History Nuggets

6 Things To Gloss Over When Writing An Historical Novel: Pongs, Pests and People & Practises

Historical Bad Smells

Part One – Pongs


Whilst a big fan of historical accuracy and realism in my reading material, some things are unequivocally better dealt with today than they were in the past. How did people cope without our modern methods and solutions? I know that in most instances people wouldn’t have known any different but when writing an historical novel, particularly a romance, they do need to be considered for fear of eternally offending and/or disgusting your modern reader. A fantasy can cease to become a fantasy if we dwell on any of the below in too much detail in a novel. Which leads to perhaps presenting the issue in a slightly more appealing or generous light, if not downright glossing over it altogether…

So here’s my first post on this theme where I’ve gone for the myriad unpleasant aromas in a time without Air Wick. In the 17th and 18th century, the rich went about with nosegays and pomanders to combat the many pungent street smells (and I really don’t blame them).


  1. Body odours – Having been in a situation recently when I found myself exclaiming: “what on earth did people do before deodorant?” got me thinking about unpleasant body odours in an historical setting. People must have stunk. Even those that washed regularly. Hot day, lots of dress fabric or armour, a bit of exertion – it really can’t have been pleasant on the nostrils. How on earth does the hero manage to rescue the heroine without inducing natural odours from his escapades that she might have found distasteful? Bet you Romeo didn’t smell so great after climbing that trellis to Juliette’s balcony. Anyone here fancy snogging the pants of someone who stinks of BO? Didn’t think so. But whilst heroes and heroines must always smell appealing, villains can stink as much as you like.


  1. Bad breath – Talking of snogging the pants off someone neatly brings me on to dentistry (or lack thereof) and consequent bad breath. Nothing quite like a romantic scene with hero who has a mouth full of rotting stubs (!). Tooth brushing wasn’t common in Europe until the 18th century, although tooth powders had been around longer. Part of the appeal of young men and women was that they weren’t old enough for their teeth to have rotted so had ‘sweet-smelling’ breath. Colgate has a rather good overview of the history of toothbrushes and toothpaste. I’ve read of villains or peasants having bad teeth/breath before in HEAs but certainly not the hero or heroine – gloss (floss?!) away!


  1. Sewage and refuse – in medieval times, towns had a “shit brook” outside the walls and castles had a midden heap (refuse and dung) as well as jakes (loos). People also openly defecated in the streets (no public loos). As above, not so great for the nostrils. But this must have been an everyday fact of life no matter where you lived; nowadays a bit like living rurally and getting used to muck spreading on a permanent basis, I suppose. Still, rather unpleasant and definitely a point to gloss over.

Historical Bad Smells


  1. Flying sewage – in medieval and early modern times in towns and cities, those lucky enough to live in a house with more than one storey and own a chamberpot would have disposed of the contents out the window on to the street below. To warn those walking beneath, the disposer would yell “guardez-vous” so that those walking had a brief opportunity to dodge the flying sewage. (Guarde-vous eventually became “guarde-loo” which is how we have the word “loo” today). So not only was there effluent in the streets from animals and those defecating there, there was also sewage flying through the streets and being covered was not uncommon. Wouldn’t the hero look dashing turning up to court the heroine dripping in and smelling of sewage?!

Historical Bad Smells


  1. Discarded butchered animal bits – most people butchered their own animals or, if wealthy enough, paid a butcher to do it for them. Not much would be discarded (blood was used for black puddings; intestines washed and used for sausages; brains, lungs and hearts eaten) but stomach and bowel contents were simply thrown the street. Nothing like having your character not only dodge flying sewage as he walks down the street but having to avoid excrement and animal bits underfoot too. I suppose the modern equivalent would be stepping in dog mess (don’t get me started on dog owners that don’t pick up) and trying to scrape it off on a patch of grass but that lovely aroma lingering nonetheless. Us English speaking natives are probably the least likely to continue to make the most of an animal carcass these days but the French, Eastern Europeans and other emerging economies still practice this to a larger extent (but hopefully with more hygienic disposal).


  1. Tanneries – this was where animal skins were preserved and changed from hides to leather that could be used for shoes and goods such as saddles. Tanneries used human urine to remove the fat and hair from the hide. Those who could afford a chamberpot could sell the contents to tanneries rather than throwing it out the window (if you couldn’t afford a chamberpot, you were “piss poor”). So not only were there skins of animals lying around, decomposing in the heat but there was also plenty of urine too. Tanneries were almost always located on the edges of towns and near a stream or river. The tanners themselves were often persona non grata, even amongst their own class, due to the pervading smell.


Are there any other delightful smells I’ve forgotten?

© This blog is an original rambling of Eleanor Small

Photo credits:

Rue de Merde & Flying Sewage: from http://www.gohistorygo.com/#!medieval-towns-/c1ztc
Shitbrook: © Eleanor Small

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