Filthy Humans (Director)
‘Filth, Disease and Beauty’
I just got through reading Frogbeastegg’s piece on beautiful people, and I’m both intrigued and moved to carry on her thoughts a little farther. By the way, FBE, if we’re ever in the same city I’ll set aside a day just to have the privilege of conversing with you (and the drinks are on me). Being able to see things that everyone else sees but to also see them as exceptional and unusual – what you might call the perception of an artist – is all too rare.
The part of your article that caused me ‘furiously to think’ was when you began to wonder why heroes (and sometimes villains) were so often depicted as beautiful, and I think I may have some insights about that, or at least as to what ‘beautiful’ means.
There is a famous quote (which I can’t find just now on Google, so bear with me if I remember it incorrectly) from a college chemistry text. It lists the estimated date at which fermentation and alcohol were discovered, and then the much later invention of soap. ‘Men,’ the author concludes, ‘had much rather be drunk than clean.’ How dirty is the human animal? Consider that there is a louse so specialized it lives only in human hair.
The biggest injustice we do to History is to clean it up, but clean and sanitize it we do. You won’t find grime, disease and filth in many period novels or movies, nor will you encounter characters wearing dirty clothes or in need of a bath or a shave. Until the modern era, life was dirty, people were unclean and the mortality rate was astronomical. Just to repeat one often-cited fact, in the American Civil War disease caused more casualties than combat by a wide margin. Accounts of city life in the medieval and renaissance eras show us that the cities were ripe little heaps of garbage, manure and filth of all sorts, infested with rats and flies and vermin of all kinds. Castle privies left the outside walls streaked with urine and manure. Horse and animal dung was literally caked in the streets; those cattle, pigs and sheep driven in to market left behind their manure, blood and offal. Tanneries collected vats of rotting urine. Garbage was dumped from windows into the street, where an occasional rainstorm might clump it in a reeking mass in the channel at the center of the street… if the city was advanced enough to have such a drainage ditch at all. Even Venice was plagued by the pollution of her lagoons, and so much alcohol was consumed because it was far safer to drink beer or wine than water. There is sound reasoning behind the common assumption that the countryside is healthier than the city.
Remember that peasants often slept with or near their animals, especially in winter. The epidemic diseases that slaughtered the humans of the New World all originally crossed over from animals, including smallpox and measles. A modern example of this is AIDS, which comes to humans via consumption of infected, improperly-cooked monkey meat.
It would have been almost impossible to find good clean water anywhere near a human settlement, given that the runoff from the sewers and privies would eventually find its way into the ground water. Minute traces of human or animal waste could lead to cholera or typhoid fever. If infected waste got into the cisterns or wells – and it would unless unusual care were taken – then cholera and typhoid could rip through a community with ghastly results. Without refrigeration and preservatives, food rotted but was commonly eaten anyway, leaving open the gate to all sorts of food-poisonings. Spices were valued not only as preservatives but for their ability to disguise food that had turned, and an entire cuisine of rich sauces arose in France partly as a way to disguise bad meat. There were epidemics of insanity including visions and manic, unstoppable dancing that possibly came from fungi on grain – sort of a medieval LSD trip that afflicted whole towns at once.
And in many areas a shortage of firewood meant that fires were stoked with dried manure – even cooking fires. Just picture that roast turning on the spit over a smoking dried-horse-dung fire… or better yet, don’t. Human feces were used to manure crops, which meant a risk of contamination while spreading the manure as well as from eating the crops or drinking from water down-hill from the field. One theory about the prohibition on eating pork, common to Judaism and Islam, is that pigs were rife with diseases that were easily communicable to humans… not surprising since pigs were given garbage and human and animal feces to eat.
Men stank. Baths were scarce, much more so than in the era of the Roman Empire, whose vast communal baths kept the citizenry clean. Bathing required a fair quantity of water, preferably heated, and soap. To heat that water you needed a large tub, repeated trips to the well, a quantity of wood or other fuel… and soap was an uncommon, expensive luxury that didn’t lather or clean very well. This lack of bathing meant that men – and women – literally stank, and their clogged pores made acne, blackheads and zits abundant. Their hair was greasy and sometimes matted. Lice and fleas were so common as to pass without mention, and clothes were (by our standards) rarely washed or changed. Bedding was commonly changed twice a year, by which time it was teeming with wildlife.
Toothbrushes and toothpaste are a recent invention, the first mass-produced model dating from England in the 1780’s. So dental caries was rampant, rotten and broken teeth the norm and bad breath was foul beyond anything we know today. Dental repair was unknown outside of the pulling of abcessed teeth. Medical care was almost nonexistent by our standards, and a physician was as likely to kill a patient as to help him. Infections were often lethal in the absence of antibiotics, and the only way to deal with severe damage to a hand, foot, arm or leg was amputation. Tapeworm, ringworm and their cousins were everywhere; blindness often followed from an eye infection.
What about the nobility? They might have bathed more often than the commoners, or they might not. Certainly they were no strangers to fleas and lice, as the heavy toll of the Black Death (carried by infected fleas) shows us. Perfume, after all, was invented to cover up the reek of French nobles who rarely bathed, and wigs became fashionable so that one’s own hair could be cropped.
Slow improvements in public health and sanitation were made over the centuries, with the benefits accruing first and most to the rich and noble. Bathing was – if not common – no longer despised, and mass-production of textiles made it possible for people to own more than one set of clothes. But even in the 18th and 19th centuries, garbage, manure and disease were common elements of human life and today they are not nearly rare enough.
A beautiful person, male or female, would be one who was clean. A person who did not, literally, stink and whose skin wasn’t covered in welts, acne, rashes and zits would be beautiful. A person with a reasonably full set of teeth would be beautiful. A person without a harelip, twisted arm or leg or other birth defect would be beautiful. A person whose hair was washed and brushed, a male whose beard and moustache were clean, would be beautiful. A face without pockmarks and warts and portwine birthmarks would be beautiful. As much as fine clothes and perfumes, ‘simple’ cleanliness, personal hygiene and grooming would have defined beauty.
As with other advances, improvements in sanitation and medical practice came from military necessity. The horrendous wastage of human life of the Napoleonic Wars, Crimean War and American Civil War made generals aware that they could achieve a manpower advantage over their enemies by keeping more of the ill and wounded alive. Rigid enforcement of camp hygiene, clean water, proper food preparation and decent clothing vastly reduced mortality rates, and the soldiers carried these habits back into their civilian lives. World War I may have been the first war since Roman times whose combat casualties outnumbered those from disease.
The climb up from the Dark Ages has been marked at every step by incremental improvements in sanitation, but filth, disease and bad sanitation are still with us.