Wednesday 22 February 2017

Scents and Sensibilities: The Not So Smelly Middle Ages? By Catherine Hokin

Setting: one of the most important things for an author to get right. That might be the most obvious statement you read all day and no, you haven't stumbled into a 'how to write' blog but this balancing act of anchoring the reader fully in a time period very different from our own while not bludgeoning them to death under a tsunami of description is occupying a lot of my time with the current WIP.

One of the best ways to communicate a sense of place is through smell. The modern world is obsessed with fragrance: from beauty and cleaning products to the artificial bread that wafts through every supermarket, we walk through such a vanillery-bakery-flowery world that any slightly unpleasant scent feels like an assault. I am beginning to think that most of our Proustian moments will shortly be controlled by Airwick. The challenge for the writer, however, is that this most crucial sensory experience is the hardest to research and to replicate.

That the Middle Ages was a morass of stinking towns and villages filled with people whose body odours would have made a skunk weep is one of those history myths that gets peddled at school and repeated incessantly until it ends up on QI. Scrape under the mucky surface and things are rather different.

There are admittedly plenty of stories of medieval people who did not regard hygiene as a priority. Isabella of Castile (1451-1504) reputedly only bathed twice in her lifetime, once when she was born and once when she married. King Louis IX (1214-1270) was described by the Russian ambassador to his court as stinking like a wild animal. They, however, were not the norm for their class: foul odours were associated with disease, low standing in the social order and moral corruption (based on the idea of miasma). Those who could avoid smelling revolting did.

At the height of the Middle Ages, bathing was a serious business. For the wealthy this would take place in tented wooden tubs lined with cloth; the better-off town-dwellers had communal bathhouses; the peasants made do with rivers in the summer and fire-warmed water in the winter. Whatever rank you were, de-lousing with salty water would probably feature somewhere in your life. Health manuals such as the Regimen Sanitatis (c.1308) contained dozens of rules for bathing at specific times such as pregnanacy and noted the importance of bathing for getting rid of dirt and grime beyond that which was visible: “if any of the waste products of third digestion are left under the skin that were not resolved by exercise and massage, these will be resolved by the bath.” As with medicine, herbs and plants were central to the process of sweetening the body for those who had access to them. Thyme and rose petals were widely used to perfume bath water, the body could be dried using sheets sprinkled with rosewater and then dusted (men and women) with a powder made from ground rice, ground orris root  (a violet smell favoured by King Edward IV) and fragranced with cloves or lavender. Bay leaves, hyssop and sage were used to make deodorants and sachets of lemon balm and dried rose petals could be slipped into clothes already boiled in water scented with orris root and stored in chests containing 'sweet bags' which held a mix of ingredients such as musk, citrus peel and marjoram. Finally a 'pomme d'ambre' (an apple of ambergris) filled with a fragrant paste could be attached to a waist belt and, once Arabic gums and essential oil distillation methods could be combined with the discovery of alcohol distillation in the early 1300s, a perfume with notes of mint and rosemary could be added to the mix. The notion of a court filled with walking pot-pourri bowls is rather hard to escape.

 Woodcut 1489
So, if the people battled the negative associations of fetid smells rising from their bodies, where does the notion of the smelly medievals come from? For that we have to turn to place. I have always been an urbanite but I think medieval England may have forced a love of the country on me. Wood smoke, days old pottage and damp over-close animals still seem preferable to the alternative. Medieval towns stank. Clearly sanitation was an issue: towns were cramped, pavements were rare and Roman drains were long forgotten although muckrackers were well-paid. Houndsditch, which runs through London's glossy financial district, gets its name from the amount of dead dogs deposited in it when it was a great open ditch running through one of the medieval  city's main thoroughfares. In the 14th century, Sherborne Lane in the east of the capital was officially known as Shiteburn Lane and every town had its equivalent, Pissing Alley apparently being quite a favourite.

