I think it was a fairly safe bet that I'd wallow in Hubbub : Filth, Noise & Stench in England by Emily Cockayne and soon to be published in paperback by Yale University Press. As a latter-day professional descendant of the Manchester Ladies Sanitary Reform Association of 1862 it was only to be expected.
This book is indeed only for those who are strong of stomach as you are lead squelching and sloughing off back through hygiene in pre-industrial revolution England, this is bath time, the launderette and supermarket shopping as Hogarth and Pepys would have known it.
Where to begin?
Well I started at the beginning and was dragged in as Emily Cockayne escorted me from Ugly, to Itchy, Mouldy and Noisy and thence to Grotty, Busy, Dirty and Gloomy. All makes me want to sing Heigh-Ho and write the Christmas panto for the Environmental Health Department now I read the chapter headings back. It's a classification that works well and I was knee deep by the time I reached Itchy.
I had for example never heard of psorophthalmy, have you?
It's eyebrow dandruff apparently and it drove them nuts in the 1650's, along with all manner of untreatable nasties that would have us trotting off for a prescription these days.
Did you know one chap had three hundred large worms at one time?
I won't go into how we know that but we do. All the norm as were fleas, bed bugs...bedding was rarely washed. For city dwellers it was enough hassle to find water to wash yourself, let alone the stream and the rocks to sort out the bedding. Quick rub down with a pig-bristle brush to dislodge the lice seems to be the format for daily ablutions.
On top of that rotting teeth, stinking breath and wigs that seemed ready to walk of their own accord must have made everyone seem very attractive. Absolutely everything stank to high heaven all the time.
Emily Cockayne has produced a strangely compelling book which I just keep coming back to time and again for a bit more on how terrible it all was. I'm not sure why I need to know but I do and here is that rare creature, a completely readable reference book. If you thought the high society Assembly Room balls were sweet and lovely affairs think again, here's an account of just such an event in Bath
'Imagine to yourself a high exalted essence of mingled odours, arising from putrid gums, imposthumated lungs, sour flatulencies, rank armpits, sweating feet, running sores and issues, plasters, assafoetida drops, musk, hartshorn and sal volatile; besides a thousand frowzy streams, which I could not analyse.'
There was good reason for Mr Darcy jumping in that lake and now we know it.
The research feels impeccable and thorough and the detail is fascinating , the sort of thing that has you reading out loud to anyone nearby
Did you know umbrellas were black because....
Did you know you had legal recompense if the contents of a chamber pot were tipped on you head?
I've done with Ugly and Itchy and now I'm onto Mouldy and having passed through the realms of putrid meat we're now onto fish and for someone who doesn't eat fish and can't bear the smell of fish my senses are reeling from it all. Suddenly I realise how long it must have taken for any food to reach any market beyond say a ten mile radius of capture so the chances of it turning up fresh are remote.
'Just a few hours separated meat that was stale from that only fit for dogs...butchers were known to inflate meat with their breath...others stuffed rags into cavities to bulk out a carcass.'
Enough to turn the strongest carnivore into a vegetarian but Emily Cockayne offers sound advice on judging the quality of eighteenth-century foods.
'We cannot apply modern shrink-wrapped standards...as E.P.Thompson warned us, we must guard against the 'enormous condescension of posterity' '
Not a book to be rushed, hardly one to be savoured actually, but I'm enjoying it immensely and still have Gloomy, Grotty, Busy, Noisy and Dirty to look forward to. I can hardly wait and of course will share the juicy bits with you.
In the mean time I'll let you guess, from Smollett's description, what London commodity this might be,
'the produce of faded cabbage leaves and sour draff, lowered within hot water frothed with bruised snails, carried through the streets in open pails, exposed to foul rinsings, discharged from doors and windows, spittle snot, and tobacco-quids from foot passengers, overflowings from mud-carts, spatterings from coach wheels, dirt and trash chucked into it by roguish boys for joke's sake, the spewing of infants...and finally the vermin that drops from the rags of the nasty drab that vends this precious mixture...'