Saturday, August 15, 2009

The bath-house

Medieval bathing, from Wikimedia CommonsSetting is always a key element for me - I tend to fix 'where' a story is going to take place early on, so I can research it. I don't have a glitzy city background, or lots of specialist knowledge in a particular sexy field, so I knew that to tempt editors I'd need to place my stories in special settings. Also I find it exciting to research places abroad or in the past - another kind of 'abroad' to me.

So far as room settings are concerned, I love water and I love to bathe, so I've chosen bath-houses as my room for this theme week.

Here's an excerpt taken from my historical romance, Flavia's Secret. In it, Flavia has just gone into the main great bath at Aquae Sulis (Roman Bath: Aquae Sulis - means 'Waters of Sul, the goddess). Sadly, in 206 AD,
when the story is set, her bath is not quite the same as the baths we see today, but I attempted to re-create them from research.

Excerpt: Flavia's Secret.

Leaving her shawl with the unsmiling Rags, she followed Marcus into the great bath, hearing behind her the slap of sandaled and bare feet as new bathers began gathering for the tenth hour—the time any fashionable citizen of Aquae Sulis would aim to be at the baths.
`Wait there a moment, please.' Marcus stopped by one of the pillars close to the rectangular pool and expanse of the great bath and shouted something in a German tongue at a blond, rangy swimmer with only one eye, who raised a fist from the steaming waters and yelled back an answer, in obvious delight.
`I know Otho from Germania—this won't take long,' he said hurriedly to Flavia, grinning as he stepped down the top step of four broad steps at the water's edge and stood waiting, immersed up to his knees, for his former comrade, both arms spread wide in greeting.
Amused at their back-slapping antics—Otho seized Marcus' hand and tried to drag him under the water—Flavia left them to their incomprehensible talk and took in the scene around her.
The great bath was a wonder, she thought, grudgingly acknowledging the powers of the Roman engineering. Set in a huge aisled hall with a soaring barrel vault overhead supported on massive columns, the great bath was surrounded by four deep steps on all sides and its aisle walkways were lined with massive white limestone flagstones. After the dimly-lit corridors leading here, the bath was dazzlingly bright, the light from huge arched upper windows reflected by white limestone columns and smooth plastered walls. The steaming water itself, a pale
green, shimmered with light making the statues lining the bath seem alive.
In the water or waiting in the colonnade were the bathing attendants: slaves holding towels or bottles of scented oil, or strigils to scrape off the oil; masseurs calling out their prices; hair-pluckers flashing their tweezers.
Flavia studied the bathers with narrowed eyes, resting her chin on one hand as she crouched by the base of a statue. She had never been in the baths so late before and she soon understood why, and why some of the women were leaving. The men flooding fast on her heels into the great bath were not elderly veterans. These were a different breed.
She picked out a few figures in the bobbing, chattering mass. There was a magistrate, whom she recognized from one of Lady Valeria's rare dinner parties, swathed in towels as he swept along the side aisle with his entourage and various cronies trailing behind. There was a rich young nobleman with a bored, sulky look, being lifted directly from the bath onto a waiting litter, which bore him away into one of
the hot sweat rooms. There was a massively fat man with a scarlet nose eating a sausage and singing while floating on his back in the water. He was being propelled in the bath by an elderly slave whose
back was still raw with lash marks.
`Don't stare, he is not a forgiving man,' said a familiar voice by her ear.
Flavia turned on the damp limestone. Crouching beside her, his German friend nowhere to be seen, Marcus jerked his head towards the eastern exit.
`Let us get this visit over with and go home,' he said.

I feature bath-houses in my medieval novels, too. Just as today, medieval women and men enjoyed a dip in a warm bath. Monks were allowed to bathe for health reasons, medieval pilgrims still flocked to the baths at Bath in hope of a cure from the warm spring waters. By 1100 AD, hot baths or 'estewes' had been established in London.

These 'stews' could be rather shady places - brothels in fact - but many were simple bath houses. In this excerpt from A Knight's Vow we see the hero and heroine together in a bath house.

Excerpt: A Knight's Vow.

