There was a community of nuns in Hippo Regius. Saint Augustine watched over their affairs through their superior, his sister. Now, it so happened that a certain scandalous quarrel among the congregation of the pious matrons broke out for reasons common and frequent in every age: animosities of personal nature. The dispute was submitted to the bishop for adjudication. He issued his decision in 423 in a long letter to the congregation—a kind of detailed instruction on the rules of religious life.
This document was to play an enormous role in the following centuries as the basis for the rules of various monastic orders. But here we are only interested in a short fragment of it, with a very prosaic content.
"You should wash your clothes by yourselves or let your servants wash them, but only at the discretion of your mother superior so that the excessive desire for a clean dress does not stain your soul with inner filth. And let the washing of the body and the use of the baths not be continuous! Ablutions should occur at the usual intervals, that is, once a month. If, however, a sickness should force a sister to wash her body, let her wash on the doctor’s orders without grumbling. And if she still does not want to, let her do what she must do for the health of the body at the order of the mother superior."
This principle, worded so sharply and stated so clearly, had important implications for the personal hygiene of various groups and communities and, later, of the whole society. Its influence was all the more significant as the statements of another man of great holiness and immeasurable learning strongly supported it. He also lived in the times of Saint Augustine and was famous as one of the most distinguished Latin writers of his time.
Saint Jerome, a native of the border regions between Dalmatia and Pannonia, was older than the bishop of Hippo Regius by over a dozen years. The two men, although exchanging letters, did not really like each other—as is often the case with prominent representatives of the same generation and the same ideological orientation.
After much travel, Jerome settled in Palestine, in Bethlehem. There he presided over a community of monks, welcomed pious pilgrims, and studied and wrote. Among the vast oeuvre of Saint Jerome, one work stands out as most important for the subsequent history of the Church and the entire European civilization: his revision and final edition of the Latin translation of the Bible, the so-called Vulgate.
(Augustine was to criticize sharply some of the wording of that edition). And with all this work, the learned hermit still found time to conduct extensive correspondence. In it, he gave encouragement and advice on various matters related to religious life. And, in a letter to a matron named Leta, who had asked for instructions on how to raise her daughter, he wrote:
"I am not a friend of bathing in an adult girl at all. She ought to feel ashamed of her body and hate the sight of her own nakedness. For if she mortifies her body with wakefulness and fasting; if she wishes to extinguish the fire of lust and the heat of intellectual ferment with the frost of restraint; if she seeks to disfigure her natural beauty by deliberate cultivation of dirt, why should she, acting as if for opposite reasons, kindle the sleeping flames with the heat of the bathhouse?"