"I mean, that's the thing about the past that 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."
The convention to show the Medieval Era as a crapsack time populated bypustule-faced, cat-beating, dung-caked, mud-farming peasants. Popularized by films created by the Monty Python team. This was partially for Rule of Funny — Monty Python's Terry Jones is a historian and knows better — and partially as a reaction against the flowery King Arthur-inspired romances that had shaped popular views of the era up until then.
Portrayal of The Dung Ages is not limited to Britain and/or the Dark Ages. It's often seen even in portrayals of cultures where it doesn't belong. Many ancient Romans, for instance, bathed every day: once soapmaking arrived from Gaul, the Roman Patricians who could afford it used soap with abandon, possibly to a greater extent than we do.
The core of this idea and portrayal is summed up in the page quote - due to the general lack of sewage infrastructure during much of history, waste disposal, particularly human waste, was a bit more of a problem. This was especially true for armies or large cities.
And yet, 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 central heating and air conditioning, flush toilets, and weekly garbage pick-up), neither did most people walk around barefoot while caked in filth, eat rotten food nor live in tumble-down huts made of sticks.
More common in literature or live action works, since animating a lot of dust, dirt and grime is harder than having everything be clean.
Strong aversions of The Dung Ages are examples of Ye Goode Olde Days and should be put there. For depictions of history being more socially progressive than truly accurate for the time, see Politically Correct History.
The growing Dungeon Punk subgenre blends Dung Ages squalor with Heroic Fantasy tropes and modern or near-future aesthetics. See also Medieval Morons.
Dororo, parts of Phoenix and other Jidai Geki stories by Osamu Tezuka depict Japan's Sengoku period this way, as he was a staunch pacifist who disliked the romanticized view of the age of the samurai prevalent in Japanese media. Expect to see lots of burned down villages and corpses everywhere, either from the constant warfare or good old fashioned famine and disease. It should tell you something that when the setting of the film version of Dororo was moved from the 1500s to the post apocalyptic future, very little was changed.
Hob Gadling in The Sandman, who is really 600 years old but looks 30, grumpily complains that a Renaissance Fair or SCA event he's dragged to doesn't have enough shit everywhere. But later he complains that the toilets are "bloody disgusting" and gets back a "we strive for realism".
Played straight and subverted in With Strings Attached. The quasi-Victorian city of Focan in Ketafa stinks of dung (and factories) so badly that the four gag when they first smell it and have to breathe through their mouths. The people stink too. Also, when they first meet a native (a farmer who smells like a goat), he sniffs them and is amazed that they “smell different.” On the other hand, the quasi-medieval city of Ta'akan in Baravada is kept magically clean, and the citizens bathe regularly, to the point where even crumbling old hotels have their bathrooms maintained. And the Baravadans are very critical of how the four smell when they first arrive from Focan.
Some of the Ketafans who live in Baravada aren't too concerned with personal hygiene, but most of them apparently picked up the habit from the Baravadans.
In Home with the Fairies, chapter 3, this is how Maddie perceives the town of Bree. It looks medieval, and it stinks, with "open sewers down the sides of the street" and "the retched filth lying in the gutters and alleys". It disgusts her, but the locals seem to ignore it. Maddie is yet to learn that she is in the setting of The Lord of the Rings, and dwarves and hobbits are nearby.
Ridley Scott arguably invokes this with his grittier, dung-ier take on Robin Hood.
Robert Bresson's 1974 film Lancelot Du Lac, in many ways, instigated this trend in film. Most people do not realise that Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a send up of Lancelot du Lac, but the grime and hyperviolence (as in the Black Knight scene especially) are directly related to the earlier film.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail: The Trope Codifier, in which practically everyone runs around bedraggled, shabby and covered in filth, as noted by one character's caustic observation: "He must be a king. He hasn't got shit all over him." In fact, according to backstage reports, the attention of the two Pythons who were directing (Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam) to keeping things "authentic" in this regard note Terry Jones admits on the commentary track that this was exaggerated in comparison to what history research has indicated, mentioning for instance that skeletons from the time can have surprisingly good teeth due to the lack of sugar consumption. eventually began to take on slightly obsessive tones and really began to piss off the other Pythons (and the other cast and crew members, for that matter), who were having to seriously suffer for their art. This eventually made it a pretty difficult shoot at times and also perhaps provided a reminder of why this trope exists in the first place. This said, however, Gilliam at least was willing to go through what he was putting everyone else through; his two main characters are probably the filthiest main characters in the movie.
