Healthy & Unhealthy History

How did we get to where we are today?

As we struggle through the many millennial paradigm shifts on our abused planet, we are at an exciting crossroads.  We can look back as we move forward. In two thousand years, we have moved through time from “year one” in the Age of Augustus and his Pax Romana, to the chronic warfare of today’s Pax Americana. Caesar had just given us our calendar as well as his first name for the month of July. Augustus gave us August and, with summer now covered, we were on our way and time was born. Has it been an upward spiral? Or are we just now returning to the level of ancient health standards?

The Romans were extremely health & beauty conscious. They took for granted a daily plunge in various baths, soaking beneath the towering stone arches. Conversing with colleagues and friends, often of both sexes, they could feel the stimulating effects of the alternating hot and cold baths on their circulatory system. Advanced underground heating systems helped to regulate the various temperatures. Their sloughing dead skin cells were scraped off by attending masseurs and their underarm hairs were plucked by professional attendants. Oils and milks were applied to their skin for rehydration, fragrance, and most of all, for their healing properties.

Then, as the Roman world crumbled, the concept of public bathing became obsolete for over a thousand years. Church dogma taught us that the body was evil. Origen, one of the fifth century Church fathers, castrated himself in order to purify himself more completely. It was considered sinful to bathe–to expose one’s flesh even to oneself! When Queen Isabella of Spain lay on her death bed, she would not allow the priest to lift her robe even to anoint her feet for the last rites.

Through the centuries, eating habits were mostly determined by economics, not by health standards. The upper classes ingested lots of game, rich foods, and alcoholic beverages. Consequently, they often suffered from gout, while the poor ate grains, vegetables, and protein when they could. When a tax was levied on spirits and meat it was known as “the gout tax.”

In Medieval and Renaissance times, cleanliness was rarely a consideration. Only appearances matter, personally and architecturally. The symmetry of classical Renaissance architecture was considered so important that no space was allowed for bathrooms. Consequently, the dukes and marquises were allowed to relieve themselves in fireplaces, back alleys, and the yards of the peasants, or in chamber pots that were taken along in their carriages and used under the ladies’ skirts in court or in church.

In the 18th century, the aristocrats of England all flocked to the city of Bath for the hot sulfuric waters that gushed from the remaining well built by the Romans. While in the baths, they had floating trays that held strips and dots of fine-haired rat skin to be glued on the face in order to cover smallpox scars and replace the natural eyebrow with the latest arched design. (The rat skin dots became so fashionable that they were applied even when no scars existed!) The ladies’ foot-high hair coifs were not washed more than a few times a year. As a result, they required chopstick-like picks to remove lice and other critters; chicken wire was often used at night to prevent mice from nesting in the mound of hair.

Not until Victorian times, did the discovery of bacteria give rise to the concept of hygiene. This led to the invention of the bathtub. In the 1880s, there was also a reaction to the dulling effects of the Industrial Revolution and a return-to-the-Earth movement. Inspired by the ideas of Swedenborg, many eminent leaders such as Emerson and Thoreau looked for a simpler way of life, along with health enthusiasts such as Kellogg of cereal fame, and Graham of cracker fame. The invention of the bicycle was in itself a milestone which in turn spurred physical fitness, outdoor activities, and conservation of the environment, along with good eating, herbology, and simple health procedures. Europeans began flocking to spas and mountain clinics for healing air and water, far from the grimy coal smoke of the cities. Homeopathy flourished at this time, as homeopathic schools and hospitals sprouted up in Europe and America.

But the horrible advances in technological warfare in World War I created new levels of shell shock and ruined nerves among an entire generation of men. The extremes of intensity and boredom in trench warfare created a need for strong stimulation afterwards—food, alcohol and fast living—that has continued unabated to this day. Before World War I, only some women and prostitutes smoked cigarettes. Then the war department issued them as a calming agent to all soldiers in the field.

Army posts were immune to the laws of Prohibition. As a result, for the major part of this century, the ingestion of alcohol was considered a just reward and part of normal male “good living.” If we add the horrific legacies of World War II, Korea, and Viet Nam, and the ever increasing speed of everyday life, we see the toll that stress has played on the communal nerves of the planet. How could we possibly feel good about ourselves? Or feel good at all? Our common terrain and global concerns can affect our most internal chemistry for both brain and body. The stakes are higher, but our knowledge and self awareness as a people may also be growing in proportion to the challenge. These are the challenges that must be addressed when dealing with our physical and emotional paradigms.

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