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"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."
So said LP Hartley at the start of his novel The Go-Between. Any prospective time travellers should also add the following: "make sure you get your shots before you go -- and don't drink the water. Also, pack your own toilet paper!" The fact is that while we like to think that the past was just like the modern day but with funny hats and folk music, many of the things we take for granted just weren't common -- or even available -- back then.
Ye Goode Olde Days comes into play when a historical or quasi-historical work makes things much nicer than they would really have been. Usually it stems from only partly Doing The Research: they might get the big stuff right -- authentic plate armour, the right kind of architecture, all that -- but the details of life in the past can be lost. So the farm village has nicely kept gravel paths, and everyone in the medieval village lives in a lovely half-timbered house with two bedrooms and a stone fireplace. The Renaissance maiden never gets mudstains on the train of her beautiful gowns, the Roman Senator has magnificent pearly white teeth, there's no infant mortality unless the plot requires it, no one ever needs to empty a chamberpot, and horses never take a dump in the street. It falls somewhere between subtle nostalgia and outright hilarity when dealing with ages closer to modernity, like the Roaring Twenties being an age of wild parties and shiny classic cars for everyone and not just the upper classes, poverty, unemployment and pollution from coal-burning industry and railroads aside, or the Stalinist Soviet Union being a nice place where people happily work, drink, have fun and never have to worry.
Wishful thinking about life in the past is also prevalent in fantasy literature, in which noble knights ride great distances to save beautiful damsels, who are never remotely bothered that their rescuers presumably smell of sweat, grease, and horse.
Something to keep in mind is that neither The Dung Ages nor Ye Goode Olde Days is "more" accurate than the other. The reality is that while hygiene was not good by modern standards, and living conditions were not what we'd call "comfortable" (what with the lack of air conditioning, flush toilets, and weekly garbage pick-up); neither did most people walk around barefoot, caked in filth, eating rotten food and living in tumble-down huts made of sticks. Many supposedly modern conveniences are thousands of years old: the Romans had central heating, for instance.
Because it is an Acceptable Break From Reality in entertainment-- the average viewer prefers looking at good-looking people when they aren't watching a documentary, and most actors and directors aren't quite willing to subject themselves to a completely realistic version of history -- please don't add examples that are just "[Character] had clean hair/white teeth/clear skin/shaved legs/etc."
Not to be confused with complaining about how things were better in the good old days.
- The Gothic Revival style had been pushed Up to Eleven in some German restored castles, and peaked when King Ludwig II of Bavaria commissioned the building of Neuschwanstein Castle replacing an earlier ruin - it was practically unusable as a political center, all efforts being directed into making it as Medieval as possible, but it had poor connection to anything the Middle Ages might have been, being more or less a fairy tale setting with modern amenities as electricity, running warm water or central heating.
- Highlighted in "Sunday Mourning", an issue of The Sandman in which the immortal Hob Gadling, who has been around since Medieval times, visits a Renaissance Faire and complains that in the real Renaissance he would see people with cancers that ate their faces away.
You know what's wrong with this place? Well, the first thing that's wrong is there's no shit. I mean, that's the thing about the past people forget. All the shit. Animal shit. People shit. Cow shit. Horse shit. You waded through the stuff. You should spray 'em all with shit as they come through the gates.
- An Al Hartley-era Archie comic has the gang transported to an idyllic 1890's small town with none of the ills of today's world...and none of the ills of the 1890's either.
- The people and environments in Monty Python's The Life of Brian, mostly likely due to the practices of the Ancient Romans, and even one of the characters mentioned how sanitation and hygiene have improved since the Romans have been in charge. The fact that it's set in the warm, dry Middle East as opposed to squalid, damp and muddy old England also helps things a bit. Of course, the majority still live in disgusting, tiny hovels, begging lepers are a common sight (unless Jesus comes along) and people are executed horribly for minor offenses.
- Keira Knightley's Guinevere in King Arthur was immaculately manicured despite the fact that the audience is told that she had had her fingers broken while in captivity -- during a closeup on her perfect nails.
- In the film of Eragon the hero, an ordinary farmboy, lives in a house roughly the size of an aircraft hangar despite the fact that his family is portrayed as so poor he has to sleep in the barn with the animals rather than having a bedroom of his own.
