Sauna and bathing in global history

Recently, at a conference, I presented on the history of Finnish folk medicine. After the talk, I got a question from the audience about the peculiarities of folk healing in Finland. Having spent a number of years studying African medical systems, I could only point to the similarities between Finnish and African folk remedies – the use of cupping horns, herbalism, and bone setting. However, someone suggested that sauna perhaps presents a Finnish specialty, and many in the audience seemed to accept this idea. I immediately started thinking about Amerindian sweat lodges and Turkish hammams. Steam cabinets were also used in precolonial Africa as a standard treatment for syphilis, as documented by Rømer on the Gold Coast in the mid-eighteenth century. In this blog post, I want to briefly touch upon the global history of sauna and bathing, which remains to be written in English.

Finns like to think of the sauna as their own invention and often joke about the lame sauna cultures encountered elsewhere in Europe. Indeed, sauna is regarded as part of national identity in Finland. Because it is different from sauna cultures encountered elsewhere, Finns rarely stop to think about its history in the longue durée. However, a rare gem in Finnish historiography gives an insight on sauna cultures in global history. Published in 1967, Martti Vuorenjuuri’s largely forgotten book Sauna kautta aikojen (Sauna Through the Ages) is an excellent cultural history of sweat baths. It is divided into three parts: Old Sweat Bath Cultures deals with the history of saunas in antique and Islamic world as well as in indigenous cultures of Mexico and North America; The Great Sauna Culture of the Middle Ages deals with saunas and baths in Central and Western Europe; only the final part, Russian Banja and Finnish Sauna, focuses on Finnish sauna culture.

The author describes his research as exciting and exuberant. The detective work took him to seek out obscure publications in European libraries; to multilayered negotiations in Soviet art galleries in order to see sauna paintings lying somewhere in the basement; and to seek out the last remains of medieval sauna culture in the Swiss Alps. In addition to Finnish, Swedish, and English, Vuorenjuuri’s primary sources are in Greek, Latin, Russian, French, Spanish, German, Turkish, Icelandic, Hebrew, and Japanese. Over 80 libraries, archives, museums, and scholars provided material for the research.

In the beginning of the book, Vuorenjuuri briefly mentions ideas connected to sweating and health in Ayurveda. He then treats bathing in ancient Greece and Rome, speculating that Greeks imported some of the ideas connected to sweating from the East. The thermes and balneums of were an important part of daily life in the Roman empire and present early innovations in global health architecture. Similarly, hammam in the Islamic world was an integral part of Muslim life but also spread to Europe in the wake of Crusades. Hammams were also constructed in early modern Sweden but they were exceptional curiosities. The real boom in hammam construction was witnessed in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century and sweat baths became the subject of numerous medical treatises.

Bath house scene, 1495, by Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād, Public Domain,

Writing about the sauna cultures of medieval and early modern Europe, Vuorenjuuri argues that one should not look for a common origin for the use of sweat baths and their dispersal. Sauna cultures were created independently in different regions at different points of time. The Greek-Roman, Arabic, Scandinavian, Slavic, and possibly Irish sauna cultures were independent and developed along different lines. The Greek-Roman and Arabic were in many ways interconnected and played a major role in the development of Central European sauna culture in the thirteenth century, which spread to Scandinavia and there fused to an old sauna culture.

In Vuorenjuuri’s view, central European sauna culture had become well rooted in Finnish towns by the early Swedish rule. It was identical to Scandinavian and Central European sauna culture and therefore little noted in travel accounts – people who travelled to Finland were already familiar with it. However, the region east of Päijänne was connected to Great Russian sauna culture. In nineteenth-century Finland, intellectuals started looking east and invented the Karelian past, which was regarded as the purest form of tradition. This, however, meant ignoring and downplaying the Slavic and Orthodox cultural influences. The conception of sauna as a Finnish invention can be dated to this period, and it continues to exert influence today; mainly because Finns have not read their Vuorenjuuri.

Central European/Scandinavian and Slavic sauna cultures (Vuorenjuuri, Sauna kautta aikojen, p. 220)

To sum it up, sweat baths have been an integral part of health cultures and healing practices in global history. They are not particular to Finnish folk medicine and conceptions of healing. Sweating as treatment and disease prevention has taken different architectural forms in different regions of the world, but the underlying idea, maintaining health and getting rid of illness, has been the same.

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