When we take a look at history, we tend to look at the big stuff. Royalty, war, and the great inventions of the day. What ordinary people really lived every day is ordinarily seen as just too boring to take notice of. But history is about more than big events, it’s about raw, un-romanticized reality. I remember being distinctly annoyed in university when this wasn’t covered. It was the endless string of dates on the projector, devoid of life, that really bored me. And the professor didn’t seem the least bit pleased when I told him this. I wasn’t a great student. I slept in class a lot.
What bothered and annoyed people in the 17th and 18th centuries? This book does a perfect job of showing what it was really like to live in England at this time, in all its irritating, disgusting glory. We often need to remind ourselves that the past is rarely as idealistic as we often portray it to be. In movies everybody is usually just too rich, too clean, to important. They wear beautiful clothes without holes in their shoes. They don’t fight with their neighbors, and the roads are evenly paved. The food always looks delicious, with no trace of rocks in the bread. That stuff isn’t real. This was the kind of thing I’d wanted to learn the whole time.
If you were a fan of Worst Jobs in History (still viewable on Youtube), you’ll love this. Like the host of that show, Emily Cockayne’s personality forms an integral part of the writing. You can see it when she calls Robert Hooke a creepy hypochondriac, and says that the apothecaries were stoned, and painters were dazed and confused, on account of the smells that accompanied their trades. Personality also shows itself in the characters of the diarists and many others who documented every detail of their lives. Emily Cockayne is unique here in that instead of consulting experts, she’s left us in the hands of “inperts”, people who were actually there. It’s a refreshing and welcome concept, old hat for historians but not so much for casual readers. The book is also very funny at times, though I’m not sure it intends to be. Especially when you come across the picture of a man unsure of how to use an outhouse, with his feet in the holes, pissing on the floor, or when you learn that the word “fustilug” means “a sluttish woman that smells rank.”
It wasn’t all that funny to them, though. Quite frankly, it sucked, and while some people were always complaining, others were taking this as motivation to inspire great change. This was the early modern period, after the renaissance, when the first stirrings of the industrial revolution can be felt. There was a lot of advancement in this time, and we can also see changes in attitudes and what people thought to be a pain in the ass. By 1770 England was a vastly different place than it was in 1600, with a lot of advantages they hadn’t enjoyed before, and also with a whole new set of complaints. This never changes. We should take this book not only as a history lesson, but as a key to appreciating the world we live in now, and inspiration to create our own change.
Also recommended: The Dirt on Clean, Life in a Medieval Village, Victorian House.