Ionce 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 1657 a London barber was prosecuted for making and selling ‘a liquor called “coffee”’, to the ‘great nuisance and prejudice of the neighbourhood’. Yet it did not take long for people to regard the smell of coffee as even better than the taste. Meanwhile, unpleasant odours were regarded as ‘noisome’, disagreeable and dangerous to health. ‘A stinking savour and unwholesome smell’, one Elizabethan writer thought, was ‘able to infect the whole street where it is’. The plague was blamed on the corruption of the air by evaporation from ‘fens, moors, stinking muddy waters, stinking ditches and privies’, ‘dead bodies unburied’, ‘multitudes of people’ living in little rooms ‘uncleanly kept’, and the ‘filth and sweepings’ lying in heaps which yielded ‘noisome and unsavoury smells’. ‘Gross stinking fogs, scents and vapours’, the health reformer Thomas Tryon wrote in 1700, were ‘unclean and extremely hurtful to the mind and body’. He catalogued the numerous sources of evil smells: fish markets, slaughterhouses, tanners’ yards, candle-makers, ‘houses of easement’ and the cooking of flesh and fish, ‘the relics of putrefaction thereof running through the streets’. Marsh fever, blamed on the bad air around stagnant water, became known as ‘mal’aria’. The best remedy, Tryon thought, was to retreat to the countryside, where one could breathe ‘good smells and clean, thin, sweet airs’. Failing that, he recommended that those who inadvertently inhaled a bad smell should immediately open their mouths and let it out again.
Not all contemporaries were so fastidious. In a lawsuit brought in 1610 against the nuisance caused by a neighbour’s pigs, the great lawyer Edward Coke, employed in the defence, declared that ‘the building of the house for hogs was necessary for the sustenance of man and one ought not to have so delicate a nose that he cannot bear the smell of hogs.’ Later in the century, a religious writer mocked ‘your dainty, delicate persons that now cannot brook the least unsavoury smell’; they would end up, he said, in hell, in ‘a stinking dungeon’ and a ‘loathsome lake that burns with fire and brimstone for ever’.
For the well to do, the usual way of dealing with body odour was to conceal it under one of several available perfumes. In the 16th century the most fashionable were musk, a strong-smelling substance secreted by the male musk deer; ambergris, found in the intestines of the sperm whale; and civet, obtained from the anal glands of Ethiopian wild cats. Touchstone’s scornful dismissal in As You Like It (c.1599) of civet as ‘the very uncleanly flux of a cat’ heralds the reaction in the following century against these animal scents. Tryon, for example, denounced musk, ‘the dearest of stinks’, as ‘an excrementitious matter – or the fume or froth proceeding from a fierce, fiery, violent-natured creature’. Had it been scarce, he said, hog’s dung would have been equally sought after; as it was, some people esteemed cows’ dung as ‘a good perfume’.
It had long been common for those who could afford it to keep bad smells at bay by carrying nosegays and filling beds and rooms with fresh-smelling herbs. By the later 17th century the gentry’s houses were being built so as to separate the different domestic smells of cooking, bodily waste and young children. As the lawyer Roger North wrote in 1698, ‘the affectation of cleanliness hath introduc’t much variety of rooms, which the ancients had no occasion for.’ The 18th century’s wholesale replacement of personal scents based on excremental animal odours with fragrant essences extracted from flowers and fruit went much further and amounted to what Muchembled rightly terms an ‘olfactory revolution’.
Scent had always had two purposes: the negative one of concealing unpleasant body odours and the positive one of enhancing the wearer’s sexual attractiveness. Women’s new taste for perfumes which evoked roses, violets and jasmine achieved both these aims. It also stimulated the rise of commercial nurseries selling fragrant plants, as well as the huge expansion of domestic flower gardening described in Mark Laird’s The Flowering of the Landscape Garden (1999). In response to these changing tastes, Benjamin Franklin observed in 1783 that ‘the generous soul who now endeavours to find out whether the friends he entertains like best claret or burgundy, champagne or Madeira’, would now enquire whether they wanted musk or lily, rose or bergamot.
Muchembled boldly asserts that the 16th and 17th centuries had seen the ‘demonisation’ of scents associated with women. As evidence of this ‘major olfactory shift’, he reminds us that Montaigne (echoing Plautus) wished that women smelled of nothing at all. What he omits to mention is that Montaigne’s wish applied equally to men. It is true that menstruating women were widely regarded as unclean, but if there was any ‘demonisation’ of the malodorous it was not so much of women as of the lower orders, male as well as female. The Tudor physician William Bullein noted that ‘plain people in the country, as carters, threshers, ditchers, colliers and ploughmen use seldom times to wash their hands, as appeareth by their filthiness, and very few times comb their heads, as is seen by flocks [tufts of wool], nits, grease, feathers, straw and suchlike, which hangeth in their hairs.’ In the 1830s, the young James Bellamy, a future president of St John’s College, came up to Oxford on a frosty night, sitting on the top of the coach. When, despite being given straw and a blanket, he continued to complain that his feet were cold, the driver said with contempt, ‘I suppose you washes them.’
For centuries, the poorer members of the population were thought to stink. This was partly because they couldn’t afford the fashionable perfumes which smothered the smell of their social superiors. But, more important, it was their lack of easy access to soap and, especially, hot water which increasingly differentiated them from the middle classes. George Orwell (born 1903) was, notoriously, taught as a child that ‘the lower classes smell.’ ‘Very early in life,’ he wrote, ‘you acquired the idea that there was something subtly repulsive about a working-class body’; and he quoted Somerset Maugham: ‘I do not blame the working man because he stinks, but stink he does … The matutinal tub divides the classes more effectually than birth, wealth or education.’
