Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Book Review: "Hubbub"

If you've ever been listed seventeenth-century England as a place you'd most like to time-travel to, I suggest reading this book first. Emily Cockayne's Hubbub: Noise, Filth and Stench in England, 1600-1770 (Yale University Press, 2007) is an absolutely disgusting journey through the streets, homes, markets, beds and privies (or "houses of office," as they were known) of early modern England. And it's utterly fascinating. You may want to shower between chapters, but it's worth it.

Using a wide variety of archival sources, from diaries and letters to fictional narratives to court records, Cockayne has created a compendium of annoyances surely unmatched in historical literature. She recognizes the limitations and inherent biases of her sources (most tend to be male, wealthy, and particularly whiny, or as she puts it in the case of Robert Hooke, a "creepy hypochondrical nerd"), and notes that while some exaggerations of grievances is to be expected, even if that's taken into account, life even for the richest of England's people was no picnic in the park.

In aptly-named chapters which, when recited, sound like a bad parody of Snow White's famous companions (Ugly, Itchy, Mouldy, Noisy, Grotty, Busy, Dirty, Gloomy) Cockayne catalogs the daily nuisances faced by every man, woman and child (these would of couse have been all the worse the further down the social ladder one found oneself). From what we would consider ghastly standards of personal hygiene (the noted diarist John Evelyn resolved on a "Course of yearly washing my head," when he was 33, p. 60) to the common ravages of intestinal parasites, fleas and other pests, to rarely (if ever) washed clothes, bedding and wigs, keeping clean and healthy was well nigh impossible.

Hubbub really does touch on just about every imaginable nuisance: pigs in the street, noisy neighbors, bad lighting, rough or nonexistent paving (in some cities well into the eighteenth century, she notes, each property-owner was responsible for paving the road in front of their building - needless to say, that didn't work out all that well), smoke, piles of rotten detritus everywhere ... I could go on. It gets almost comical (if uncomfortably and skin-crawingly so) at times: I have to admit I laughed out loud at this sentence about Samuel Pepys: "On the morning of 20 October 1660 he stepped into a 'great heap of turds' that had escaped from his neighbour's house of office and found themselves in Pepys's cellar" (pg. 144). Doesn't get much more filthy than that.

The move toward solutions to these various dilemmas forms just a small part of Cockayne's treatment, but she does discuss how cities and towns slowly began enacting paving regulations, zoning rules, rudimentary food inspections and other such salutary measures. What surprised me was how long those things took given the long-standing gripes that were clearly being bandied about.

Cockayne's also done an excellent job of finding images to complement her chapters, although Hogarth admittedly did much of that work for her. The only minor flaw is in the reproduction quality of the artwork; the images are printed quite dark, which makes some of the fine background details she discusses almost impossible to see. Aside from some minor repetitions within the text and a touch too little analysis of her discoveries, Cockayne's Hubbub is really a masterful book. The extensive footnotes and bibliography add much, and once again I've found a few interesting sources I'll want to examine further.

Highly recommended for the non-squeamish.

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