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Health, Hedonism and Hypochondria: The hidden history of spas, by Ian Bradley

27 November 2020

Michael Wheeler reads about spas and morals

AMONG the oldest archaeological remains in Europe are baths built around hot springs during the Minoan civilisation on the Aegean Sea, between 2700 and 1500 BC. The ancient Greeks and Romans developed rituals associated with their famous baths, and first “forged the association between spas and loose living and sexual shenanigans”.

Plenty of shenanigans are recorded by the vigilant Ian Bradley, known to most of us through his books and broadcasts on hymnody, liberalism, and many other subjects. His new illustrated book is a labour of love — partly a history, partly a record of a lifelong scholarly hobby that he has indulged on his frequent journeys at home and abroad. He spent his teenage years close to Tunbridge Wells, and has since tried out spas around the globe.

In the ancient world, baths had mixed reviews from the Church. Bradley points out that Clement of Alexandria, for example, suggested that of the four motives that led people to frequent baths — cleanliness, health, warmth, and pleasure — “only the first two were legitimate.” Paradoxically, it was the monks who kept the tradition of thermal springs alive in the Middle Ages, and associated their healing properties with local saints or the Virgin Mary. But thermal baths also became known as “seminaries of sex and sensuality”.

© Ian BradleyBronzes of Edward VII and Kaiser Franz Joseph in the Kurpark in the Czech spa town of Mariánské Lázně, known as Marienbad when they and other European rulers patronised it

Bath was HQ for members of fashionable British society who wished to “take the waters” in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Even William Wilberforce was distracted from a sermon there by thoughts of a young woman — but she did later become his wife. The great Continental spas, such as Baden, became symbols of luxury and decadence, providing settings for several European and American novelists. Some leading intellectuals and writers, including Tennyson and Darwin, also endured the short sharp shock of the “cold-water cure” at places such as Cheltenham and Malvern. Brr!

While this book will be received as a scholarly contribution to the literature, it is also great fun: how many other titles can you think of containing five initial aitches? Bradley is a lively and informative guide throughout the journey from the Minoan hot springs to Candido Jacuzzi’s post-war invention and its recent installation in the “luxury spas” that used to be called hotels. One emerges from this book refreshed, as from a multi-angled shower of warm water.

Dr Wheeler is a Visiting Professor of English at the University of Southampton and author of The Athenaeum: “More than just another London club” (Yale, 2020).


Health, Hedonism and Hypochondria: The hidden history of spas
Ian Bradley
Tauris Parke £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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