Those words ring in my ears when I recall a conversation in the mid-1950s at All Souls College, where I was a young fellow. A discussion took place at dinner one evening as to when the custom of daily bathing began. Until that moment, I was quite unaware that such a custom existed. I had been a small boy when running water was first installed in my parents’ farmhouse and a ten-year-old before we had a bathroom. Until then, a tin bath was brought out from time to time, and water heated on the kitchen fire, so that, like coal miners in D.H. Lawrence’s day, we could soak ourselves in front of it. At Balliol, where I was an undergraduate, access to the baths was an optional extra, which involved paying an additional 15 shillings a term and crossing the quad in a dressing gown. At All Souls I bathed for free, but certainly not every day. Only later did I attain the standards of Maugham and Orwell.
Changing bathing habits figure largely in Peter Ward’s The Clean Body. A Canadian professor, he includes North America as well as Western Europe in his survey of the development of personal hygiene in modern times. He begins by emphasising that in the 17th century, at the beginning of the period, cleanliness was still primarily a matter of appearance, of clean clothes rather than of clean bodies. Spotless white lace collars symbolised social superiority, and though the beauty counsellors of the time had a great deal to say about cosmetics, hair care and dress, they said little about washing. Cleanliness, Ward thinks, was not a necessary requirement for female beauty until after 1800. Thereafter, the bath gradually became a symbol of respectability, though it wasn’t until the 1880s that bathrooms became common in English middle-class homes. In Paris at the end of the century fewer than 3 per cent of homes had one.
The modern bathroom requires mains for clean running water and sewers for waste. Their provision was among the greatest achievements of the Victorian age, when Britain led the world in sanitary infrastructure. The civil engineer William Lindley (1808-1900) designed and installed water and sewage systems for Hamburg and other major European cities. His son did the same for Frankfurt and a dozen other large towns. In London the introduction of running water to people’s homes entailed much trial and error in plumbing technology, but by 1850 90 per cent of private houses in the city had water on site.
The metropolis presented a huge challenge to sanitary engineers, producing, as it did, more than 400,000 tons of human faeces annually by 1900. The 1860s onwards saw large-scale sewer construction in London and the creation of what Ward calls ‘a subterranean world of tunnels and pipes, shafts and galleries’. This did not take care of the forty thousand tons of animal droppings which, the social observer Henry Mayhew calculated in the 1840s, descended on London streets each year. Ward draws attention to this problem, but he has missed the late Michael Thompson’s calculation that the internal combustion engine was invented only just in time to prevent the capital of the British Empire from being submerged by horse manure.
The later 19th century witnessed a new concern with public health, reflected in the widespread appointment of sanitary inspectors, public health nurses and school doctors. In 1893 the medical officer appointed for schools in Bradford found that more than a third of the first three hundred children he inspected hadn’t removed their clothes for at least six months. The new hygiene, stimulated by Louis Pasteur’s and Robert Koch’s discovery that the bacteria in dirt caused disease, remained a largely middle and upper-class concern.
As Ward emphasises, properly equipped bathrooms would become a sine qua non of modern body care. But they took a long time to reach the population at large. As late as the 1940s, half the British population was still without access to hot running water. In East Germany in 1971 two-thirds of households had neither a bathroom nor an indoor lavatory and almost a third had no running water. But by the end of the 20th century things had changed. Water was available everywhere. The automatic washing machine had been invented. Clothes were washed or dry-cleaned much more frequently and all over Europe there had been a shift from a weekly bath to a daily shower.
Along with running hot water, the other essential ingredients in this process were soap and, after the Second World War, synthetic detergents. In the 1960s and 1970s their per capita production doubled in Western Europe and increased even more in North America. Ward’s absorbing account of the battle between the rival producers of detergents, toilet soaps, shampoos, deodorants and toothpastes is a fine study of the seductive power of modern advertising. But soap wars had been going on for centuries. In 1634, for example, Charles I granted the newly incorporated Society of Soapmakers a monopoly in soap production, after they had produced certificates from ‘foure Countesses, and five Viscountesses, and divers other Ladies and Gentlewomen of great credite and quality, besides common Laundresses and others’, all of whom testified that ‘the New White Soap washeth whiter and sweeter than the Old Soap’. This refrain was echoed nearly three hundred years later, when the Düsseldorf businessman Fritz Henkel launched a new laundry cleaner, Persil, which combined washing and bleaching in a single product.
For toilet soap, the message was different. By the 1920s, when the three main brands were Lux from Lever Brothers, Camay from Procter and Gamble, and Palmolive from Colgate, the emphasis was less on their cleansing power than on what they could do to improve the personal relationships of purchasers. Manufacturers did their best to persuade young women that their love lives would suffer unless they used their particular brand. Today, the advertisements on TV and in women’s magazines continue to be dominated by the global beauty trade.
The sight of different manufacturers deploying every conceivable device in their competition to sell what are essentially the same commodities is the final stage of what Peter Ward calls ‘the Western cleanliness revolution’. The social pressures which led to that revolution seem strong enough to ensure that there will be no counter-revolution, though Ward is less confident about this. The relatively recent return of the male beard is, at least potentially, a step in that direction. Meanwhile the history of cleanliness continues to pose some unanswered questions. Why, for example, is the bidet so rarely found in the British bathroom?