History stinks

Judging from the title to this blog you might think that I don’t like history.  That isn’t the case.  I like history; I always have, even in school.   I was a docent at Canada’s Museum of Civilization, now referred to as theMuseum of History, and I have also written  an historical novel, A Jacketing Concern.

So no, I don’t dislike history,  but it definitely stinks, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Just type in to your browser “history stinks or “smells” or “odours” and you’ll discover a number of websites devoted to aromas of the past both foul and sweet.  For instance, some medieval latrines that were recently discovered in Denmark still  smell after 700 years. Phew!.  And in 1858 the Great Stink  resulting from hot weather and untreated human waste on the the banks of the  River Thames affected the working of the British House of Parliament.  Curtains on the riverside of the building were soaked  in lime chloride but even so the  library and committee rooms were unusable. It took an engineering project that lasted from 1859 to 1875 to rectify the problem.

Historians are now taking more interest in the olafactory aspects of the past. Last year an olfactory archeology exhibition was staged in downtown San Francisco  and  visitors were able to inhale the smell of cities of the past such as 18th century Paris.

It  has  been  said “History is another country.” Now  I love to travel  whether figuratively  or  physically; and if you are like me   when you visit a   foreign country, you enjoy experiencing it through your five  senses —  seeing, feeling, hearing , tasting and smelling  all that is new. Entering that “country” to research and write historical novels there is so much that your  can show your characters  experiencing through their  senses that adds atmosphere to your story.  Of those five senses it seems to me that smell is the one that gets shorter shrift than the others.  There were so many smells both pleasant and unpleasant back when that are now absent in the hermetically-sealed world of today.

For instance;  the all-pervading smell of horses and horse dung,  coal fires, human waste thrown into the streets, garbage, rotting sewage, unwashed bodies, bad breath, the blood shed in fights and war, gunpowder, cooking,  rotting meat and fish,spoilt food; on the other side of the coin there were the scents of new mown hay, flower  gardens,  delicious food, meadows, forests, perfumes used to cover  the odour of unwashed bodies, the smells of the earth and the sea, wood fires,  bread baking, newly washed linen, potpourri…

T he list goes on  — a list that is nothing a writer of historical fiction can afford to turn up her nose at!  ( The pun is intended, by the way.