Emily Cockayne: Exploring the Enlightenment's seamy underside, a historian brings to life the sights, sounds, and especially the smells of 18th-century Britain





Thanks to English novels and countless BBC period pieces, Americans have a rather idealized view of 18th-century English life, impressions that still shape our views of the Mother Country. You could see it in the striking Anglophilia that greeted the queen’s recent visit to our shores, with the deference paid to protocol and ancient notions of refinement.

But the young English historian Emily Cockayne thinks it’s worth noting that historians (and Masterpiece Theatre directors) have omitted a few sights, sounds, and, perhaps most notably, stomach-churning smells of England’s past.

When she watches a film set in the 1700s, Cockayne said in an interview from her home in Norwich, England, her reaction is, “Why is that lady not holding her dress up? Women held their dresses up as a matter of course.” That’s because, in the words of the noted architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, London streets then were characterized by “Lakes of Mud and Rills of Stinking mire.”
Meanwhile, as filmmakers stress the period glamor, academics, Cockayne argues, focus on the century’s literary and artistic achievements, or the philosophical, political, and scientific advances of the Enlightenment, leaving much of the era’s sensory world, noxious to our modern sensibilities, unexplored.
Cockayne’s new book, “Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in England” (Yale), a surprise hit (for an academic title) in her home country, is an amusing and occasionally gag-inducing attempt to rectify this imbalance — to portray the grittier and grottier side of life in England in the mid-1600s through the 1700s. The goal, as she writes, is to explain “What made eyes water, ears ache, noses wrinkle, fingers withdraw and mouths close.”...

comments powered by Disqus
History News Network