- Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity
Virginia Smith’s Clean is an ambitious, learned, wonderfully footnoted, and entertaining study of a topic that has been gaining ground in the last few years among historians and literary scholars alike. Though her history of the topic of cleanliness is largely a medical history, it is rich with all sorts of insights, a number of which are provided through her forays into kindred disciplines.
Smith’s premise, as announced in the introduction, is that everything to do with cleanliness is historically specific—which is to say that the concept of cleanliness is at once “datable” and “traceable” (p. 2). The problem, of course, is that the term “clean”—or what goes by way of the term “clean” in various languages over the centuries (and Smith is indeed looking at the passing of centuries)—is itself historically specific. The great humanist orator Leonardo Bruni (1369–1444) asserted with rhetorical exuberance, for instance, that Florence was an exceptionally clean city in the early fifteenth century, but we may rest assured that the “health crusaders” of the nineteenth century, whom Smith discusses with some relish in chapter 9, would have felt that Bruni was protesting too much in his panegyric had they been able to travel back in time and visit the (often rather dirty, fetid, and germ-ridden) place. Standards of what constitutes the clean and unclean obviously change from time to time and from place to place, which is what makes Smith’s longue durée reading of the topic fascinating and fraught with peril as well as engaging and provocative as a narrative. It is, after all, difficult to date and trace the history of cleanliness (at least in such a compact book) if the term itself is not a stable one.
In her brief introduction, Smith gives us some understanding of what she means by “cleanliness” as she distinguishes it from “purity” and “hygiene,” the two other principal terms she deploys throughout her book (and foregrounds in the subtitle). But the distinctions in terminology as they are outlined in the introduction are not really maintained throughout the book: “cleanliness,” “purity,” and [End Page 709] “hygiene” tend to slide conceptually into one another. At the risk of sounding coy, the terms she deploys are by no means “pure.” In fact, I would argue that the richness of examining the history of “cleanliness” lies precisely in the fact that the term “clean” itself is so impure, so subject to manifold interpretations. Boldly titling the book Clean may therefore have been a bit misleading, at least as an eye-catching strategy for preparing readers for the overall subject matter covered. Smith is perhaps more accurate in her subtitle, in which she describes her book, as she also does in her introduction, as a “history of personal hygiene and purity.” In any event, Smith is above all undoubtedly correct when she observes that “it would certainly take an orchestra of histories to deal with such a multifaceted phenomenon as cleansing, over such long periods” (p. 6).
Scholars invested in specific periods, from antiquity to the present day, will no doubt quibble with parts of this purposely nonlinear, but still chronologically structured, study of the topic of cleanliness. Jacob Burckhardt famously dated and traced the “modern” obsession with cleanliness to the Italian Renaissance, not the Protestant revolution.1 But these are minor matters. What is important, it strikes me, is that someone has at long last come along and taken a stab at writing the history of cleanliness. To do so is an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking. And, all things considered, Smith has provided us with a lively, intelligent, and well-researched account.
1. Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, trans. S. G. C. Middlemore (Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1945), p. 226.