Clean Aztecs, Dirty Spaniards

by Katherine Ashenburg, prize-winning non-fiction author, lecturer and journalist. Her latest book, ‘The Dirt on Clean’, is a social history of Western cleanliness, which ‘holds a welcome mirror up to our intimate selves…’

Many things about Aztec civilization amazed the Spanish Conquistadores, including their intensive, highly productive agricultural system of chinampas or ‘floating gardens’ (Picture 1), and the size and sophistication of their great city Tenochtitlan (Picture 2). At a time in Europe when street cleaning was almost non-existent and people emptied their overflowing chamber pots into the streets as a matter of course, the Aztecs employed a thousand public service cleaners to sweep and water their streets daily, built public toilets in every neighbourhood, and transported human waste in canoes for use as fertilizer.

While London was still drawing its drinking water from the polluted River Thames as late as 1854, the Aztecs supplied their capital city with fresh water from the nearby hill of Chapultepec by means of two aqueducts, the first built by Netzahualcóyotl between 1466 and 1478, the second some 20 years later by the ruler Ahuitzotl. The symbolic importance of water to the Aztecs is clear from their (metaphorical) word for ‘city’ – altepetl which means literally ‘water-mountain’ in Náhuatl.

The aqueducts were described by Hernán Cortés in 1520: Along one of the causeways to this great city run two aqueducts made of mortar. Each one is two paces wide and some six feet deep, and along one of them a stream of very good fresh water, as wide as a man’s body, flows into the heart of the city and from this they all drink. The other, which is empty, is used when they wish to clean the first channel. Where the aqueducts cross the bridges, the water passes along some channels which are as wide as an ox; and so they serve the whole city.

But probably nothing seemed more bizarre to the Spaniards than the Aztec attitude to personal hygiene. In a word, they valued cleanliness. The conquistador Andres de Tapia reported, in a tone of wonder, that Montezuma bathed twice a day. He did, but there was nothing extraordinary about that for an Aztec, since everybody, according to the Jesuit historian Francisco Javier Clavijero, ‘bathed often, and many of them every day’ in the rivers, lakes or pools.

They lacked true soap but made up for it with the fruit of the copalxocotl, called the ‘soap-tree’ by the Spanish, and the sticky root of the xiuhamolli or soap-plant [Saponaria Americana]; both gave a lather rich enough to wash body and clothes. The encyclopedic Florentine Codex, written with Aztec informants shortly after the Conquest, includes a small illustration and description of the amolli soap plant (see Picture 4): It is long and narrow like reeds. It has a shoot; its flower is white. It is a cleanser. The large, the thick [roots] remove one’s hair, make one bald; the small, the slender ones are cleansers, a soap. They wash, they cleanse, they remove the filth.

Their documents also make frequent mention of deodorants, breath fresheners and dentifrices. (Spaniards of the time cleaned their teeth with urine.) As well as bathing in lakes and rivers, the Aztecs cleaned themselves – often daily – in low sauna-like hot-houses. An external fire heated one of the walls to red-hot, and the bather threw water on the baking wall, creating steam. As in a traditional Russian steam bath, the bathers could speed up perspiration by thrashing themselves with twigs and grasses. Almost every building had such a bath-house or temazcalli, used for medical treatments and ritual purifications as well as ordinary grooming (Picture 6).

As Jacques Soustelle has written: ‘A love of cleanliness seems to have been general throughout the population’: the Florentine Codex hints at the importance placed on personal hygiene in documenting the instructions given by an Aztec father to his daughter:-
[In the morning] wash your face, wash your hands, clean your mouth… Listen to me, child: never make up your face nor paint it; never put red on your mouth to look beautiful. Make-up and paint are things that light women use – shameless creatures. If you want your husband to love you, dress well, wash yourself and wash your clothes.

Into this hygienically enlightened place thundered the Spaniards. The 16th century was one of the dirtiest periods in European history, and on top of that, the Spaniards had their own unique distrust of cleanliness. Europe in general had gone from a culture where people enjoyed a regular trip to the town or neighbourhood bath-house to a culture that shunned water as dangerous.

The catalyst was the Black Death of 1347, a plague that would ultimately kill at least one out of every three Europeans. When Philippe VI of France asked the medical faculty of the University of Paris to pronounce on this terrifying occurrence in 1348, they wrote that hot baths, which created openings in the skin, allowed disease to enter the body. Bath-houses all over Europe were closed and for four or five hundred years people avoided water as much as possible. For those who wanted to think of themselves as clean, a fresh linen shirt for a man and a fresh chemise for a woman was considered safer and even more effective than water. Louis XIV of France only bathed twice in a long, athletic life but he was regarded as unusually ‘clean’ because he changed his linen shirt twice a day.

