Stolen clothing. Does the greatest fear of every skinny dipper ever haunt you? Is a bather’s stolen clothing is just a TV trope? Or do you worry about someone stealing your clothes when you take a dip in the pool or lake?
Maybe you should.
A German politician and his stolen clothing
Take Alexander Gauland for example. The far-right German politician popped into a lake outside Berlin on May 30, 2018 to take a swim. Someone pilfered his clothing while he was in the water, forcing him to walk with the police to the police station in what Reuters reported to be his underwear. Witnesses saw the thief, who hasn’t yet been caught, and reported that he yelled out a political statement when he fleeced Gauland of his raiment.
Okay, this theft was politically motivated. But if you take a naked romp through history, you’ll find stolen clothing at public baths coming up again and again in the annals of true crime. The Romans even had a special name for clothing thieves at the watering hole: balnearii, or sometimes fures balnearii.
Stolen clothing and the law throughout the centuries
The baleanarii of ancient Rome
That’s balnearius, singular, balnearii, plural. They even appear in Black’s Law Dictionary:
Balnearii: In the Roman law, those who stole the clothes of bathers in the public baths. 4 Bl. Comm. 239.
Apparently the Romans took a very dim view of being forced to walk down the street naked, because the pilfering clothing was a capital crime. That’s right. Balnearii received the death sentence if caught. If you were lucky, you just got condemned to the mines. Greece had balnearii too and also punished them with execution.
One scholar calls those responsible for the stolen clothing the “scourge” of the bathing establishments throughout the Roman Empire.  Apparently, it happened a lot.
The curse tablets of Bath
But of course the clothing thieves were hard to catch. How can you tell if someone else is wearing your toga when most of the togas looked alike? Romans who lost their clothing to thieves at the public baths resorted to defixiones, or curse tablets made of lead. In this Roman version of the voodoo doll, bathers cursed the thieves who swiped their garments. Archaeologists have discovered a number of curse tablets at the Aquae Sulis, the ancient public bath of Bath in southwest England. Because the curse writers mentioned their items of stolen clothing, we have an idea what the thieves walked off with. Two tablets detail the loss of a caracalla, or cape. Thieves also liked to take sandals, rings, and coins. The curse tablets were read out loud and displayed publically, so there was always some hope that the description of the stolen clothing would help someone recognize it and thus solve the crime.
The Sachsenspiegel to the rescue
Coins and rings were one thing, but a lot of those capes and sandals looked alike. Pity the poor person who accidently took the wrong item of clothing and then got caught! Stolen clothing wasn’t always intentional.
Germans accumulated enough experience with unintentional stolen clothing to make a special legal exception. When the Holy Roman Empire codified its customary law in the 13th century into a ground-breaking law book called the Sachsenspiegel, it addressed the unwitting appropriation of clothing at the public bath.
This picture, from an illustrated version of the Sachsenspsiegel, shows a a man in green, on the right, leaving the public bath. The accompanying text clarifies the situation:
Whoever carries away another’s sword or clothing or basin or razor from the public bath, in the assumption that the items were his, … and doesn’t hide them, because he thinks they’re his, and takes an oath to that effect, the person [from whom the items were taken] may seize them or file a lawsuit for their return.
Apparently the cloak, sword, basin, and razor (yup, that item in his right hand is a Medieval shaving apparatus) in his possession don’t belong to the man in green. Which means that one of those guys with the leafy luffa sponges is going to have an embarrassing walk home. At least the unintentional thief doesn’t have to face the mines or the executioner!
What if you found the unintended thief out in the public wearing your clothes? The Sachsenspiegel doesn’t say whether you can seize them right away, in public, leaving the thief stipped and naked. The code probably invisioned a judicial seizure. But it sure would be tempting.
Enjoy your summer!
Summer isn’t over yet. Keep your clothing safe when you visit the beach or the public pool. But just in case your stuff gets stolen and you have to walk home naked, know that you’re not alone. Thousands of people before you walked this walk of shame; so many, in fact, that the crime of stolen clothing received special treatment in the law books. You will become part of history.
Have you ever had anything stolen from you at the pool or beach?
Literature on point: Blümner, H., Die römischen Privataltertümer, Handbuch der klassischen Altertums-Wissenschaft IV, 2, 2 (München, 1911), 433.
Maria Dobozy, The Saxon Mirror: The Sachsenspiegel of the Fourteenth Century (Philadelphia, Univ. of Penn. Press, 1999).
Heiner Lück, Der Sachsenspiegel (Darmstadt: WBG, 2017).
Bronwen Riley, Journey to Britannia: From the Heart of Rome to Hadrian’s Wall, AD 130 (London: Head of Zeus, Ltd, 2015).
Avi Selk & Rick Noack, “‘Not a swimming place for Nazis”: A far-right lawmaker had his clothes stolen at the lake.” Washington Post, June 6, 2018.
J.D.H. Tenne, Die Lehre vom Diebstahl (Berlin: Rücker & Püchler, 1840).
Wild, J. (1986). “Bath and the Identification of the Caracalla.” Britannia, 17, 352-353.