—still beloved after thousands of years!!

Massage therapist and OSM instructor Marybetts Sinclair is also the author of many massage articles and textbooks. Her professional travels recently took her to Bath, England, a World Heritage Site with a long history of hydrotherapy and bodywork.

“What do Celtic princes and goddesses, ancient Roman massage professionals, medieval hospitals with special baths, European queens, sufferers from lead poisoning, Charles Dickens, wounded English soldiers, Jane Austen, The Society of Trained Masseuses, and the Thermae Bath Spa have in common?

All are part of Bath’s healing history.

In Bath, a quarter-million gallons of very hot spring water pour out of the ground each day, the largest source of naturally-heated water in all of Europe. Bath has been famed for millennia for the curative powers of this water, and countless people drawn there for healing as well as recreation. While on a recent business and teaching trip, I had a chance to visit there, and since I had done extensive research on Bath for my new book, Hydrotherapy for Bodyworkers, I was very excited to see it for myself.

Hydrotherapy for Bodyworkers

History of Bath

The springs were supposedly discovered in 88 CE, by a Celtic prince who was cured of leprosy by bathing in them. Bath has had many transformations since then, from a place of healing overseen by the Celtic goddess Sulis to an extensive bathing complex built by the conquering Romans, dedicated to their goddess Minerva. When the Romans left England about 400 AD, the temples and baths were demolished while flooding and repurposing of building materials left the site nothing more than ruins and wall stubs sticking through the mire. But the waters were irresistible, and the medieval Catholic Church built a hospital for the poor and handicapped over the old site. New pools were constructed, including separate baths for people with leprosy, and cures were credited to Christian saints. Centuries later it became the Bath General Hospital, and paying patients came for treatment for a huge variety of injuries, illnesses and psychosomatic issues. (veterans of English wars rehabbed there for hundreds of years). Paralysis from strokes or injuries, rheumatism, gout, sciatica, neurasthenia (burn-out from stress), edema, infertility and lead poisoning were common problems. One of the baths was tepid and used for swimming, (it would be called pool therapy today) helpful for weakness from many causes, including children with rickets.

Origins of Bath  Map of Bath England

The Romans had great faith in massage for injuries such as fractures and dislocations, chronic conditions such as migraine headaches, paralysis, contracted muscles, slow-healing wounds, and many more. Massage was used to increase penetration of herbs, as increased bloodflow to the skin aided absorption of ingredients in oils. Massage strokes were thought to have different effects, for example, friction versus transverse strokes. A special thrill for me was an animated film of a masseuse giving a Roman lady a massage after her bath, and an archeological reconstruction of the women’s massage rooms. Finally, at the end of the tour we viewed one of the more modern baths which had many niches built into its walls. 3 of these baths were being used when Queen Elizabeth visited in 1574, a time when Bath was already famed for curing paralysis and its piles of crutches were legendary. In 1662, one visitor wrote this: “It is the general custom to stay in the water 2 to 3 hours. All around are seats in recesses, also rings to hold onto. The water is fairly hot, so that one nearly breaks out in a sweat….For weakness, headache, etc, some people get on doctor’s orders 800 strokes pumped on (sprayed on the area of complaint) for several days. After the bath “one goes to lie in a linen sheet in a warmed bed and sweats profusely for several hours.” I could practically see frequent visitors Charles Dickens and Jane Austen taking the waters: both set scenes from their novels in Bath. A movie made from Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey contains scenes in the baths, which can be seen on YouTube:


Pre Roman Springs  Roman Era

Although there would be no official “rubbers” until the hospital hired one in 1852, and no official massage training at the hospital until 1912, “guides” helped people of the same sex in and out of these baths and performed many tasks we would classify as bodywork, such as rubbing in liniments, stretching contractures after limbs were soaked and warm, performing range of motion exercises, spraying different parts of the body with hot or cold water and body scrubs. Local steam treatments were also used to loosen “stubborn joints.” All these were prescribed by doctors treating the patients.

The English government also paid for wounded soldiers to be rehabbed there. By the 1800’s Bath also became a luxurious destination for the idle rich, with many gorgeous stone buildings constructed to house them and offer places to gamble, dance, drink, shop, spend time in chocolate houses, and promenade. (Now, improvements from bathing were explained in terms of beneficial chemicals in the water) As the First World War began, wounded soldiers poured into Bath, and not only the baths, but whirlpools, sprays, steam baths, heat lamps and a great deal of massage were employed to help them. (Extra massagers were hired to meet the demand) Most hands-on technicians were trained under the auspices of the Society of Trained Masseuses and this was the beginning of physical therapy as a profession. The hospital was bombed by German planes in 1942, but a rehabilitation department with bodywork, hydrotherapy, and exercise therapy was opened the next year. In its final form, became the Royal Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases. It treats chronic musculoskeletal pain and uses hydrotherapy to this day. Meanwhile the Thermae Spa nearby uses the spring waters in a modern, sophisticated spa setting.

Bath Today

My Bath experience began at the town center, where beautiful old churches and other stone buildings are still in use today. A tour of the Roman bathing complex (built in about 40 AD), began with a walk around the great Roman Bath, which was used as a plunge and swimming pool. Niches along the wall held benches, so wounded Roman soldiers and others could remain in the water for hours. Since the rest of the original bathing area was built over many times and covered by soil until it was excavated recently, we next walked down stone steps and went underground. There the visitor can see various artifacts and separate areas for both sexes, each containing the remnants of saunas, hot and cold pools, changing rooms, and finally massage rooms. The bather usually went from the sauna into hot and cold pools and finally to an actual massage room, for massage with scented olive oil. Other body treatments such as hair removal and tooth-pulling, might also occur in the treatment room.

This hydrotherapy nerd happily spent the next day in the Bath Record Office, assisted by archivists, reading case histories by the doctors who worked at Bath, the earliest in the late 1600’s. I learned much about the types of illnesses treated and how the baths and other hydrotherapy treatments worked together. Bath worked out a very promising treatment for lead poisoning using diet, sweating and hydrostatic pressure in an ingenious combination. One of my favorite case histories involved a Scottish gentleman who came to Bath in 1697 with shoulder pain and near-paralysis of one arm, due to “carrying his hawk upon his fist” for long periods of time! (interesting case of repetitive stress syndrome) He was treated with liniments, water–drinking and bathing, including exercising while in the water, and he recovered fully after a two-month stay. Finally, I had a wonderfully relaxing visit to the Thermae Spa, today’s version of the healing waters. It is a modern, multi-level facility, with 2 steam rooms, an infrared sauna, 2 large beautiful swimming pools, one of which is open to the air on the rooftop and an ice room. Just as in the days of ancient Rome, a team of massage therapists provides bodywork along with the soaks, steams and other water experiences of the spa: services include Watsu, hot stone massage, deep tissue and Swedish techniques, body wraps, Vichy showers, aromatherapy massages and more. For a short video showcasing both hydrotherapy and massage at the Spa, see www.thermaebathspa.com, “A Day in the life of Thermae Bath Spa” – https://www.thermaebathspa.com/photos-videos/spa-treatment-videos/

Thermae Bath Spa, Bath England  Thermae Bath Spa, Bath England

As I completed my Bath tour I felt soothed and inspired everything I observed underlines the appeal and the importance of the water treatments and bodywork of today and of long, long ago!

Photos courtesy of The Roman Baths, Bath & North East Somerset Council & Thermae Bath Spa, Bath England.

Article by Marybetts Sinclair.

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