- Played straight in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure; our heroes travel to -- and pick up hitchhikers -- from ancient Greece, ancient Mongolia, and medieval Europe (among other eras), yet any and all unpleasant hygienic issues are ignored.
- A Kid in King Arthur's Court had medieval England a pretty nice place where women can learn how to fight.
- Some Truth in Television, surprisingly -- noblewomen were indeed taught the basics of combat and siege defense, in the case the enemy attacked when their husbands weren't around. Passive princesses were the ideal of a later age.
- G. K. Chesterton was often accused of making the past look better than the current age. He responded by saying he was correcting the "Whiggish" view of history. That being the view that all the mistakes of the past lead towards a better future.
- The Pyrates is set firmly in a Ye Goode Olde Days version of The Cavalier Years. The Author lampshades this immediately following the idyllic introduction, saying that historians would no doubt point out the complete lack of sanitation, hygiene, or social services. He concludes that the historical characters, "happy conscienceless rabble that they were," likely wouldn't care, and urges the reader not to, either.
"There wasn't even a London School of Economics, which is remarkable when you consider that Locke and Hobbes were loose about the place."
- Averted in Time Scout. In fact, the suggestions given in the first paragraph of are taken up by people in the book! They get multiple shots, they take many, many preparations against death and disease, they understand that they may have to be quarantined when they return, and men intending to go brothel-hopping downtime even get surgically restored foreskins.
- Septimus Heap, despite being set in a world like the 17th century, has quite high living standards and sanitation.
- Ancient Japan seemed awfully tidy in Heroes, although there is a degree of accuracy here; cleanliness and hygiene were both quite advanced and socially important in Japan. Of course the punishments for failing to uphold the proper level of cleaning etiquette could be pretty draconian.
- The film version of Irish Potato Famine novel Under the Hawthorn Tree featured three starving, destitute orphans walking the width of Ireland to reach their aunts' home. For malnourished vagrants, their skin and hair were immaculate.
- Several years ago a British reality programme tried to get people to live as an Iron Age tribe. Virtually the first thing they did was to elect a woman leader. There are at least two things wrong with that sentence.
- Northern European "barbarian" tribes were surprisingly democratic for their times, but out of necessity rather than choice. (Try to impose your will on a few hundred sword- and axe-armed thugs.) All armed men had a word to say in the tribe's affairs and for the important decisions they were required to get a majority opinion.
- Some - no, many - people (tend to) overestimate how idyllic the olden days were in many, if not most respects. This is basically a case of Ludd Was Right crossed with Nostalgia Filter. Or for times not actually in one's living memory, simple lack of knowledge.
- Most of the art of the Middle Ages does not depict the poor as particularly emaciated or horribly dirty.
- The untreatable, disfiguring, omnipresent diseases of the time are remarkably absent from almost all portrayals of the past.
- Don't forget plague. You could expect a new outbreak every couple of decades to wipe out somewhere between one in twenty and one in five of everyone. Everyone.
- Infant mortality is also remarkable by its absence. Also, attitudes to infant mortality; it wasn't any easier losing a child back then than it is now.
- Much of our image of the Middle Ages comes from depictions of medieval England and France. Sanitation and hygiene were much more important in other areas (Muslim-dominated Spain, for example; the Scandinavian countries and their colonies in what would become Russia were also much more stringent about matters than England and France). It still wasn't quite up to modern standards, but much of Europe wasn't stuck in the Dung Ages.
- We're not using 'Medieval' as a pejorative here, mind. The health and sanitation situation was pretty bad just about everywhere. It actually got worse as the early modern period progressed and the towns and cities grew. Grew because of the flow of people in; more people died than were born in every European town and city until the late 19th century with concrete advances in sanitation and public health.
- Early Middle Ages were actually better off in hygiene than the Age of Enlightenment or the Industrial Revolution. Bathing was an important social practice, and cleanliness was appreciated. However, a few disease epidemics that started out in public baths combined with the church preaching against the prostitution practiced in them came together as an idea that washing too well or too often was harmful to body and soul, and the belief persisted for many centuries hence. Even the French nobility of the 18th century rather sprinkled wine on their faces, used exessive amounts of perfume and changed their clothes three times a day rather than took a bath.