‘I heard about your vow.’
Guillelm did not pause in his stoking of the bath-house fire. He had sent the other men and servants out, but Fulk had entered as if he had a perfect right to be there.
‘Do you not think it a sign from God?’ Fulk continued, in that pious, smug way of his. How had I not noticed this aspect of him before? Guillelm thought, depressed anew. In everything it seemed he was a poor judge, willfully blind. The only skill he appeared to have was in killing.
‘Yes, it is a sign - of my own inadequacy. Boil, damn you,’ he added under his breath to the already steaming tub of water. He longed to be clean, to feel clean. ’I want no one here with me now,’ he growled. He had not forgotten or forgiven Fulk over the man’s mean trick with his wife’s diadem.
His wife - what a reckless dream that had been! Heloise was right: no woman wanted him.
‘Go!’ he snarled and Fulk paled and went, backing out rapidly and skidding down the bath-house steps.
Guillelm hurled more logs into the fire. Presently he heard the door creak and bawled, ’Out!’ without turning round.
‘Where shall I put the towels?’ asked an achingly familiar voice.
He spun round and there she was, Alyson his wife. Even as he gawked at her, longing to beg her forgiveness, to snatch her into his arms, to drag her with him into the steaming bath and frolic there until the water turned cold, his tongue felt nailed to the roof of his mouth. What could he say? He had failed her so badly.
She smiled and he was smitten afresh, more stunned than he had been that time in Outremer, when a stone from a sling had struck him on the visor of his helmet and he had almost blacked out. There was no fear of his losing consciousness now, but certainly she mazed his wits.
‘I shall put them here, shall I, my lord?’
Nimbly, she arranged her armful of towels by the side of the great tub, scattering something on the lapping water that instantly perfumed the bath-house.
‘An old remedy, lavender,’ she explained, lifting her skirts to tread lightly over the flags towards him. ’I have spearmint, too, for our teeth and breath.’
‘Our teeth?’
She did not answer, merely passed straight by him, close enough for him to feel the swish of her robe against his legs, and lit two beeswax candles from the torch. She placed these on the stone shelf beside the tub, where most bathers put their trinkets, or goblets of wine.
‘I find that bath-houses are always a little gloomy, even in summer,’ she remarked. ’Do you not think the candles add cheer?’
They did, and they put a glow into Alyson’s face, warm shadows on the vaulted stone roof of the bath-house and a flickering play of lights on the water. They added little light, if truth be told, but something else instead, a sense of being in a dream.

To end, I do not feel I have explored all aspects of bath-houses and look forward to exploring more in this most sensual and romantic of rooms.

Best wishes, Lindsay Townsend


Linda Banche said...

Such beautiful descriptions of bath-houses. We're probably missing out on something by not having them nowadays. And the private one certainly makes a great place for your Guillelm and Alyson to meet.

Lindsay Townsend said...

Thanks, Linda! I often wonder what hot tubs are like - they must be a lot of fun. I'd love to try a jacuzzi, too.

Jane Richardson, writer said...

Wonderful! I recognise Bath in the first excerpt, or somewhere very similar. ;-) And the second excerpt is delicious, I love the atmosphere and the intimacy.
The lovliest bath I ever had was the day I gave birth to our daughter at home. :) I had a blend of healing herbs I'd bought, which my husband made up and put into a bath without telling me. When I got to the bathroom, all these wonderful scented petals were floating in the water, and my husband had put lighted candles all around the room. I'll never forget it! It was lovely. Thansk for these super excerpts, Lindsay.

Jane x

Lindsay Townsend said...

How marvellous, Jane! Thank you so much for sharng that very special memory. How thoughtful, too, of your hubby! And with a lovely personal HEA with the birth of your daughter.

Candles and herbs sound perfect.

Thank you!

Bekki Lynn said...

Awesome, Lindsay.

I, too, wonder about what we're missing.

I've never been in a hot tub, but I've been in various sizes of Jacuzzis -- the best one ever was in a motel in Iowa City, Iowa near the Veterans Hospital. They're so wonderful. And the whirpool at our local community center, sometimes too warm and you want to sleep, but wow - does wonders for the kinks.

Savanna Kougar said...

Lindsay, always such a treat to read your scenes and be transported into another time, mood and world.
It would be wonderful to have a bath-house, or something similar.
I have been in hot tubs before. Incredible!!! and I had amazing experiences of all types. I wish I had one now.

Jane, so lovely. It makes my heart sigh. Thank you, for sharing.

Lindsay Townsend said...

Hi Bekki - the whirlpool sounds great! I'm sure such kinds of baths and tubs are very healing in the broadest sense, and, as you say, very relaxing.

And Savanna - I hope you can soon have a hot tub of your own - they do sound amazing.

ROOMS as a theme is already fascinatng - we've had the cosmos, the bath-house and today Linda has brought us the kitchen. I can't wait to see what comes next!

Cheryl said...


Your attention to detail is just wonderful. Love the descriptions of the physical setting but also of the other patrons that are there, too. It really builds the "flavor" of the times. I don't know if I could do a public bath or not...LOL