Review: “The Dirt on Clean” by Katherine Ashenburg

Thumbs up for The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History by Katherine Ashenburg. History.

You know it had to exist: the history of hygiene. This microhistory is better-than-average: just the right combination of easy-to-read and informative. Exactly as a writer of historical or historical-ish fantasy might wish, in fact….

It follows that hygiene has always been a convenient stick with which to beat other peoples, who never seem to get it right. The outsiders usually err on the side of dirtiness. The ancient Egyptians thought that sitting a dusty body in still water, as the Greeks did, was a foul idea. Late-nineteenth-century Americans were scandalized by the dirtiness of Europeans; the Nazis promoted the idea of Jewish uncleanliness. At least since the Middle Ages, European travellers have enjoyed nominating the continent’s grubbiest country – the laurels usually went to France or Spain. Sometimes the other is, suspiciously, too clean – which is how Muslims, who scoured their bodies and washed their genitals, struck Europans for centuries. The Muslims returned the compliment, regarding Europeans as downright filthy.

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