"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 travelers 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, or the Stalinist Soviet Union being a nice place where people happily work, drink, have fun and never have to worry. In short, it's Disneyfication of history.
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 horses.
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, and the Minoans had a plumbing system with flush toilets.
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."
Strong aversions are probably examples of The Dung Ages. See also Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe and Nostalgia Ain't Like It Used To Be. Not to be confused with Good Old Ways.
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. To round off the trope and make things even worse, Ludwig's design was used as the basis for the original Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland.
The people and environments in Monty Python's 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.
In 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.
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 Courthad medieval England a pretty nice place. It's moderately clean, and unless you stand under a window while walking down the street, you won't be covered in filth note (watch out for the wives emptying the chamber pot!) . The Protagonist notes that his Joust helmets smells something awful. Both the princesses are perfectly clean, but then again, they're princesses.
Nearly every Western ever made has immaculately clean townships, even when the characters have the appropriate sweaty, weary and dusty appearance (which makes one wonder where did they get that dirty in the first place). Horse dung, mud and flies, patched and ragged wooden buildings, straw on the pub floors to absorb spittle and spilled drinks and occasional drunken vomit were the norm rather than an exception in Real Life. On the other hand, it's very often averted in another manner, as the violence sometimes gets very exaggerated. Most towns had strict gun laws, requiring that visitors check them with the sheriff. The bottom line is that the film version of the Wild West was both cleaner and more violent.
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 authorlampshaded this immediately following the idyllic introduction, saying that historians would no doubt point out the complete lack of sanitation, hygiene, or social services. He concluded 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."
Pointedly averted in the Time Scout series. Travellers through the Time Gates 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.
In the Animorphs novel Elfangor's Secret, averting this trope is a plot point. 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 traveler; they eventually look for the one person who is as healthy and unmarked as they are.
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.
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. The punishments for failing to uphold the proper level of cleaning etiquette could be draconian.
In James Clavell's Shogun, both book and TV series, Blackthorne's Dutch crew insist on maintaining European standards of hygiene and housekeeping, utterly appalling their Japanese hosts. Men not at home with the idea of daily baths, who throw their intimate refuse out into the street in accordance with European custom, soon find themselves demoted to the eto class - lowly, despised and untouchable dregs of humanity. This is meant as both condemnation and judgment, but they simply do not notice.
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 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 "[Decade/Setting]House" genre was neatly parodied by The Mitchell and Webb Situation, with "1990s House". Which was then done for real (to an extent) by BBC Four in 2009.
Most of the art of the Middle Ages does not depict the poor as emaciated or dirty. Thus the artist(s) imply that everyone was well fed and clean back then note In years with good harvest, no plague, no war, then maybe.
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.
The Renaissance is often portrayed as too clean, when in reality hygiene had a marked decline in that era due to it being seen as unchristian to bathe (as in "in a bathtub") since it was an activity embraced by non-Christian societies like the Ottoman Empire. Taking what we call a spongebath, with a basin and washcloth, wasn't nearly as frowned upon, and can be just as effective. Washing your clothes, however, was more difficult. Modern men and women have very little idea just what women had to go through before the invention of the washing machine and dryer.
The flush toilet. The invention of the Sears catalog was a Godsend for this reason.
We tarried not, nor lingered long, on what we left behind:
The torture of that icy seat would make a Spartan sob!
For needs must scrape the gooseflesh with a lacerating cob,
Which from a frost-encrusted nail hung suspended by a string...
(My father was a frugal man and wasted not a thing.)