The Grand Spas of Central Europe

David Clay Large
Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham – Boulder – New York – London 2015

This book by the American historian David Large transports readers into the fascinating world of spa culture. Although Large concentrates on the 19th century, his story begins with ancient spas and the spread of the culture of antique baths, and is brought up to the present.
Large places the story of grand spa resorts in a broad historical context, demonstrating their important role in diverse cultural, political, medical and social changes in Central Europe. For it was not only the capitals of European powers, but also grand resorts that often became meeting places for politicians where decisions important for the fate of the world and Europe were taken, and also, no less importantly, the most important figures from the world of culture went to work and converse with their peers. This is best seen in the lavish German and Austrian spas from the 19th century. And this is why the author very rarely crosses the borders of German‑speaking countries in his narrative. If he does, his excursions usually take him to Great Britain. His main focus is Baden‑Baden, which, as one of the largest spas in the German‑speaking area, is an especially spectacular example.
Large’s major achievement undoubtedly lies in skilfully demonstrating the continuity of phenomena and processes made visible using the example of great spas and placing their meaning in the broader context of European history. What relates the older big resorts to their present functioning is their still relevant cultural, social and recreational importance. Although the 19th‑century flourishing of spa resorts somewhat faded in the middle of the next century, they remained an important venue for the highest‑level meetings. As the author aptly notes, the therapeutic aspect has not always occupied the most prominent place. Politicians still often meet in spas – the most spectacular example is the World Economic Forum, for many years held in the legendary Swiss resort of Davos, gathering the most important figures from the world of politics.
The starting point for writing the book was the author’s long‑time fascination with spas, which means that in some places the argument takes the form of a digressive tale. Large openly declares in the introduction that he does not shrink from personal comments and reflections. Although the book cannot be categorised as a scholarly work, we should note that it is based on broad‑ranging research that also includes archival materials. Instead of footnotes, we are presented with a bibliography with specific guidelines for those interested in the subject, as well as a list of magazines and institutions with the sources used by the author.
However, in the picture of spas painted by Large, which he intends to be more or less comprehensive, we can notice some blank spots. Their existence means that the publication does not go beyond the well‑charted territory covered by many similar works, combining social, political and cultural history. Particularly glaring is the omission of architecture, both in the context of the medicalisation processes analysed by Large, and also as a backdrop to the meetings of the most important figures from the contemporary world. The monumental, lavishly decorated spa buildings in Baden‑Baden are only mentioned in passing. Other passages sporadically contain comments on the style of the buildings, such as a short discussion on the development of Palladian architecture in Bath, but the importance of architectural style in shaping the image of a given resort and the relation between the type of architecture and the social and political context of the resort’s operation is usually skipped. The lack of illustrations makes it even more difficult to visualise the surroundings in which the events described took place.
But regardless of certain shortcomings, it should be admitted that Large’s book gives the reader an opportunity to look at the history of Europe from a new perspective, revealing the importance of the periphery. Although the spa resorts described by Large come from a limited German‑speaking area of Europe, they become a lens allowing a wider look at the entire continent, because politicians and artists from the whole of Europe met there. Offering us a glimpse of behind‑the‑scenes politics, the author makes us aware that the most important processes and events do not always takes place on the stages of large political centres, but also in much less conspicuous places.

Aleksandra Paradowska