Dirt, Dung and How They Dealt with It
I’ve always loved historical novels, but some authors feel that dressing their heroine in a poofy ball gown and putting her admirer on a horse bring the reader into a historically accurate world. It doesn’t. Mentioning something about the hygiene—or lack thereof—now and then will give your readers a strong whiff of a very different time.
Let’s say, for instance, your character is walking down a street in ancient Rome or Victorian England. She couldn’t just walk across. She would have to avoid all the piles of dung from horses, oxen, donkeys and dogs, her skirts held high. Maybe she holds a scented handkerchief over her nose and mouth. She might veer around the little boy paid to sweep it up. Doesn’t this image just plunge you back into a lost world?
–To bathe or not to bathe: Ironically, people in the ancient world were generally much cleaner than those in more recent centuries. Bath tubs—filled by servants pouring buckets—were around for thousands of years before the Christian era. Persia, Greece, and particularly Rome had public bath houses for men and women. It’s not known exactly when soap was invented, but it wasn’t widely used until the Dark Ages. To get rid of dirt, the ancients would smear scented oil on their skin and remove it with a curved metal scraper called a strigil.
When the Goths and Vandals cut the Roman aqueducts—which weren’t repaired for more than a thousand years—no one had access to huge quantities of water, and the popes—who couldn’t figure out how to fix them—said “Don’t worry, bodily dirt is actually good for your soul.” It’s not that everyone smelled bad back then. It was more like you could be as clean or not-clean as you wanted. Those who cherished cleanliness could still get their entire bodies and hair clean with one bucket of water.
When writing your novel, decide which characters bathe and which don’t. Mention dirty hands or the smell of BO once in a while; it brings us into the past faster than anything. But use a light hand. No one wants to read about too much BO and filth.
—To flush or not to flush: Historical novels usually ignore the delicate subject of what happened to human waste. I mean, where would you go when you had to go? Until the late nineteenth century for most of western society, people had latrines in their back yards and chamber pots in their bedrooms. (Though the Romans, those clever devils, did have public latrines with running water where men would sit and talk about politics.) A servant carrying a chamber pot, a soldier racing to the latrine, the fetid tang of waste: these scenarios keep the reader rooted in a lost time and place.
— Perfuming your world: Perfume, cologne, or scent of some sort has been around since cave people first crushed flower petals on their skin and liked the fragrance. By the seventeenth century, the French seem to have traded bathing entirely for copious amounts of perfume. People also perfumed their houses, which is understandable given all the chamber pots. Perfume burners wafted fragrant smoke: amber, frankincense and myrrh for the rich, pine cones for the poor. In the medieval era, people strewed rushes on the floor that released a sweet smell when stepped on.
Next Week: The Light (and Dark) of the World: Lighting and Heating in Past Centuries
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