Hydrotherapy is one of the eldest offspring—perhaps the first-born—of natural hygiene. The desire to relieve the debilitating effects of summer heat by immersion and draughts of cold water is almost as instinctive as the craving for food. And it cannot have been long before the settlers of the higher latitudes noticed the fact that the health-impairing effects of indoor life could be counteracted by the same specific.
A cold bath restored the vigor of the Celtic hunter, emerging dazed from the turf-fumes of his cave-dwelling, and an old Austrian army-officer of my acquaintance was probably not the first toper who contrived to “sober up” at short notice by putting his head under the spout of a horse-pump. In midsummer repeated plunge-baths helped to obviate the risk of dietetic disorders, and as early as A.D. 550 free bathing facilities had come to be included among the principal desiderata of a civilized city. Athens, Corinth, Memphis, Agrigentum, and the great seaport towns of Western Asia had them; in Carthage they were maintained by a public tax and the voluntary contributions of numerous merchant-princes.
Imperial Rome became a Mecca of water-worshipers. Not less than six different aqueducts connected the city with the springs of wooded mountain-ranges — some of them twelve English miles from the corporation limits, and the Grand Thermæ of Caracalla atoned for all the demerits of the eccentric ruler; they formed a series of wall-enclosed artificial lakes, free to all, yet equipped with the conveniences of the most luxurious modern watering-place. The cold-water hall was large enough to accommodate the lovers of aquatic sports, and with its branch-tanks, in fact served the purpose of a swimming school.
Frequent baths were recognized as a main condition of physical welfare, and perhaps for that very reason were neglected by the bigots of an antinatural creed. The self-torturing monks gloried in filth, and Llorente, in his “History of the Inquisition,” mentions numerous instances of converts from Mohammedanism incurring suspicion by continuing to practise the daily ablutions of their former faith. One ex-Morisco, a citizen of Cadiz, had a quarrel with a servant-girl, and soon after was arrested and jailed on a charge of apostasy. After being four times arraigned and as often scourged within an inch of his life, he was at last, confronted with his accuser. In her thirst for revenge, the slander-monging slut had denounced him as a backslider and supported her insinuations with the assertion that her former employer was in the habit of locking himself up and taking a bath thrice a week. By sacrificing half his fortune and summoning a dozen medical witnesses, the defendant escaped the stake on a plea of physical necessity; his duties as manager of a woolen mill, he proved, obliged him to avoid cutaneous troubles by extra sanitary precautions, which he otherwise abhorred as practices of benighted misbelievers.
All over the Mediterranean coastlands free public baths were in ruins; but the belief in the concomitance of godliness and dirt does not seem to have been limited to Southern Europe.
“Bathing, being pleasant as well as wholesome,” says Henry Buckle, in his description of Scotch kirk-despotism, “was considered a particularly grievous offense; and no man could be allowed to swim on Sunday. It was, in fact, doubtful whether swimming was lawful for a Christian at any time, even on week days, and it was certain that God had on one occasion shown his disproval by taking away the life of a boy while he was indulging in that carnal practice.” (“History of Civilization,” Vol. II., p. 312.)
“As bathing was a heathenish custom, all public baths were to be destroyed” (by order of the Inquisition) “and even all larger baths in private houses.” (Ibid., Vol. II., p. 44.)
That millennium of insanity left its traces in the still far-spread mistrust of our natural instincts, and not before the middle of the eighteenth century a revival of common sense led to the re-establishment of free public baths in several cities of Holland and Southern Europe. Watering-places became fashionable, but the choice of the public favored warm springs, till Squire Priessnitz, a self-educated farmer of Graefenberg, Silesia, called attention to the remedial efficacy of cold-water prescriptions. In his private sanitarium—a mere annex, at first, of a homely farmhouse—he used shower-baths, sponge-baths, sitz-baths, and internal doses of pure water from a cold mountain spring, and proved that for the treatment of debilitating disorders his prescriptions made drugs superfluous.
The theories of the water doctor, as his neighbors called him, were founded on personal experience. Soon after taking charge of a small farm he had been all but killed in a runaway accident. His survival seemed doubtful, and when he left the hospital of a neighboring city he “was a mere bundle of disabilities,” stiff-jointed, half lame, and troubled with all sorts of pains and disorders. A swollen foot having been greatly benefited by immersion in cold water, the convalescent tried the effect of an occasional sitz-bath, then of daily all-over sponge-baths, and before the end of the second year had got rid of all his ailments. As far as he could remember, he had, indeed, never felt better in his life, except in early boyhood when a relative now and then took him out to a berry-picking camp in the highlands, and the little lad “wondered if the dwellers in paradise could have been much happier.”
In his subsequent school-years he used to take long rambles all by himself, feeling more at home in the mountain cliffs than in the tobacco-clouded village tavern—evidently a child of Nature, with the very instincts that would lead him to abandon drug-traditions for a new gospel of hygiene.
He was no learned man, in the college sense of the word, but had read a good deal and thought more, and his arguments had the force born of intense conviction. Besides, his own experience was an argnmentum ad hominem, and one by one his afflicted neighbors tried the inexpensive prescriptions of the water-doctor. Reformed topers felt their shattered nerves braced as no drugs, no ointments and strengthening diet had braced them before. Rickety youngsters improved till they could join in the sports of their contemporaries and often beat them at their own game. Invalids with one foot in the grave regained their vantage ground on the upper tablelands of health, and one old soldier became so enthusiastic a champion of the new sanitary creed that his savage denunciations of drug-mongers more than once got him into serious trouble.
Squire Priessnitz himself never indulged in invectives, and kept his temper even when the neighboring physicians got him indicted for kurpfuscherie—the unauthorized practise of medicine; “mal-practice” being a term they could not apply to his case, as there were no plaintiffs and it could not be proved that anybody had ever been the worse for a cold-water cure. The sympathy of the public was emphatically on the side of the defendant, who relied on his native eloquence and asked the court if it was fair to force an indictment for the practise of medicine against a man who had never encouraged the belief in the efficacy of medicinal prescriptions or dispensed a grain of drugs in his life. “Bathing,” he argued, “is a mere sanitary habit, and you might as well arrest me for advising my neighbors to take more outdoor exercise or try a change of diet.”
Those neighbors became a trifle too demonstrative in their applause, and the court warned all concerned to “be more careful hereafter,” but, on the whole, thought it best to discharge the prisoner.