- Plimoth Plantation, the recreation of the Pilgrim settlement in Plymouth, Massachusetts in the early 17th Century, initially suffered from this in spades. The original version of this open-air museum, built in the early 20th Century, was improbably populated with picturesque cottages of quaint design mimicking British architecture of the period, complete with picket fences and paved walkways. When historical and archeological research revealed this to be little more than wishful thinking, the entire village was torn down and replaced with realistic dirt-floored wood-and-thatch huts. Naturally, this upset people who prefered to think that the Pilgrims lived in a suburban subdivision instead of a rough frontier settlement.
Notable Subversions Edit
- The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse, where Steve Pemberton starts writing a screenplay for a movie about a plot to assassinate William III, called The King's Evil (after the disease, which isn't a promising sign), and Geoff Tipps writes himself into the plot so he can heroically save the day and live at the royal court. After he gets there, though, he's horrified to learn that there's a man living in his toilet, waiting to dispose of his "nightsoil".
- Hard to Be A God by the Strugatsky Brothers. The plot centers around historians from a 22nd Century, Socialist Utopian Earth going deep undercover on a planet those human-like society is going though an equivalent of early Renaissance. The heroes have to deal with all the discomforts and prejudices of that age, and, over time, some become so engrossed in their roles that they begin to lose sight of their idealism.
- In the Animorphs novel Elfangor's Secret, the soldiers and villagers of Europe circa the Hundred Years' War are notably ridden with diseases and parasites. This becomes a plot point when the Animorphs need to figure out which soldier of the massed armies is a fellow time traveller, and they eventually look for the one person who is as healthy and unmarked as they are.
- The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. The protagonist is sent back in time to 1745 Scotland from 1945 post-war Scotland. She's generally horrified by the sanitation and hygiene of the day (not to mention the morality), but she does admit that they're better off in some respects than she might have thought. (Judicious use of leeches to ease bruising, for example; Claire would have suspected them of being used for fevers.)
- Otto Bettmann's (non-fiction) book The Good Old Days -- They Were Terrible! is dedicated to debunking this trope, in regards to American society in the late 19th/early 20th century. Child-labor sweatshops, streets filled with manure and trash, malnutrition amongst frontiersmen, etc.
- Candorville averts this in the bluntest way possible--the first instance of time travel in the strip is to the pre-Civil War American South, and the main character is black.
- PBS ran a series of reality based programs (the names varied from series to series but were generally [Decade] House (1900 House, 1940's House) or [Setting] House (Frontier House, Manor House, Colonial House)) in the early 2000s, where modern families with an interest in, but no great knowledge of, another era were asked to live in a expertly-crafted recreation of that time for several months.
- The Victorian era family did better than most as they were set up as upper-middle class, but still were shocked at how long household work took and got increasingly squicked by the lack of shampoo.
- The Pioneer era families very quickly got tired of scrubbing pots and chopping wood. When their winter stores were inspected at the end of the series all but one (young and childless) couple were deemed to have insufficient food and firewood to survive.
- The lack of proper knowledge quoted above. Many modern loggers, hunters and military men in remote outposts have to get their own wooden fuel, maintain their base and dirt-roads around, do their dishes and preserve their water supply, but they are both trained for it and they're usually young men of better-than-average physical strength.
- The Texas Ranch house families had fun riding horses for a day, then realized it took weeks to get the cows anywhere. Meanwhile the house was infested with flies (and no insecticide)
- The early 17th century New England colonial era community did surprisingly well. There was plenty of strife, emotional and otherwise, but they pulled through and eventually gathered enough supplies and started exporting enough to be deemed survivable through the winter.
- The above genre was neatly parodied by That Mitchell and Webb Situation, with "1990s House". Which was then done for real (to an extent) by BBC Four in 2009.
- The Homestar Runner game Peasant's Quest. Most of the game is spent trying to convince a guard that you are indeed a peasant; one of his three issues is that the protagonist "doesn't smell like" one. Also, note that all the thatched-roof cottages are realistically one-roomed and have mud floors.
- ↑ Try "elect" and "woman leader". Yes, Boudicca was a female ruler, but she inherited her husband's power. And the Romans weren't happy about it.