Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

The Stinking Middle Ages

Is disgust at bad odors learned? A new book argues it is.

In The London Review of Books, Keith Thomas reviews two books—one on bad smells in early modern France, and one on a history of cleanliness. Cleanliness was a matter of appearance before it was a matter of hygiene, but it was hard to mask the pungent smells of the middle ages:

I once​ asked the great historian Richard Southern whether he would like to have met any of the medieval saints and churchmen about whom he wrote so eloquently. He gave a cautious reply: ‘I think they probably had very bad breath.’ He may have been right about that, but it would be wrong to infer that this was something which didn’t bother them. The men and women of the Middle Ages may have had a greater aversion to unpleasant body odours than their descendants do now. If so, this was bad luck, for they were much more likely to encounter them than we are in our deodorised world.

In the tenth century the Welsh ruler Hywel Dda allowed wives a marital separation if their husbands had stinking breath. In later centuries, books on courtesy warned readers against inflicting their personal smell on their neighbours at dinner: for example, by blowing on their soup to cool it. In 1579 an Essex woman was reported to the archdeacon’s court for refusing to sit in her appointed place in church because it put her next to someone with ‘a strong breath’. The chaplain to James I’s wife, Queen Anne, held that of ‘all the noisome scents, there is none so rammish and so intolerable as that which proceeds from man’s body … I will not speak of his filth issuing from his eares, his eyes, nostrils, mouth, navel, and the uncleane parts.’ Even Jacobean bees were sensitive to unpleasant odours: an authority warned their keepers against approaching a hive ‘with a stinking breath caused by eating leeks, onions, garlic, etc’, though he added helpfully that such ‘noisomeness’ could be corrected by a cup of beer. There was no such cure for the hideous smells of hell, which were variously compared to those of the pox, tobacco, polecats and gaols. By contrast, all offerings to God had to be sweet-smelling, as the Old Testament made clear. Hence the liturgical use of incense.

The literary critic Caroline Spurgeon once argued that Shakespeare had an acute sense of smell and was particularly sensitive to the bad odours of unwashed humanity and decaying corpses. He almost certainly shared Coriolanus’s disgust for the ‘rank-scented many’ and their ‘stinking breaths’. Conversely, his Venus tells Adonis that, even if she lost every sense save that of smell, she would still adore him: ‘For from the still’ory of thy face excelling/Comes breath perfum’d that breedeth love by smelling.’ Spenser shared this belief in the erotic power of body odour, comparing his beloved’s head and bosom to a sweet-smelling garden: ‘Such fragrant flowres doe give most odorous smell,/but her sweet odour did them all excel.’

None of this appears in Robert Muchembled’s Smells, whose lively account is much indebted to his compatriot Alain Corbin’s The Foul and the Fragrant (published in an English translation in 1986) and is almost entirely confined to the history of odours in France. He makes no reference to the pioneering work on early modern smells by Mark Jenner, a British historian at the University of York. But Muchembled’s guiding assumption, that human reactions to smells are not innate, but are shaped by experience, is as valid for England as it is for France. Our pleasure in smelling a rose and our disgust at some rotting piece of carrion are equally matters of culture rather than nature; there is nothing intrinsic about them. Muchembled points out that it takes European children at least four or five years to learn to be disgusted by their own excrement.

In early modern England prolonged familiarity with strong smells tended to breed acceptance or even dependence. The Elizabethan entomologist Thomas Muffet (now remembered only for his daughter’s encounter with a spider) told the story of a man who used to clean privies entering an apothecary’s shop in Antwerp. He smelled the spices and promptly fainted. Fortunately, a bystander rushed out, gathered some horse dung from the street, put it to the privy-cleaner’s nose and effected his immediate recovery. As Muffet concluded, ‘a man used to stinking smells was rescued by a stinking smell.’ Unfamiliar odours, by contrast, were (and are) greeted with suspicion.

In other news: The Far Side returns: “After promising a ‘new online era’ last September with the launch of an online archive, on Wednesday he shared three new Far Side strips, alongside a personal essay explaining why he’d come out of retirement.”

