The Lowdown on Bygone Dirt
I smile because I've never forgotten being informed by English literature professors in my college days that, beneath all their copious, colorful and exaggerated finery the royalty and the nobility in those days were a mess. Those founts of useful information put across in no uncertain terms the revelation that there is a huge disconnect between the ideas of sanitation in the regal settings of just a few hundred years ago and today's admonitions toward super cleanliness that in nearly every string of TV commericials we are urged to achieve. And I wondered if it was actually true that, if we could go back into Versailles or one of those other fabled halls where all that gentry was gathered, at one of their balls or a meeting of lords, dukes, and even kings, whether our noses would indeed be assailed by all sorts of scents that we associate with pigpens and untreated sewage, while, if we were to look closely, we would see complexions on that bygone elite that would make us think of sandblasting activities or unhappy experiences while trying to climb Mt. Everest.
It seems that we would.
There's a principle that rules in many areas of our lives and is a staple of dramas of all kinds, in which rogues attract far more of our attention than do saints. So, since being unkempt and dirty has the ability to garner our interest at least as much as being tidy and clean -- that is, if you're not going to a dance or a singles bar in the next half-hour -- there are two recent books that sound like they offer engrossing reading.
I couldn't resist grabbing for this post the following passages from a review of both books that appears in a recent issue of the Wilson Quarterly. (The quarterly's site was so cagey about supplying the issue's exact date that I couldn't find it in the two minutes that I allotted to the search, though I'm guessing it is Spring 2008. Meanwhile thanks, Angry Arab.)
The real Dark Ages of cleanliness began in the 16th century. Fear of disease helps explain why people just stopped bathing—indeed, doing any meaningful washing. Ashenburg blames the plague, which produced so many corpses that they were layered in mass graves “just as one makes lasagne,” wrote one Florentine. Smith thinks the likelier culprit is syphilis, which by the 16th century was both virulent and prevalent. Clueless doctors declared that bathing was dangerous, because it opened the skin to the malign “vapors” thought to cause much illness.
....Most of the deliciously dreadful things you know about how dirty people used to be are drawn from this lengthy Age of the Great Unwashed. Even aristocrats were filthy and louse ridden beneath their jewels, brocades, and furs. In England, Elizabeth I declared that she bathed once a month “whether I need it or not.” In Spain during the Inquisition, Ashenburg says, Jew and Muslim alike could be condemned by the frightful words “was known to bathe.” Nor was sanitation prized in France, where feces left in the halls of Versailles were carted away once a week. Instead of bathing, smelly, grimy people changed into fresh linens, which became a consumer craze among the Dutch. When John Wesley famously remarked, in 1791, that “cleanliness is, indeed, next to godliness,” he wasn’t talking about the body, but about clothes.
If you want to read more, one of those books is "Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity," by Virginia Smith. It is described by the quarterly as being "scholarly." The other is "The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitary History," by Katherine Ashenburg." It is described as being "gossipy." I know which one will be grabbed first.