The 16th-century Spaniards inherited that pan-European fear of water, but they had an additional, peculiarly Spanish aversion to cleanliness. Like every other part of the Roman empire, they had had their own well-patronized bath-houses. But when the Visigoths conquered Spain in the 5th century, they scorned hot baths as effeminate and weakening, and they demolished the bath-houses. By the time the Moors invaded the country in 711, the Spanish had lost the old, bath-loving link. At that point, they saw the Moors’ well-washed ways as part of their heretical convictions, and their own dirtiness as a Christian virtue. (Some early Christians had regarded cleanliness as a dangerous luxury, along with good food, wine and sexual enjoyments, and tried to abstain from it; Spain continued in this austere tradition longer than most.)

Arab Spain sparkled with water, whether in fountains, pools or hundreds of bath-houses. Christians in the north of Spain, not under Arab rule, continued to revel in their squalor, washing ‘neither their bodies nor their clothes which they only remove when they fall into pieces,’ according to a contemporary observer. The more their Arab conquerors washed, the more suspicious, decadent and un-Christian the practice seemed to the Spaniards, and their dislike endured long after the Arabs had left.

Richard Ford, a 19th-century English traveller who knew Spain well, spoke for many when he connected a centuries-old Spanish distaste for washing with the Moorish occupation. He wrote:-

The mendicant Spanish monks, according to their practice of setting up a directly antagonistic principle [to the Arabs], considered physical dirt as the test of moral purity and true faith; and by dining and sleeping from year’s end to year’s end in the same unchanged woolen frock, arrived at the height of their ambition, according to their view of the odor of sanctity, the olor de santidad. This was a euphemism for ‘foul smell,’ but it came to represent Christian godliness, and many of the saints are pictured sitting in their own excrement.

Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros, himself a Franciscan – wrote Ford – persuaded King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to close and abolish the Moorish baths after their conquest of Granada. They forbade not only the Christians but the Moors from using anything but holy water. Fire, not water, became the grand element of inquisitorial purification.

Sure enough, one of the first things the Spaniards did during the Reconquest was to destroy the Moorish baths (just as the Visigoths had destroyed the Roman ones). Even after that, suspicions remained: Moors who converted to Christianity were forbidden to bathe. During the Inquisition, one of the worst things that could be said about Jews as well as Moors was that they were ‘known to bathe.’ As Richard Ford noted, these attitudes were still current in the 19th century. He tells the story of the Spanish Duke of Frias, who visited an English lady for a fortnight and ‘never once troubled his basins and jugs [on his washstand in his bedroom]; he simply rubbed his face occasionally with the white of an egg.’ This, Ford assures us, was the only ablution used by Spanish ladies in the time of Philip IV, and apparently it was good enough for the Duke.

Imagine, then, the redolence of the conquistadores, after weeks of close confinement in a ship, on arrival in a hot country. To make the contrast between the Spaniards and Aztecs even more stark, the Aztecs, being originally Asian, had many fewer merocrine glands than Westerners, and those are the glands that produce sweat. Asians will tell you that even a very clean Westerner smells strong to an Asian nose, so the fragrance of the unwashed conquistadores must have been … impressive if not downright disgusting to the Aztecs. Small wonder that they responded by fumigating the Spaniards with incense as they approached. The Spaniards took it as an honour, but for the Aztecs it was a practical necessity…

Sources/further reading (Aztecs)
• The Badianus Manuscript (Codex Barberini, Latin 241) (original in Vatican Library): An Aztec Herbal of 1552 – intro, trans & annotations by Emily Walcott Emmart, John Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1940
• The Florentine Codex, Book 11 – Earthly Things – trans by Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J.O. Anderson, University of Utah, Part XII, 1963
• Aztec Medicine, Health and Nutrition by Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano, Rutgers University Press, 1990
• An Aztec Herbal: The Classic Codex of 1552 – trans & commentary by William Gates, Dover Publications, 1939/2000
• Daily Life of the Aztecs by Jacques Soustelle, Stanford University Press, 1961 (English trans)
• Handbook to Life in the Aztec World by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, Facts on File, 2006

Sources/further reading (Europe)
• Katherine Ashenbug, Clean: An Unsanitised History, Profile Books, 2008
• John A. Crow, Spain: The Root and the Flower (Harper and Row, 1963)
• Erna Paris, The End of Days: A Story of Tolerance, Tyranny, and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain (Lester, 1995).

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About arnulfo

veterano del ciberespacio
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