The scene with the "autonomous collective" was supposed to take place on a normal-looking farm. Because they couldn't get access to a real farm on their filming budget, they changed it to a mud farm. You could say they were dirt poor.
Perfume depicts the 18th century Paris as the grossest place in the world; the book even points out that, while our 2008 Paris has at most a faint smell of car exhaust, the 18th century Paris smelled like crap, rot, sweat, rotten fish, urine, and any nasty odor you could imagine. Paris was also originally built on marshland, so it was pretty boggy until the swamp was drained in the 19th century.
Played with in George MacDonald Fraser's novel The Pyrates. The opening pages describe an idealized picture of England during The Cavalier Years with buxom wenches and lots of Gorgeous Period Dress, but then refer to scholars' conclusion that the actual standard of living and cleanliness of the time made it closer to The Dung Ages. Fraser then dismisses these conclusions in a tongue-in-cheek way as Political Correctness Gone Mad and announces that he would prefer to write about 17th century England as it should have been.
Invoked in the Animorphs book Elfangor's Secret, which makes a big point about how bad the hygiene and poor health of the general populace was in medieval times. The Animorphs find the time traveling villain by looking for someone clean and call attention to the fact that even the really important kingy people have giant sores in their faces from smallpox and what have you. When they say "clean" they mean "doesn't have a face full of holes".
A Song of Ice and Fire goes for the duality of Gorgeous Period Dress and The Dung Ages. A lot of the action involves the nobles, but it's made clear that the "smallfolk" are having a pretty shitty time of it, usually paying the price for disputes between lords. The moral aspects of the era are called up, as well — thirteen is seen as a perfectly valid age for marriage, the most popular system of justice is trial by combat, castration's still a legal punishment... Westeros is just not a nice place.
The Witcher, in all its postmodernist glory. Here it goes even to the higher classes, at least in the North, where even kings would need a rather emphatical encouraging to bathe. Sorcerers, on the other hand, are no less clean than the modern people.
Completely averted in the novel of Timeline, by Michael Crichton. After a hard day's work, sure, the people are dirty — but then they go home and bathe. At least within the fortress walls, but that's where as many people as possible live, for the protection. And the introduction pulls no punches in criticizing the foundations of this stereotype.
Averted to some extent in the Aubrey-Maturin series. Conditions ashore can often be pretty messy, but much is made throughout the course of the books about the Royal Navy's positive fetish for cleanliness on board ship (and the reasons why such an obsession was, in fact, very sensible indeed), and Jack Aubrey's home, Ashgrove Cottage, is kept shipshape by retired sailors. O'Brien has a great deal of fun playing with the expectations of a bachelor house in the books, to the point of doing a literary Gilligan Cut. Scene 1 — rural English gentlewomen speculating how messy Aubrey's house must be (since he has no proper maid or servants). Scene 2 — a description of how the sailors acting as servants clean the house just like they do the ship — up before dawn, disassemble the entire house, mop, scrub, dry, put the house back together, THEN wake the Captain up. Spend most of the day polishing metal. And paint the whole thing at least once a week.
Sometimes averted, sometimes upheld in Eric Flint's 1632 series. The "downtime" Germans of the 17th century are notable in their day and age as having some of the cleanest cities and towns in Europe, but some other places — Edinburgh, for one — are every bit as filthy as stereotype would have it. Indeed, Julie Sims Mackay's infant daughter contracts a severe infection while passing through Edinburgh from which she almost dies.
Invoked by Ellie, word for word, in Avalon High. While others may have romantic notions of the Middle Ages, this daughter of Medieval scholars has absolutely zero desire to be one of them.
In Evolution a hunter-gatherer arriving in a Proto-Indo-European city (about 6000 BC) is understandably appalled by the hygienic conditions following the rapid population growth.
