Spa water, if it contains pollutants, can have a violent effect on the digestion. This excerpt from Rabelais suggests one should only ever bathe in spa water and never drink it.
(François Rabelais – Gargantua and Pantaguel: Second Book 1534)
Pantagruel’s urine was still causing havoc at the end of the century when the Swiss physician Thomas Platter the Younger visited Balaruc near Montpellier.
After drinking [the spa water of Balaruc], you go for a walk in the countryside. Ladies of elegance walk leaning on the arms of their servants or of their gallants; and as the water acts promptly, and causes abundant stools, it is a curious spectacle to see everyone firing off in full view, and even vying with each other; for there is no bush or tree to give cover.
(Thomas Platter the Younger – Diary 1595)
The spa water was no less powerful in Britain. In this satire, John Mennis (1599-1671) notes how the countryside around Epsom Wells was covered in excrement and strewn with paper torn from books with which people had wiped themselves. The medicinal qualities of Epsom’s water were only discovered in around 1640 and the spa was in terminal decline by the 1730s – perhaps because of the build-up of filth. The traveller to Epsom, according to Mennis, actually competed to see who could defecate the furthest.
‘Tis here the people farre and neer
Bring their diseases, and go clear.
Some drink of it, and in an houre,
Their stomach, guts, and kidneys scowre…
Close by the Well, you may discerne
Small shrubs of eglantine and fern,
Which shew the businesse of the place;
For here old Ops her upper face
Is yellow, not with heat of summer,
But safroniz’d with mortall scumber.
But then the pity to behold
Those antient authors, which of old
Wrote down for us, philosophy,
Physick, musick, and poetry,
Now to no other purpose tend,
But to defend the fingers end…
Here no Olympick games they use,
No wrestling here, limbs to abuse,
But he that gaines the glory here
Must scumber furthest, shite most clear.
(John Mennis – Upon a Journey to Epsam-Well 1656)
A painting of the Epsom Well Building in 1795