Although at first I found Matt Bramble drinking the dirty public bath water at Bath in order to cure his ailing body slightly humorous, one of his letters to Doctor Lewis opened my eyes to how disgusting and unsanitary that actually was. He mentions that he intended to soak in the bath in order to “clear some strainer of the skin”, but notices a boy being carried into the water with open sores marring his skin. Bramble is wary enough to realize the health hazards of such public baths and spas (albeit not until after he’s consumed how much of the water?).
This got me wondering about public baths in general. I know they were fairly common, especially in ancient Rome. I’d even go so far as to say public baths were a precursor to the modern concept of Spas. However, the difference is, modern spas have an emphasis on cleanliness and sterilization, where as public baths existed in a time when the spreading of disease and infection was not as well understood, and precautions to prevent them were not yet in place. Public baths could also be related to public pools, where people meet for recreation and socialization, much like at the baths. However, modern pools have an arsenal of chemicals to kill bacteria, and people with infection skin conditions or open sores are generally not allowed in public pools. As shown in the exchange of letters, Bath was not only a place where the character sought healing and relaxation, but they also looked for human interaction and socialization, much like spas and pools of today. However, the unsanitary conditions and the characters interaction with them (their belief that drinking and soaking in the water will cure sickness) does provide a substantial amount of humor for the story line.