Deliberately avoided in the Codex Alera novels, where everyone bathes regularly if they can, including public baths. Of course, this is a setting where everyone has access to at least some degree of Elemental Powers, so hot, fresh water is commonplace thanks to fire and water furies. The injured and wounded are actually the cleanest, as the healing abilities of watercrafting usually require the patient to be submerged in a tub. Bathing for cleanliness is a bit harder to acquire for the Legions when they're in the field, to the point where the camp followers can make a decent income off of providing hot baths for legionaires. The hero, Tavi, has to regularly take baths while in the Legions because he pissed off his immediate superior (a logistics officer) by investigating his corruption and got handed an assignment to precisely measure the depth, length, and width of the latrine trenches to make sure "they were up to standard."
Averted or subverted in the historical romances of Beatrice Small. While she points out the lack of sewers doesn't exactly contribute to city cleanliness, the main characters in her books do bathe frequently, if not every day.
Both averted and played straight on Robert Low's The Oathsworn Series. Although the overall world didn't care much for sissy things like basic hygiene, norse characters are shown to be "more vain than women" with all the combing their hairs and taking regular showers.
The city of Ankh-Morpork in the Discworld is introduced as a generic medieval fantasy city. Much is made of its signature stench, one that even inhabitants of Calcutta would recoil from, and the River Ankh is described as so full of mud, silt, and pollution that anyone, not just holy saints and demigods, can walk on the water. The people are similarly described as strangers to regular bathing and laundry. The city progresses through the books to a state like Victorian London: still grubby, but a bit cleaner. Expanded background works in the canon even reveal it has public baths and bath-houses. How much custom they actually get is a different matter.
Provost's Dog, set two centuries before the rest of the Tortall Universe books, really goes for this. However, it's mostly because Beka lives and works in the poorest part of the city, where good sanitation is warning people in the street that you're about to dump your chamberpot out the window. Expensive districts are markedly cleaner, and Port Caynn has a decent (for medievaly times) sewer system.
Live Action TV
Blackadder II. A couple decide to buy Blackadder's house specifically because it doesn't have an indoor toilet. Baldrick is occasionally mentioned to eat dung in the second and third series.
The BBC's Robin Hood (2006) includes some elements of The Dung Ages.
The 1997 English mini-series of Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe went for this kind of period accuracy in clothing, beards, and decor. On a small TV set, this left all the male characters looking drab, hairy, and nearly identical, while the scenes were so under-lit the parts of it this editor saw might just as well have been shot in a cave.
HBO's Rome has The Dung Ages for the plebs, and Gorgeous Period Dress for the patricians. Which is pretty close to the way it would really have been. And even the plebs aren't that badly off in terms of cleanliness, at least while in the titular city; Rome had plenty of public bathhouses that were cheap or free for citizens (but not slaves).
Hercules: The Legendary Journeys had Herc's greedy friend Salmoneous invest in a dung-fertilizer business run by brothers who had become way too desensitized to the substance.
Subverted in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode "The Magic Sword", where Joel holds a Renaissance fair on the Satellite of Love, and Servo shows up as an indentured serf, making observations of the "real" Dark Ages, taking the fun out of Joel's fair.
The Dark Ages, a 1990s Brit Com by Rob Grant, starring Phil Jupitus.
Horrible Histories is an extended example; they point out gross things from every area of history, not just the medieval period, including how the Roman baths were only cleaned once a day and how the enlisted men in WWI had to find unusual uses for urine (or, as the advertising voice said, "New! World War 1 Wee-Wee!")
A program on The History Channel called "Going Medieval" devoted a section to disproving this trope. There were soaps (both personal and laundry) that were cheap enough to be made by any peasant. They even had primitive dental care. Naturally, the upperclass could afford better stuff and had more time for it but "unwashed masses" the lower classes were not.
Often glossed over in the Fighting Fantasy world, but Blacksand!, the second volume of the Advanced Fighting Fantasy series, details just how filthy and stinking the streets of Port Blacksand are. In some parts of the city, there's so much mud and horse crap on the streets, that it can be waist deep for a Dwarf.
