Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Sixteenth-Century Handwashing

The light of zealous intellectualism is burning so brightly at Privy Counsel HQ this week that we have been receiving complaints from people we can only assume must be actual vampires, so acute is their photophobia. Far from spending our time looking up Toilet Songs and vulgar pictures on Google, we have been reading. Like, proper intellectual, you know, books. Here’s a passage we have, so to speak, perused. It’s from William Ian Miller’s book The Anatomy of Disgust (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1997).
People were plainly not as circumspect about excretion as we are. Some five hundred years after [Guibert of Nogent's description of a monk with lethal dysentery] we see that delicacy regarding excretion had a somewhat uneven progress. Elias, quoting passages from handbooks on manners, shows that even sixteenth-century people were tempted not to take great care about such matters. From 1589:
Let no one, whoever he may be, before, at, or after meals, early or late, foul the staircases, corridors, or closets with urine or other filth, but go to suitable, prescribed places for such relief.
Most surprisingly from 1558:
It does not befit a modest, honorable man to prepare to relieve nature in the presence of other people nor to do up his clothes afterward in their presence. Similarly, he will not wash his hands on returning to decent society from private places, as the reason for his washing will arouse disagreeable thoughts in people. For the same reason it is not a refined habit, when coming across something disgusting in the street, as sometimes happens, to run at once to one’s companion and point it out to him. It is far less proper to hold out the stinking thing for the other to smell, as some are wont, who even urge the other to do so, lifting the foul-smelling thing to his nostrils and saying, “I should like to know how much that stinks,” when it would be better to say, “Because it stinks do not smell it.”
 This is not the behavior of eleventh-century gothic benightedness, but takes place in the brilliant lighting of the Italian Renaissance. [...] The sixteenth-century instances reveal that there were proper places to go to do one's duty, even if people occasionally had to be prodded to undertake the inconvenience of finding them and accepting them as the only permissible indoor places for it. The second passage reveals remarkable warrings of sensibilities. We have people so fastidious that it was better not to wash one's hands after excretion than to remind such people of what one had just been doing by washing them. But we also have people actually picking up disgusting things, presumably turds, in the street and thrusting them under their friends' noses. This behavior already has the air of studied ironical boorishness, parasitical on prior notions of its social unacceptability. The person doing this is trying to shock and he succeeds, shocking the author of the tract and us too who find such facts illusion-shattering about ages romanticized for us in novels and film. (p. 153)

No bloody wonder people didn't want to use them:
16th-century toilet according to Mexicowood
For the diehard OCD cases out there, here's what William Ian Miller has to say on handwashing in a footnote: "Those who will cling hard to the indefensible view that norms of disgust are matters of hygiene and disease avoidance should take note that it is better to suffer dirty hands than to remind the company of what had dirtied them by washing.” Now, if you'll excuse us, Hygeia is showing symptoms of what is either a nervous breakdown or a heart attack. Either way we should probably take her to the emergency room.

Let's all vow to do our best not to arouse disagreeable thoughts in people, shall we?

The sixteenth-century hygienic ideal: so very hard to live up to. Image from Shafe.

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