This review by Florence King appeared in the September 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.p> strong> Hubbub: Filth, Noise, and Stench in England, 1600-1770 br> by Emily Cockayne br> (Yale University Press, 335 pages, $35) /strong> /p>
SOME YEARS AGO P.J. O’Rourke famously reminded paleoconservatives that the perfect past was just a verb tense, not a revealed truth. “When you start yearning for the good old days,” he warned, “say one word: dentistry.” This is apt advice for paleos in thrall to the medieval world when England was still a green and pleasant land, but for those who wish they had lived in the bustling, overcrowded, gin-soaked London of Pepys and Swift the cautionary word is s—t.
It was everywhere. Pepys, the unflagging diarist, records that he “stepped into a great heap of turds” that had entered his cellar from his neighbor’s cesspit. It was also on people’s minds. Jonathan Swift wrote a poem, “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” about a footman who sneaks into the boudoir of his employer, the fair Celia, to indulge his fantasy of examining her possessions at close range. After going through her dresses, her brushes and combs, and her towels, he opens her “close stool,” a chamber pot concealed in a chair, “Repeating in his amorous fits, Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia s—ts!”
A basement cesspit contained what dropped into it when people used the privy-a wooden box with a hole in it-on the floor above. When the cesspit began to fill up, the householder was required to empty it and put its contents, officially called “night-soil,” outside his door to be collected by the “nightmen.” It was one of those civic solutions based on cooperation and personal responsibility, the kind we still have, that are guaranteed to work provided the governing authority can revise human nature and repeal the law of averages.
Householders by and large ignored the law. Like Pepys’s neighbor, they let their cesspits fill up until the collected putrefactious gases rotted walls and caused floors to collapse. Houses with unhatched cellars fronting on the sidewalk presented a memorable peril to pedestrians groping their way home through the unlighted streets, who suddenly found themselves falling into a black hole and landing headfirst in a load of… er, night-soil. Still other landlords, to keep it off their own property, dumped it in churchyards or public buildings. When a pile of… er, night-soil got really big, it was called a “dunghill.” There was one in front of the Royal Exchange but the nightmen left it there, which was just as well because a wagon full of… er, night-soil spilled its contents when it hit the cavernous potholes in the roads. (Householders were required to repair the paving in front of their houses but they seldom did, so at least the potholes were filled with something.)
The wheels also leaked axle grease made from the fat of goose kidneys, attracting unpenned pigs that followed the wagons, rooting through the spill-over to get at anything edible. There was plenty: rotting viscera dumped by butchers, maggot-infested flour dumped by bakers, and liquifying cabbages turning into matching brown slime, compliments of the produce sellers.
“The contemporary love of purgatives and the questionable source of some food supplies must have worsened the state of the privies” is how the straight-faced British author understates the case. Tapeworm was common in people because it was common in pigs, and everyone ate pork. The best time to shop was early in the morning before meat spoiled or got too fly-blown. Butchers inflated meat with their own breath or stuffed rags in cavities to bulk out the carcass. Bakers put stones in their dough to cheat on the weight, and made “white” bread by adding alum to wheat flour. Fishmongers disguised spoiled fish by coating the gills with fresh blood from more recent catches. The same river barges that brought vegetables from the country transported the city’s collected night-soil to the country for use as fertilizer — floating E. Coli cultures going back and forth across the Thames day after day. If eating the food didn’t kill you, merely shopping for it could. The open-front stalls were regularly splashed by passing vehicles, covering food and shoppers with mud and who knew what else. And if you didn’t watch where you were going, you could be knocked down by a whole carcass of beef hanging from the roof.
AN OXFORD SCHOLAR, author Emily Cockayne teaches history in the East Midlands and is associated with Open University, Britain’s televised college curriculum. Her book enlists a host of primary sources but her most entertaining one is the fictional character, Matt Bramble, from the Tobias Smollett novel, The Adventures of Humphrey Clinker. Bramble is an 18th-century Felix Unger, a hypochondriac who complains about everything, especially dirt. Here he is on London milk, which was 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… dirt and trash chucked into it by roguish boys, the spewings of infants… and finally the vermin that drops from the rags of the nasty drab that vends this precious mixture under the respectable denomination of the milk-maid.”
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