Since it's such a Crapsack World already, Warhammer's Old World loves to include elements of The Dung Ages. A typical Bretonnian army has both the stereotypical Arthurian knights and the gross, almost-worthless filth-covered peasants they've conscripted.
Demons Souls and Dark Souls, both being heavily influenced by Berserk are this. It's most obvious in the Vally of Defilement and Blighttown respectively. These areas are nasty, disgusting, plague ridden towns built over swamps.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim doesn't shy away from how filthy it gets, at least when you're outside of the cities, and even within some of the cities its run down and disgusting in the right places. In fact, there's even a character creation option to smear your Dragonborn with dirt across their face.
Mentioned in Hark! A Vagrant where some of the costumes in a film depicting medieval times are not completely appropriate for the era, and the director says "Just rub some dirt on them, I guess. No one's gonna care."
Played heavily straight with in two of the lands of Neopets; the medieval land of Meridell and the prehistoric land of Tyrannia. One could make a drinking game out of all the dung-related items that come from both.
One of the Pinky and the Brain plots is to gain money via Robin Hood methods, and get indoor plumbing to England, which would inspire the people to make them kings. While everything else works, the plan falls flat because the English didn't want to be bathed, believing hot water and soap to be a lethal combination.
In the short lived cartoon Mad Jack The Pirate, Jack and Snuck visited a very poor village who worshipped an animal and rubbed its droppings on their clothing.
Averted humorously on Family Guy in an early episode showing the Griffins attending a medieval festival featuring Eternal Sexual Freedom, plenty of good food, and a chorus of monks grunting Gary Glitter's "Rock 'N' Roll Part One." (Peter even sarcastically remarks that the characters at the festival act so hoity-toity that they remind him of the TV show Frasier.) This from the same series that regularly portrays The Fifties unflatteringly, with iron-toothed racial segregation (even in the North!) and people so grotesquely gluttonous that they literally eat cigarettes.
The perception then was bathing was sinful. In Roman Empire times, bathing was a social activity when people would go to public bathhouses and gymnasiums not just to keep clean, but also to relax, socialize with peers, and engage in prostitution (in both Roman and Greek society, it was quite acceptable to be naked in public places established for that purpose, at least in single-sex company, which it always was; 'gymnasium' originally means 'place to be naked', and also gave them the word 'gymnolologise', to talk or debate while naked). These places were seen as places of decadences (opponents claiming they were essentially swinger clubs or brothels in all but name), together with the gladiatorial games. Hence, Queen Isabella and some saints got the "holy" credit for not bathing.
During the 1st century AD, men and women started bathing together in the bathhouses. It was really during this time that there was a strong link between sex and bathing in Rome.
People in the middle ages weren't necessarily worse for the wear for missing out on the public baths. As the vast majority of Roman baths were un-chlorinated bodies of rarely-changed, standing water frequented by large groups of people with questionable hygiene, the cleanliness they offered was only skin deep. Especially since sick people were encouraged to visit them.
However, instead of bathing, people kept clean by becoming more diligent with clothes-washing, with particularly strong attention paid to the linen underclothes — it was said that linen draws out bad humors from the body and must cleaned well and often.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, bringing in the Dark Ages, Rome might as well have been known as Malaria City.
There were plenty of disease outbreaks during the era of the Roman Empire. They didn't call July, August, September, and October "sickly" for nothing. Residents were told to go somewhere else, if at all possible, those months. 30,000 Roman residents died every year. Bathhouses and aqueducts didn't protect against malaria: it is estimated that over half of all Roman children became infected during summers when the Roman Empire was at the height of its power.
Quote: The conversion of forest into arable land had reduced the supply of wood, however, and the bath houses began to shut down because of the expense of heating the water. They tried using coal, but decided that burning coal gave off unhealthy fumes and abandoned the use of the stuff. By the mid-fourteenth century, only the rich could afford to bathe during the cold Winter months, and most of the population was dirty most of the time.
In Russia, where the forests were so abundant that even now there are mooses on the prowl in downtown Moscow sometimes, the concept of weekly bathing pretty much never died. It was one of the reasons why the Black Death outbreaks were relatively weak there. Well, that and the general lack of enormous concentrations of people in the filthy cities-Russian cities always were more spread out.