Randy Boyagoda revisits Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard: “From its Hail Mary start to its ramshackle reliquary finish—replete with family chapels and village churches and assorted priests, bishops, and even cardinals—the book features a thick and rich (if not healthy) vein of Mediterranean Catholicism that’s braided into its larger account of personal and public life. That said, Lampedusa discloses the main matter of the novel in its second paragraph, which describes the situation after the family finishes reciting its daily rosary one afternoon in May 1860: ‘Now, as the voices fell silent, everything dropped back into its usual order or disorder.’ The keyword is ‘usual.’ Don Fabrizio, the middle-aged Prince of Salina, which is part of greater Sicily, presides over this world, whose deep-set patterns are about to be permanently unsettled. Within a few weeks, Garibaldi and his Redshirts will land in Sicily; thereafter he will lead military and political campaigns to help bring the lands of Sicily and Naples out of their Bourbon monarchical autonomies into what became, by 1870, the geographically unified modern nation-state of Italy (minus Vatican City).”

In praise of Willa Cather’s war novel: “One of Ours, Willa Cather’s novel of youth, the prairie, influenza, and war, was one of the author’s greatest successes, winning her the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. It also elicited some of the most scathing criticism of her career. Edmund Wilson called the novel a ‘pretty flat failure.’ H. L. Mencken said that its scenes of the First World War were ‘fought out, not in France, but on a Hollywood movie-lot.’ Ernest Hemingway wrote, to Wilson, ‘Wasn’t that last scene in the lines wonderful? Do you know where it came from? The battle scene in Birth of a Nation. I identified episode after episode, Catherized. Poor woman she had to get her war experience somewhere.’ . . . Professional resentments aside, One of Ours remains a subject of debate, and is far less widely read than such Cather classics as O Pioneers! and My Ántonia. The author herself wondered whether she had fallen short in the culminating battlefield scenes, in which a naïve young Nebraskan named Claude Wheeler goes to his death. ‘I expect the last part runs pretty thin,’ she wrote to her friend Dorothy Canfield Fisher. ‘I tried just awfully hard. But that’s the fascinating thing about art, anyhow; that good intentions and praiseworthy industry don’t count a damn.’ To Mencken, she wrote, ‘It may be a complete mistake.’ Modern readers may be more forgiving. When I revisited One of Ours in recent weeks, I found it as haunting as anything I’ve read in this bewildering year.”

These ads have helped small newspapers stay in business. Will that continue? “Government-required public notices have been published in newspapers since colonial times, generating a steady and profitable income stream, especially at small weeklies. But the advent of websites operated by federal, state and local governments gave politicians a money-saving opening to redirect public notices to their own sites. Overwhelmingly, that simply hasn’t happened. Despite growing legislative challenges, newspapers have managed to retain nearly all their public notice business. And for many, it has become indispensable to survival.”

Matthew Sitman reviews George Scialabba’s How to Be Depressed: “What makes Scialabba’s How To Be Depressed such a brilliant and unusual contribution to the literature of depression is the elegant solution he found to this predicament. He doesn’t write about himself—other people do. Rather than produce another ‘memoir,’ he reproduces the notes his therapists and doctors took over the years. ‘They’re a very distinct form of writing,’ Scialabba observes. ‘They’re almost a form of anti-writing.’ This allows readers to encounter his depression from the outside; he relinquishes control of his story, sapping it of all dramatic pacing. There is only depression’s pathetic waste, observed in pitiless detail over the decades.”

When did the novel start? Does it matter? “How, when and why did novels start? Conventionally, people used to say two things, in the main: that Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) was a game-changer; and the novel started in the ‘long’ eighteenth century. Only Don Quixote was published in 1605, and in critical circles Cervantes’s giant may have eclipsed Defoe’s marooned mariner as the most influential book-that-might-be-called-a-novel there has ever been. Don Quixote holds in his bony hands the ‘romance’ stories of love and chivalry he believes in, the ones he inherits from earlier centuries; but these outré influences are vulnerable to certain corrosive satirical scepticisms based in the stony reality of the Castilian landscape. Romance, satire and realism make the novel; they are already seething nicely in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688). This is, of course, to speak only of claimants to the title of the first novel in modern times – all very pliable terms by which to come to definitive conclusions about what is basically a long piece of writing that is probably a story, which isn’t true, but might be, or not. In a thrillingly counterfactual register, Scott Black’s suggestion in Without the Novel: Romance and the History of Prose Fiction is that we would be better off simply erasing the term ‘novel’ altogether.”

Photo: Berlin

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