- Health, Hedonism & Hypochondria: The Hidden History of Spas, by Ian Bradley. Taurus Parke. $39.99.
Tim the Yowie Man recently wrote in The Canberra Times about the "Famed Spring of the Monaro", documenting the historic accounts of a natural spring near Cooma, whose water according to Polish explorer John Lhtosky, was "similar to that of the most valuable mineral springs, as Seltzer and Cheltenham".
Lhotsky envisaged an international resort, "wherein numbers of sick from all adjacent countries were relieved and restored to health". The Cooma spa never eventuated, otherwise it might have been included in Ian Bradley's insightful and entertaining book, Health, Hedonism and Hypochondria: The Hidden History of Spas.
Bradley, Emeritus Professor at the University of St Andrews, notes that "a spa nowadays can be anything from a hot tub in the back garden to an exotic beach resort offering mindfulness and ayurvedic yoga". The latest Miss Moneypenny, Naomie Harris, recently recounted in Tatler magazine her 2020 visit to a luxury spa retreat in Goa, "to detox and reset", only to find that the spa, gym, swimming pool and casino were closing down because of COVID.
Before the pandemic hit, Bradley notes, new spas were opening at a rate of 8000 a year around the world, with over 150,000 "spa locations" employing 2.6 million people and contributing $120 billion annually to the $4.2 trillion global wellness economy.
Bradley's main focus, however, is on the historical, traditional spas of Europe, examining in fascinating detail the issues of "health, hedonism and hypochondria". He is particularly informative on the "secret or shadow side" of spas.
Bradley notes the word spa emerged in the 14th century, taking its name from the Belgian town which still bears that name. He begins, however, with the Minoan hot springs on the Aegean Sea, before moving on to the Greeks and Romans, who first "forged the association between spas and loose living" . Seneca the Younger described the first Roman spa, Baiae, near Naples, "as a resort of luxury and vice to be avoided at all costs".
The Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria noted the reasons for people indulging in frequent baths, as "cleanliness, health, warmth, and pleasure", but then continued, "only the first two were legitimate".
Monks favoured the use of thermal springs, but the popular medieval "stew houses" were often, in reality, brothels. The Reformation, in the 16th century, however, "swung the emphasis from hedonism to health", in medically influenced spas.
The heyday of the spa was from the middle of the 18th to the early 20th century, and became important social centres for royalty, nobility, politicians, writers, composers and poets. Authors such as, Tolstoy, George Eliot, Thackeray, Flaubert and Dumas were just a few who made use of spa settings in their fiction.
Dostoyevsky wrote The Gambler in order to pay off his roulette debts at Wiesbaden. Jane Austen notably captured the spa life of Bath, a town she disliked, after being taken there in 1801 by her father and hypochondriac mother.
According to Bradley, England had "an impressive number of prominent hypochondriacs who devoted much of their literary talent to worrying obsessively about their ailments". Alfred, Lord Tennyson, spent seven months at the Cheltenham spa allegedly to tackle his depression.
Spas genuinely catered for the medically sick, although doctors did query miracle cures brought about by "taking the waters" . The spa wheel turned back to hedonism in the nineteenth century, with the large European spas becoming symbols of luxury and decadence.
Bradley uses the German Kurschatten, for a "friend" found in a spa, often, in reality, a mistress. Edward VII, when Prince of Wales, favoured the spa town of Marienbad, "where (female) candidates for his favours took to turning up ... as though they were applying for an official post".
Another dark side of spas emerged with women hidden away, sometimes to conceal pregnancy, as with Katherine Mansfield in 1909, or to avoid family embarrassments. Bartlett notes Prince Philip's mother, Alice of Battenberg, diagnosed with schizophrenia, was kept in two spas for six years, largely so that her husband "could pursue his own amorous affairs in the south of France".
Over the last 100 years, the pendulum has swung again towards health, or as Bradley, puts it "wellness". He documents the decline of the historic spa sites, as the health, beauty and "wellness" industry became increasingly associated with luxury hotels and exotic global locations in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.
Bradley's "sparring" with history not only delivers a fascinating and informative account of the many aspects of spas, but also provides a framework for an historical and cultural understanding of contemporary wellbeing.