Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I muse on the post-Roman history of the Roman baths at Bath

Three fascinated hours in the Roman Baths museum at Bath with Cork Astronomy Club last weekend.  Most surprising fact: the baths have a continuous history long before the Romans, and ever since. I had always imagined that they were rediscovered in the 18th century just in time for Jane Austen to visit the Pump Room.  But there's a crucial fact that I was previously unaware of.  The baths are built on top of a hot spring. So whereas most Roman baths were built in a city and fed by an aqueduct, uniquely at Bath, the city was built round the baths. The hot spring still springs (if that's what a spring does). You can see the water bubbling up!

Tourists amuse themselves photographing each other beside the great bath

A diminutive tourist helps erode Roman paving enclosing
a Roman lead pipe
Which brings me to the acorns. Our tour bus guide showed us these carved stone acorns with which the Georgian Bath architect John Wood decorated the parapet of The Circus:-

At The Circus acorns decorate the parapet recalling
the pigs that led Prince Bladud to the hot spring in 800 BC
They recall a herd of acorn-eating pigs which Prince Bladud found wallowing in steaming hot mud.  He observed that the pigs went in scabby and came out clean.  So Prince Bladud leapt in and was instantly cured of leprosy, and began the story of Bath and its baths. Prince Bladud, the tour guide told us, lived 800 BC. But a book I bought in the museum shop says that the story was probably invented by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century.

Nonetheless, it’s certain that long before the Romans arrived and built the baths, the local Celtic tribes knew and venerated the hot springs, which pumped hot water up, year after unceasing year, mineral rich, and miraculous.  A diagramme in the museum showed the geological fault up through which the warm water is forced.  But neither the Celts nor the Romans knew this.  To them the hot springs were magic and the work of gods. 

An interpretation board explains how hot water (red) deep
in the earth’s crust is forced up at pressure through a fault

directly underneath the Roman baths and temple complex
Evidence of Celtic shrines has been found, where they worshipped a deity known as Sul.  The local tribe minted coins depicting ships. So they will have traded with the Romans who will have doubtless known, even before they invaded, about the hot springs, which are unique in Europe (other than Iceland). 

The Romans were diplomatic enough to name the place Aquae Sulis, The Waters of Sul, even though they built a temple and dedicated it to their own goddess Minerva.

The baths have been restored to their layout in the Roman period. But the hot spring had been in continuous use for thousands of years before the Romans. And also, so far as I can tell, continuously ever since.

The building that the Romans erected around the spring was truly spectacular.  Thers's no roof now so you have to imagine it, and there's a diagramme to help you do this.  Aquae Sulis was pretty much at the edge of the empire and many people who came to it will have never seen anything else like it, before or since.

This diagramme helps visitors visualise the enormous high roof
By the time of the baths' final extension in the 4th century the complex included a temple, at least five hot and cold baths, sweat rooms and cold rooms, and a jacuzzi into which hot water directly from the spring was forced under pressure through a lead pipe.  It’s that jacuzzi where they think the sick came to be healed. As well as the physical heat, the people will have experienced the spiritual warmth of the goddess who they believed had sent the magical water. 

The Jacuzzi - sorry it's such a dull photo.  Sitting on the stone seat you would have been pretty much completely immersed and it's thought this was where the sick came to be healed.
How did attitudes change when Christianity arrived?  Was the temple of Minerva converted to a church?  Was the hot spring still regarded as holy? I didn’t get any information on these questions.

And the best bit - after the Romans

We now come on to the part of the history that interests me most.

What happened when the Romans left?  Continuity and discontinuity in history. The great bath, sacred spring and temple fell to ruin, and as the drainage system disintegrated, the area returned to marsh. But when? Before Britain became independent of the empire in 410?  Not till the Battle of Dyrham in 577 when Bath came under Saxon rule? The Saxons called the place Hat Bathu, hot bath, so what does this tell us?  Was the massive vaulted roof still intact when the Saxons arrived? More questions that I didn't get answers to.

There's a theory that an earthquake sometime between 410 and 676 shattered the Roman structures.

In 1090 two new baths were begun by Bishop Villula who was impressed with the hot springs’ therapeutic powers. A century before that, my book mentions Benedictine monks “living by the hot springs”.  And in 1106 a King’s Bath was built. A 12th century chronicle describes “a receptacle beautifully constructed with chambered arches. These form baths in the middle of the city, warm and wholesome and charming. Sick persons from all over England resort thither to bathe in these healing waters, and the fit also, to see these wonderful burstings out of warm water and to bathe in them.”

In 1452 Thomas Calder wrote : “what can be more wonderful or more blessed than this provision by which all men, high and low, rich and poor, receive cure of all their maladies”.

Three years before that an Act or Parliament banned nude bathing. Vice and licentiousness huh!

I skip over the rest of the history, the 18th century, Jane Austen, and all that.  To learn more I recommend the inestimable Wikipedia. The official Roman Baths website is a bit disappointing. 

In my teenage years I lived a few miles away in Bristol.  I remember visiting the baths once, only once, and I don't recall they made much of an impression. What a waste! 

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