Russian ambassadors at King Louis XIV's court wrote back home of the "animalic" stench around the courtiers and the King himself.
Queen Isabella II of Spain bathed only twice in her entire life. This is the queen we're talking about here. That's saying something.
Queen Elizabeth I of England was said to have bathed regularly-four times annually.
Louis XIV of France is another famous ruler who is said to not have bathed more than a few times in his life (most of the occasions when he did get clean from head to toe was when he was about to enjoy a new mistress for the first time). The contrast with the Gorgeous Period Dress of the time is all the more glaring (this was actually one reason for using heavy perfume-to cover foul body odors). He used more often a steam bath (then known as a "Turkish bath", though not identical to Turkish hammams).
Heavily averted in the case of Louis XIV's first wife, Queen Marie-Thérèse, who, according to Nancy Mitford, had long hot baths "as her chief pleasure in life," with soap specially made for her from Marseilles.
The Polish Plait, a sort of welding of the hair (due to excessive dirt) in a pigtail, which according to name was common among Polish peasants, affected even King Christian IV of Denmark. It would be horrible even to imagine how the lower classes looked in comparison to their King...
Mariners of later parts of the Age Of Sail (when water was at a premium on board all ships) would help this process along with some tar.
Following horses to clean up after them is relatively recent. Before then, wherever they wanted to go, they went.
H. G. Wells once wrote a pretty apocalyptic article where he pictured London covered to the roofs in the horse dung-due to rapidly increasing traffic.
Up until the 19th century, the water from the Thames was used both for drinking and sewage. This is why there are portraits of kids drinking beer; it was much safer than water.
Averted by the Vikings, surprisingly. There are several accounts remarking with disgust how they washed their hands, hair, and faces daily, washed before meals, and changed their clothes and bathed at least every Saturday (the nordic word for Saturday was "laugardagr", which literally means "bathing/cleaning day"). Explains why they were popular with the Englishwomen.
On the flip side, to Muslim observers, who are required to wash their hands and faces five times a day for religious reasons (can't pray if your face and hands aren't washed) they were still too filthy and disgusting.
Similarly averted by the Slavs, who were living in much the same condition as Norsemen, had a pretty similar culture, and frequently intermingled. Every weekend was a bath day, and the house didn't count as such if it hadn't an adjacent bath built up close. In the North, where the winters were brutal and forests abundant, they even had heated outhouses, built up to the back wall of the house, where the stove was installed, and heated by its warmth. The outhouse was connected to the main building by the special gallery that kept the filth and smells away and was also used for storage. And to stress the point: Norwegians had more running water available than most.
Another aversion: The Finnish Sauna. Finns have an unbroken lineage of saunas since time immemorial.
Refugee camps in any era are usually reminiscent of this trope, as hygiene is the last thing that desperate, weary people fleeing starvation and violence are going to worry about.
A family that lived for several years on a replica Iron Age farm said that the modern convenience they missed most was welly boots. Every winter was a losing battle against mud. Hence the tradition of Spring Cleaning.
An interesting subversion in ancient Rome-there is the story of a nobleman who was very proud of his gleaming smile (by virtue of cleaning his teeth with the acidic properties of urine). A rival nobleman called him out on it, saying "You brag about having the whitest teeth, but this only means that you drink the most piss."
Lady Mary Montagu (1689-1762) had once been approached (at the London Opera, no less) by a fellow nobleman, who ironically told her she had dirty hands. Her answer: "You should see my feet." This counts more as a Lampshade Hanging, even as the 18th century had been renowned as the age of curly wigs and outstanding dresses covering utmost filth and lice: in those times, the only way to see a society lady's bare feet was to be her lover and in bed with her, so she was taunting him for being unworthy of this.
In the Philippines, Spanish friar historians frequently cracked down on the "unholy" practice of bathing in rivers by the natives, mainly because men and women bathed together though they still covered themselves up. Note that up until the late 19th century, the Philippine culture as it was run by the Spanish was described by some observers as medieval.