A Disgusting History of England

By Berg, Chris | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, October 2007 | Go to article overview

A Disgusting History of England


Berg, Chris, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


A disgusting history of England Chris Berg reviews Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in England by Emily Cockayne (Yale University Press, 2007, 335 pages)

For Europe, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the rise of the nation state and the consolidation of sovereign power. It was a period in which the Baroque and Rococo movements celebrated the aesthetic potential of art, and in which we can first glimpse modernity in the fields of political theory, the media, commercial endeavours and industry.

But it was also very disgusting.

Two recent films graphically depict the repulsive squalor of urban Europe on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, based on Patrick Suskind's novel of the same name, describes the ghastly scent of eighteenthcentury Paris-from its gruesome montages of fishmongers, rotting meat, manure, to the heat and stench of the tannery to which the protagonist is apprenticed. The perfume of the tide is the ultimate contrast to the film's visceral portrayal of urban life.

In The Libertine, the 2nd Earl of Rochester-played by Johnny Depppursues his rakish lifestyle amongst the squalor of Restoration London. While wealth largely protects Rochester from the filth experienced direcdy by the protagonist in Perfume, his end is nevertheless gruesomely unglamorous. It is not revealing too much about the plot to write that Rochester's debauchery leads to the macabre but inevitable contraction of syphilis.

Emily Cockayne's Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in Engknd keeps the attention firmly on all this unpleasantness. Influential and great individuals figure in her survey of everything that was repulsive about life in the period, but only incidentally.

Samuel Pepys is awoken in 1660 to discover that 'a great deale of foule water' had seeped into his parlour from his neighbour's house. Alexander Pope is disgusted by the 'large tribute of dead dogs' floating down the Thames. Jonathan Swift, frustrated by the roar of a vegetable merchant hawking his wares to passers-by, complained that

Here is a resdess dog crying cabbages and Savoys, plagues me mightily every morning about this time. He is at it now. I wish his largest cabbage was sticking in his throat.

Thomas Hobbes also pops up in a section on the ugliness of growing old: 60 years old, but dressed in a manner inappropriate for his age, and a little bit 'French'.

As Cockayne writes in the first chapter, Hubbub is designed to provide an alternative to the customary histories of the period-which tend to focus on the pleasures of the times-by looking at all that is noisome and disgusting. Drawing from diaries, paintings and illustrations, court records, government archives, and even maps and architectural drawings, Cockayne lovingly combs the margins of the period to document all the possible grievances that an individual could have with everyday life. No nuisance is left unacknowledged. She neatly divides the book into separate categories of complaints: 'ugly', 'itchy', 'mouldy, 'noisy', 'grotty', busy', 'dirty' and 'gloomy'.

Some of these grievances seem, at least upon their first citation, relatively petty. Hobbes may invite ridicule for having dressed too young and French for his age, but vanity certainly did not disappear with France's ancien régime. Ugly people were ridiculed, but being ugly did not seem to harm career prospects, at least for men; women were at a much greater disadvantage, and those with physical deformities even more so.

As Cockayne's sources are by necessity biased towards the literate upper class, it is not surprising that the din of everyday commercial traders and street sellers receives a great deal of attention. The poet Nicholas Breton summed up the situation well by noting that 'the cry of the poore is unpleasing to the rich'.

And some of the poor must be forgiven for perhaps thinking that this essentially aesthetic complaint had the backing of the force of law.

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