Body Odor and Historical Fiction

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Most people who have studied literature or write literature are familiar with the term “anachronism.” An anachronism is an object that exists in a story that doesn’t actually belong there because it didn’t exist during that time in reality. One of the most notorious writers who do this is Shakespeare. Throughout his plays you can find anachronisms. They don’t hurt or discredit the story in any way, it’s simply a fact and it brings a different sort of depth to literary analysis.

In many historical fiction works, it is quite customary to have a villainous character who smells bad (particularly if they come into unwelcome close proximity). It is also common for modern writers to describe characters in historical settings, villainous or not, as being stinky or in possession of acne. I never paid this any mind previously because it made sense. People bathed less in the past, therefore they probably stunk a lot more than we clean and hygienic people of the present. But a recent article referenced by Boyfriend in a conversation last weekend left me wondering if writers have been interpreting the past incorrectly all along.

An article published by the New York Times on May 22—titled My No-Soap, No-Shampoo, Bacteria-Rich Hygiene Experiment—talks about a living bacterial skin tonic study that the writer, Julia Scott, participated in. The idea for this study originated with one of the researchers. A girl he was seeing asked him why horses rolled in the dirt. The researcher didn’t know the answer but was intrigued. He took soil samples and found microbes that ended up being ammonia oxidizers. It turns out that horses and other animals roll in the dirt to keep clean. From this discovery came a study where people tried to grow these microbes on their bodies and refrained from bathing (or bathed minimally) in order to encourage the microbes to grow.

The results were interesting, to say the least. The writer of the article struggled with acne in her regular life. While following the AOBiome regimen, she experienced a reduction in her struggles with acne. Additionally, she did not have the major body odor issues one would suspect due to her lack of bathing. The microbes that were building on her dermis even brought her better skin.

So how does this relate to literature? Well, to be honest, when Boyfriend was telling me about this study and the article he found, I kept thinking about all those historical fiction works I’ve read over the years and I wondered if we got it wrong. We’ve been injecting our hygienic expectations upon the people of the past and judging them harshly for their lack of hygiene and the few baths in which they partook in those days. The lens through which we viewed these characters and their environments is decidedly modern. This is expected, of course, but it is rather myopic in scope.

I also began to think about all the stories that take place in the past that were written by writers who were contemporary to the time period about which they were writing. I don’t have many memories of characters being described as having poor body odor. In fact, the one instance that actually comes to mind is a book by Wilkie Collins. In Heart and Science, the vivisection doctor stinks terribly of chemicals. In this story, the stench of the doctor signals to the reader his status as the villain. It also suggests his immorality and is another way that Collins has expressed his inner ugliness. He is a bad person…therefore he stinks! The thing to note is that Collins’ doctor does not stink due to body odor, at least not that I can recall so many years later. Instead, his stench is connected to his profession.

The linking of odor to one’s profession also brings to mind the famous and decidedly modern book The Girl With The Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. I haven’t read this since high school. But I distinctly remember that Griet is repulsed by the butcher’s son because of the scent of blood and his dirty fingernails. And if I remember right, she ends up marrying him anyway. This suggests the lack of hygienic practices adopted by people in the past, but does not necessarily mean that they stunk terribly because of a lack of hygiene.

Because the people of the past did not follow our same bathing practices or have the soaps that we possess today, we assume they stank and had acne. But the fact that they weren’t washing off all those microbes suggests that they didn’t necessarily stink as badly as we assumed. And in fact, people today probably stink more (if we weren’t wearing our modern deodorants of course) than people of the past because our bathing habits have led to our skin being completely devoid of those microbial colonies. Plus, in every picture (daguerreotype or not) I have ever seen of people from the days prior to “proper hygiene practices”, I have not once seen someone pictured with acne. Have you?

To be fair, I’m not suggesting that the past in general smelled better than the present, because I certainly don’t believe that. Along with their different views of hygiene, people of the past had horrible ideas about waste dumping and the cities of the world stank to high heaven because they dumped human waste into the streets. But, the interpretation and assumptions we have made about our annual (or semi-annual) bathing ancestors may be less than accurate.

I began this post talking about anachronisms, but the definition of this term doesn’t seem to suit in this writer’s opinion. So what do you call an idea or belief about the past that exists in the present but doesn’t necessarily express truth about the past? You could possibly call it a misnomer. But that’s not exactly right either. Stench is a quality or an identifying factor that commonly (but not always) arises in historical fiction written by modern writers in reference to people and especially to villains who may put the female narrator’s virtue in danger. This mechanism is one that we have adopted and thrust upon our stories that take place in the past.

I’m not sure exactly where that leaves us when it comes to cataloging and identifying terminology from an analysis standpoint. Regardless, the above experiment will have this writer thinking more heavily about scent and odor and how they are used in writing and what exactly their use means to the story and what their use may or may not suggest about the lenses we adopt when we write about the past in a way that appeals to the sensibilities of modern readers.

3 thoughts on “Body Odor and Historical Fiction

  1. Having worked at summer camps, where bathing can sometimes be sparse, I know we can get used to a foul smell. Sometimes, it wasn’t till I had showered and then smelled my dirty clothes that I realized my own unsavory scent. With this in mind, I think people from history would probably not notice everyday natural body odors as much.

  2. Historical fiction is rife with anachronisms when it comes to bathing. My favorite is that people in medieval Europe never bathed. In fact, medieval people bathed at home and many city dwellers (northern European cities were rapidly developing in the 13th century and city planners cared a lot about hygiene and fire prevention) had toilets. Many of the public baths left by the Romans were still operating well into the early “Renaissance” when the fear of the plague and the decimated population of Europe changed people’s perceptions and their ability to maintain urban infrastructure. People have made soap for thousands of years and have scented their clothing and baths with herbs and flowers. Many European cities had rules about where waste could be dumped and how streets could be cleaned — this was definitely something that varied by culture and climate which means it’s all the more dangerous to make any generalized statement about it. People in the Renaissance generally seemed to believe bathing was dangerous but they also killed cats (hence, rats) so… As the author of a book I often teach from writes, “We forget knowledge that previous generations had.” Certainly true!

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