 Fes Medieval Tanneries
The main problem, however, was not the disposal of human waste,  it was the industries and commerce that multiplied as the towns grew. Anyone who has battled down the narrow Shambles in York can imagine how disgusting this road must have been when it was the open air Great Flesh Shambles with a drain filled with blood and offal running down its centre. Even more noxious were the great tanneries which used copious amounts of urine, dog excrement and stale beer in their processes. The smell of the tanneries in Nottingham was said to be so terrible it even repelled rats although, on the plus side, this is credited for reducing the incidents of plague in the area.

Awareness of the links between filth and disease can be seen in the regulations that were constantly passed in medieval towns. Fines were imposed for throwing waste from high windows and dumping it in clean water sources and on butchers for failing to clear waste which attracted dogs and wild pigs. But, as town populations continued to rise, the battle became increasingly hard and raw sewage continued to flow into the Thames until the nineteenth century. The towns smelled bad and, by the end of the Middle Ages, it is likely that the majority of people smelled pretty bad too. The public bath houses had long been associated with sexual activity, the Stews in Southwark for example were largely regarded as a front for brothels. The Church railed against them in vain but attitudes to communal bathing began to change after successive outbreaks of plague and the new disease syphillis, which began to make its presence felt in the late 1400s. Taking a bath became a rather risky adventure.

So back to the balancing act. No one wants to read a seduction scene where the protagonists' body odour acts like extra characters but drowning everything in herbs seems like a recipe for a cliched dish. I'm off to Glasgow's West End streets to breathe in petrol fumes and ponder.


Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Excellent article Catherine - and we also have plenty of evidence for daily washing from the coroner's rolls of the Middle Ages where people drowned while going to wash at the start of the day - although admittedly it wasn't usually full body immersion. I remember reading that by Elizabethan times there was a notion that a layer of dirt on the skin was a protective layer against disease - that washing left one vulnerable. I've only heard it said, not read any primary source evidence though.

Susan Price said...

"No one wants to read a seduction scene where the protagonists' body odour acts like extra characters..." Made me laugh!

Thank you. I love the blunt honesty of the period: Shiteburn Road, Pissing Alley and Gropec**t Lane (another one found in most towns.) I never knew that 'Houndsditch' had such a literal meaning!

Janie Hampton said...

Fascinating, many thanks.

Unknown said...

Interesting post, thanks. Great to read a post challenging the stereotypes of the 'filthy' middle ages. But can I say a word in defence of premodern towns which are also subject to the same misconceptions? Yes, we would probably find them smelly if we were transported back in time with our 21st-century noses, but the evidence from cities like York is that citizens in fact made great efforts to keep the streets clean, and that the stench from dung heaps, privies, blocked gutters etc was not considered acceptable then either.

Catherine Hokin said...

Thank you for the positive responses - I'd heard that as well Elizabeth and it ties in with the less positive attitude towards personal hygiene at the end of the period which often colours the start. Fair comment Pamela - I sometimes wonder how we would be judged here in Glasgow as the proliferation of urban foxes combined with the puny recycling bins often do not make a pretty picture!

Miranda Miller said...

That's so interesting, Catherine. I'm trying to write about the sounds and smells of 18th century Rome. The question is, in an age when everybody smells would anybody notice?

Shaz Goodwin said...

How fascinating Catherine!

Thank you for linking.


Julie said...

How about the shout of Gardyloo in C18 Edinburgh and the fact that the richer citizens lived in apartments on the higher storeys in the Old Town because of the manky closes and alleys?

Fay Bound Alberti said...

This is interesting. As a historian of emotions, I often think about the ways smell is associated with feeling, and also the ways in which the ability to smell is a cultural thing. So the stereotype comes about with French people smelling of garlic etc - because this was not a norm to particular British travellers in the 17th century. Not bathing would seem rank to us because we have highly sensitised smell in the West. People who lived (and live) in less sanitised places and times don't notice so much. Like the emotion of disgust, the perception of something smelly depends on context.