Thursday, 2 July 2015

How People Lived

I'm currently working my way through Bill Bryson's At Home - a kind of popular social history of the Western world. Like a lot of Bill's recent output it's not quite up there with his travel books, which had me doubled over with laughter at their best, but it remains highly interesting - and, of course, there's plenty of grist in there for the RPG mill. Much of the book is a catalogue of how bloody awful life was in olden times; perfect for those running Warhammer, LotFP, or other grim and gritty games. 

On scurvy:

"Typically [scurvy] killed about half the crew on any long voyage. Various desperate expedients were tried. Vasco da Gama on a cruise to India and back encouraged his men to rinse their mouths with urine, which did nothing for their scurvy and can't have done much for their spirits either. Sometimes the toll was truly shocking. On a three-year voyage in the 1740s, a British naval expedition...lost 1,400 men out of 2,000 who sailed. Four were killed by enemy action; virtually all the rest died of scurvy."

On human waste:

"The people who cleaned cesspits were known as nightsoil men, and if there has ever been a less enviable way to make a living I believe it has yet to be described. They worked in teams of three or four. One man - the most junior, we may assume - was lowered into the pit itself to scoop waste into buckets. A second stood by the pit to raise and lower the buckets, and a third and fourth carried the buckets to a waiting cart. Nightsoil work was dangerous as well as disagreeable. Workers ran the risk of asphyxiation and even of explosions since they worked by the light of a lantern in powerfully gaseous environments."

On waste generally:

"At Leeds in the 1830s, a survey of the poorer districts found that many streets were 'floating with sewage'; one street, housing 176 families, had not been cleaned for fifteen years. In Liverpool, as many as one-sixth of the populace lived in dark cellars, where wastes could all too easily seep in. And of course human waste was only a small part of the enormous heaps of filth that were generated in the crowded and rapidly industrialising cities. In London, the Thames absorbed anything that wasn't wanted: condemned meat, offal, dead cats and dogs, food waste, industrial waste, human faeces and much more. Animals were marched daily to Smithfield Market to be turned into beefsteaks and mutton chops; they deposited 40,000 tonnes of dung en route in a typical year. That was, of course, on top of all the waste of dogs, horses, geese, ducks, chickens and rutting pigs that were kept domestically."

On hygiene:

"[T]he spread of plague made people consider more closely their attitude to hygiene...Unfortunately, people everywhere came to exactly the wrong conclusion. All the best minds agreed that bathing opened the epidermal pores and encouraged deathly vapours to invade the body. The best policy was to plug the pores with dirt. For the next six hundred years most people didn't wash, or even get wet, if they could help it - and in consequence they paid an uncomfortable price. Infections became part of everyday life. Boils grew commonplace. Rashes and blotches were routine. Nearly everybody itched all the time. Discomfort was a constant, serious illness accepted with resignation.... 
"Queen Elizabeth, in a much-cited quote, faithfully bathed once a month 'whether she needs it or no'. In 1653, John Evelyn, the diarist, noted a tentative decision to wash his hair annually. Robert Hooke, the scientist, washed his feet often (because he found it soothing) but appears not to have spent much time damp above the ankles. Samuel Pepys mentions his wife's bathing only once in the diary he kept for nine and a half years. In France, King Louis XIII went unbathed until almost his seventh birthday.... Most people grew so unused to being exposed to water in quantity that the very prospect of it left them genuinely fearful. When Henry Drinker, a prominent Philadelphian, installed a shower in his garden as late as 1798, his wife Elizabeth put off trying it out for over a year, 'not having been wett all over at once, for 28 years past', she explained."


  1. Nightsoil man wasn't a pleasant job but for a lower class job it was actually much sought. Nightsoil is valuable for fertilizer.

    Note much of this bad life was in the early modern era not the Middle Ages/

    Exclusive of scurvy here, with the sheer misery of life, it little wonder Victorians and other romanticized the Middle Ages . It actually was at least in England somewhat a better time for the average person, Whig history aside , Medieval people worked less hours than even is moderns ! And yeah harvest is hard work, I've done manual farm labor but it would be much better under those work conditions than a dusk to dawn six days a week if you are lucky assembly line job for starvation wages.

    And yeah the Black Death, once that horror was finished, life was still better for a farmer in a village than an industrial worker till quite recently.

    Now between the monied classes destroying traditional rural living arrangements , status seeking, technological change and of information asymmetry (people didn't know how awful it was) quite a few ended up coming to the cities, enough to allow for urbanization to commence.

    Of course the entire period from 1830 till I dunno the 1950's was a mess of industrial wars, industrial actions , war and strife. Not a pleasant time but highly gamable. PC's a strikers or Pinkerton agents or Communist Agitators or the FBI rooting out Communists can make for some cool gaming

    Recent life has been materially decent though despite that, apparently modernity and urbanization are again population sinks where every single developed country has below replacement fertility.

    Germany is amazing example, lowest fertility on Earth and even new arrivals from Turkey for wherever within less than a generation drop to the same level. I guess we've reached carrying capacity

    You certainly could game an aftermath , German Civil War , Neo-Ottoman Invasion,. ISIS invading , Russia Invading but somehow I doubt population aging makes for interesting RPG sessions.

  2. "...his wife Elizabeth put off trying it out for over a year, 'not having been wett all over at once, for 28 years past', she explained."

    Yikes, Elizabeth!

    Thanks for sharing those passages. The horror....

  3. It's curious to us, from our vaunted position, to imagine the grotesque squalor of the past. Yet when the positions are reversed, that is, to picture the 17th century peasant's response to a society that values cleanliness as much for aesthetic reasons as for health considerations, the we might suppose that a great deal of terror might be experienced. If one considers the 'clean' to be plague carriers, can they be perceived as beautiful? I wonder whether our concept of beauty is as much derived from a fear of death (from our enlightened perspective on the danger of poor hygiene) as it is any appreciation of a 'pure form'. And yet Angels are never depicted as unclean (to my knowledge).
    I was giving some thought to appearances whilst walking through Manchester a few days ago: might fashion is an attempt to appear like a god? That is to appear immortal and untouched by common corruption? Perhaps the fashion industry is built upon the essential rejection of our own mortality. I'll give it some thought.
    Anyway, a nice post.

  4. Hmm...wonder what they made of the phrase "cleanliness is next to Godliness?"

    1. After some cursory Google-ising, I wonder whether that was perhaps a Jewish thing. After all, the religion contains several taboos about purity, eg: menstruation and kosher. Not being ultra familiar with Judaic thought, I imagine there are those better placed than myself to comment.
      Of course, one can keep going backwards as regards the origin of cleanliness taboos, but information on ancient Babylon is not so easily accessed by a 5 minute keyboard historian.

  5. I felt the same way when I read the book--lots of gameable material in there. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of the hall and its central hearth, and the reminder that before fireplaces, you'd be in a very smoky environment indeed. (I particularly enjoyed the bit about how people complained that fireplaces robbed them of the preservative qualities of constantly breathing smoke!)

  6. The Elizabethans were probably a bit cleaner than you would think from the above quote. They washed their faces and hands every day in most cases and used linen undergarments to soak up the sweat and oils of the body, changing those each day.Your ability to stay clean was closely matched to your ability to buy linen. The rich sometimes changed up to seven times a day if they were engaged in strenious activity.

  7. What this all suggests is that a sufficiently developed fantasy society without something like the Black Death in its recent past will have lots of bath-houses which serve variously as relaxation spas, social hangouts or brothels (as they did when they existed in the Middle Ages).