Made famous by the council of Cardinal Richelieu and Alexander Dumas with his Three Musketeers, the bathing habits of French aristocracy begins as so so then swings towards dreadful.
The aristocracy of France at this time had much more control under King Louis XIII’s successor King Louis XIV. The court itself was very heavily influenced by King Louis XIII Italian mother Marie de Medici. Although Italians were known as being more hygienic than the rest of Europe (thanks Ancient Rome!) it was still a far cry what we’d call ‘cleaning’. Baths were almost unheard of. A simple dip in the lake or stream would be all one would do. Smells were covered using perfumes or a perfumed kerchief was kept in ones sleeve that would scent the body and could be drawn to the nose during a particularly smelly period like travelling through a group of peasants.
The aristocracy was not as centrally located at Versailles or even at Paris as it would become. As such private bathing habits could vary between aristocrats. It can be certain some bathed more frequently than others but it seems unlikely that anyone would bath weekly much less daily given the scientific knowledge of the time. Diseases were the causes of miasmas (“bad air”). Covering that smell with perfume reduced the risk of catching said disease.
Regardless of the individual, perfumes were extremely popular as were wearing heavy makeup. Makeup covered injuries due to acne and disease and kept the skin looking pale and flawless. These makeup basis contained mercury and lead which would stain the face, requiring more makeup as one grew older. Rouge was applied heavily to the cheek and a vivid red lip was all the rage. Rouge covered the entire cheek around as well to neutralize the gray coloration that occured after long-term use of mercury and lead white foundations. Queen Elizabeth I of England was the most famous royal to use this method to create the perfect alabaster complexion. Geisha in Japan likewise used a similar mercury and lead based makeup.
So much of this including perfumes will change wildly.
King Louis XIV: The Sun King (1643 – 1715)
During the reign of Louis XIV, France rose to the height of luxury. King Louis XIV began building his Palace of Versailles and instituted requirements upon the French court that bolstered the French textile and fashion industries, the effects of which continue to this day. In the middle ages, England was looked to for wool but by the 1700s, much like today, you looked to France for your fashion needs.
Views of Health
During the late 1600s and early 1700s there were no creature comforts like deodorants or razors to remove nearly all body hair like we do today, which can trap bacteria that causes odors. For men, razors were used to remove facial hair but many women had to wax with honey to remove leg, arm, and other hairy bits. There was no running hot water not to mention showers. Many people bathed in lakes and rivers, but these were also were you dumped your waste. Great to live upstream, but smelly and dangerous to live downstream of a major city such as Paris. French milled soaps but very few people used them to bath their bodies as this was seen as a luxury although clothing was washed with soap.
Bathing during this time was not considered common throughout Europe. ‘Bathing’ as we would know it was a rinse off with a dry/damp cloth and a new set of undergarments or clothes depending on how soiled the old one was or how wealthy one was. Especially in France, there was all classes of wealth among the aristocracy. The more pure white undergarments one had, the wealthier you were perceived to be. Dirt was removed by removing soiled garments, not unlike how we change to a clean pair of underwear if we’re unable to shower. It helps but it isn’t a replacement. It wasn’t uncommon for the aristocracy to change several times per day depending on what was happening.
King Louis XIV was said to have only bathed 3 times in his lifetime. As the King did, so did the court. This is also seen in the Sun King’s Palace of Versailles where there is a severe lack of bathrooms. Several 1000s of courtiers, diplomats, and servants roamed the expanding halls and very few restrooms were built during the expansion. If one wanted to ‘bath’ one went to the river or to a spa to improve ones humors. The spa of the French aristocracy was of course Vichy, France. To get that same spa experience in the home try using a facial spray like Eau Thermal Avene’s Thermal Spring Water or Vichy’s Mineralizing Thermal Water. Or if you want something a little more fun in your bath water Tabino Yado sells “Milky” bath salts straight from Japanese hot springs. If you don’t want the “Milky” spa experience at home they also have an assortment of clear bath salts as well.
Part of the aversion to bathing comes from a lack of understanding where diseases originate. At this time there was no concept of bacteria or fungal pathogens. The world of medicine still believed in the idea of spontaneous germination, miasmas (bad air), and smells could produce sickness. Bathing opened the pores which allowed bad humors to enter. And just imagine bathing in a river or stream water that had not been disinfected after someone up river dumped their raw sewage in it? Given that and a lack of scientific understanding (and wide use of soap) it makes sense in the era to not bath on a regular basis.
For the aristocracy smells could be masked which is why there were so many Parfum houses throughout Europe. One of oldest still in existence is Houbigant, which is a French house that served the Houses of Bourbon, Orleans, and the English royal houses as well.
King Louis XIV preferred parfums (yes, parfum not perfume, there were no Eau de Toilette perfumes yet) heavily scented with orange blossoms, which produced a very strong heady scent. If you’ve ever been to the Palace of Versailles, the orange trees around the gardens are everywhere and the building that houses them is known as The Orangery. Orange Blossom perfumes were so heavily used by the French court the Sun King grew tired of it by the end of his life. The Palace of Versailles has recreated it and is available for purchase here. This is an Eau de Toilette, so less powerful than the original formula but better on our noses. I’ve had trouble finding it in the US so I haven’t been able to smell it but France is all about conservation of its history including it’s perfumes. Versailles will even ship it to the US. The full range of perfume available from The Palace of Versaille is available here.
Perfumes became so popular within the French court it was known as “The Perfumed Court” and a guild of perfume makers was established in 1656. Everything was perfumed: hair, skin, gloves, ath water, makeup, clothing. Even the King’s laundry was rinsed in perfumed water to cover any ill odors from disturbing his delicate, royal nose.
King Louis XVI (1774-92)
Fast forward 60 years……………better known throughout history as husband of Marie Antoinette, the court bathing habits had finally become more modern. Internal plumbing still wasn’t a thing; however, bathing rooms were present throughout the palace. Stories of people, rich and poor alike, relieving themselves on the steps of Versailles was not common place. The bathroom had began seperating from the living areas although chamber pot would be in use until the 20th century even though a rudimentary form was invented in 1596.
The germ theory was still nearly 100 years away during the reign of King Louis XVI but many more discoveries began pointing towards contaminated waters causing disease resulting in changes in waste disposal throughout much of Europe. We had the microscope for almost 100 years but we were just starting to understand what we saw. The Age of Enlightenment was in full swing.
With cleaner bodies we view this change in how people began doing their beauty routine. During the reign of the Sun King women wore heavy makeup to hide blemishes but during the reign of King Louis XVI the look was much more natural spurred by the fashion sense of Marie Antoinette.
With the rise of bathing came a more spa like retreat within the castle itself. Crushed strawberries with perfumed milk were used by Madame Tallien to freshen her skin. Milk contains proteins and enzymes that can reduce inflammation and help treat dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis, and dry skin. Rose/ orange blossom water was still used heavily in the French court to mask scents and bath in. Bathing in a milk bath powder with rose water would give a modern luxury experience while soothing the skin a la Madame Tallien.
If you wish to go a little deeper on the topic and prefer to watch instead of read I’d suggest the following video. It’s a fascinating take on the bathing traditions within Versailles but concentrates much more during the reign of The Sun King because there’s just more written about that particular era. It also helps that he was a king for 72 years during a time of great change in Europe.