This is what I learned on a recent trip to the UK. I happened to be in York during the filming of the pilot of "Knifeman," a new AMC drama about a controversial 18th-century medical figure. The production team used the Shambles (the oldest street in York) and the area around the Minster to stand in for Georgian London. Although the book on which the tv show is based claims it is about the birth of "modern surgery,"* far from looking "modern," the extras all looked as pre-modern and disgusting as possible: muddy clothes, bad teeth, and dirty faces and fingernails.
(*Someone better tell the people making "The Knick" that "modern surgery" started two centuries earlier.)
Later, I went to the Jorvik Viking Center, and learned all about the Vikings. I learned about their incredible long-distance trade and kinship networks; their love of finery, such as imported silk, amber, carnelian, and gold; and their scientific expertise. I also learned that they were giant poopers; viz. this massive human turd (this is apparently a sponsored object, and is officially known as the "Lloyds Bank Coprolite"), unearthed by archaeologists several decades ago.
But that's not all: The ride through the recreated streets of Viking York (complete with fabulous and creepy life-size automata) concludes by passing a man straining in the privy, complete with vocal and intestinal sound effects.
Later, on a trip to the Roman fort, Housesteads, along Hadrian's Wall, the first thing our guide showed us was the well-preserved latrine. Her prop was a sponge on a stick, similar to the ones the Roman soldiers (and civilians? unclear) used to clean their bums after doing their business in the brown tent. A few days later, a fellow hotel guest, after learning what I do for a living, asked, "Why study the Middle Ages? Wasn't everyone just wading around in their own shit?"
Why is there such a fixation on the dirtiness of the past? Certainly, human waste can reveal a lot of important information about diet and disease in a population. And everyone poops, after all. Latrines are no less interesting or important than bathhouses or aqueducts or temples. The focus on the privy in Viking York, the chamberpots of the 15th century (at Barley Hall) and the close stools of the 16th century (Edinburgh Castle), and Roman latrines can, at first glance, be a way to close the temporal gap between then and now, between them and us.
But the focus on plumbing, hygiene, and bathing is also a way to widen that gap, to say that people in the past were more primitive and less intelligent than we are; that their tolerance for filth and dirt was higher than ours because they didn't know any better, not because they didn't have the same options that some of us have now. This false sense of superiority is what Monty Python brilliantly sends up in this clip from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."
Here's what else I learned on my trip. Yes, our guide in Barley Hall, Master Paul, showed us the chamber pot. But he made sure to discuss the stringent regulations in 15th-century York that governed the disposal of waste (human, animal, and manufacturing). Contrary to popular belief, people did not fling the contents of their chamberpots out of the window and onto the street (especially after the 14th-century plague pandemic). The Neolithic (ca. 3200-2500 BCE) settlement at Skara Brae, in Orkney, contains an elaborate system of drains to wash away household and human waste, and each of the small houses contains a small "necessary room." Over 5000 years ago, Stone Age people, using stone tools, built an entire village with indoor plumbing.
In many ways, people who lived long ago were the same as we are. They had less sophisticated tools, but not less sophisticated minds. We'd do well to remind ourselves of that, and to extend that same compassion to the millions of people in the world now who live amidst sewage, effluvium, and garbage. Contempt for those on the dung heap of history can so easily be transposed to contempt for those on the dung heap of global poverty. But most people don't want to live in their own filth. If they do, it's not because they're ignorant or irrational or subhuman, it's because they don't have another option.