"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
Wishful thinking about life in the past is also prevalent in chivalric 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. We can only assume they're too glad to be out of mortal peril to care.
Many champions of preindustrial living are not stupid: they are well aware of the more unsavory aspects of those past eras. Their stance is that those problems weren't extremely bad or were suffered by only a minority of people, or even that those who indulged in degrading practices were not true exemplars of those societies
and were ruining the social standards for everyone else.
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 far 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 because all efforts being directed into making it as Medieval as possible. Despite this, it had little connection to anything the Middle Ages might have been and was instead more of a fairy tale setting with modern amenities such as electricity, running warm water or central heating. To round off the trope, Ludwig's design was used as the basis for the original Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland.
- In Superior Spider-Man, this is made into a plot point with a nascent superhero/villain calling herself Livewire believing that this was true. She brought New York into a massive blackout during an alien invasion to "bring mankind back to a purer era when they followed the moon." Superior Spiderman is quick to point out the problems.
- 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 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), without needing to bother with unpleasant hygienic issues.
- A Kid in King Arthur's Court had 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 . 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 (perhaps the only film that shows this is Unforgiven, which even so has plenty of violence). The bottom line is that the film version of the Wild West was both cleaner and more violent.
- 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.
- The BBC Historical Farm Series loves to avert this trope, but at the same time, likes to call out misconceptions that exaggerate The Dung Ages reputation of past societies.
- The Daily Show once had John Oliver try to track down when "The Good Ol' Days" were, after hearing the likes of Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O'Reilly lament their passing. He proceeded to interview people who'd grown up in each preceding decade (starting at the '70s), all of whom disproved the notion by listing the things that were screwy during that period, culminating in a woman who'd lived in the '20s describing The Great Depression. He concluded they all felt the good old days were when they'd been children, since everything usually seems better at that point, largely because parents will go to great lengths to protect their children form poor circumstances.
- The Simpsons took part in a reality show where they lived in a Edwardian Era lifestyle while their house is gassed for termites. The family had to ride Cugnot Steam Trolley to Apu's, and could only buy stuff that was in the 1900s. Eventually though they got so into it, even adopting the speech mannerisms and mindset of the era, that viewers grow bored. The show then gets derailed when the producers try to get more ratings by putting the family in danger, by sending them and the house they're staying down a river.
- The glories of Ancient Grome (and other pre-medieval societies) continue to hold in thrall the imaginations of a loose coalition of many ivory-tower types (tending to be the same ones who bemoan the discontinuation of Latin courses in secondary schools and even in colleges and decry the "dumbing-down" of modern culture), anti-Christians, and sentimental nostalgists disgusted by such modern phenomena as obnoxiously beeping technology everywhere, multiculturalism and Political Correctness Gone Mad. To hear these people talk, you'd think the Roman Empire was an ideal time for "normal, civilized" people like the American middle class likes to think itself to be, with law and order courtesy of a huge standing army defending the populace from those murderous barbarians, beautiful architecture, peaceful villas and orchards, fun-filled festivals, everyone bathing regularly unlike those filthy medieval bumpkins (or, for that matter, New Age Retro Hippies and redneck bikers today), folks being polite and knowing their place, and an erudite citizenry debating everything from politics to art in elevated language while wearing sexy togas, without any cretinous Christian morality stifling anyone's creativity or spoiling their fun. It certainly doesn't help that countless plays, movies, and television shows have idealized the ancient Romans and other civilizations, leaving out most of the bad stuff like (in the case of the Roman Empire) widespread socioeconomic inequality (for one thing, a shockingly large number of people were on welfare, and not the "glamorous" nanny-state welfare we imagine today), an unstable parliamentary monarchical system with frequently psychopathic emperors, an arrogant imperialist mindset that left Romans both bigoted and fatally complacent - and the fact that while Romans were snobs, they were hardly civilized, indulging in pornography, unusually cruel public humiliations and executions (reaching their nadir in crucifixion, of course, although the "triumph" parades were likewise degrading spectacles), and sadistic entertainments (gladiator fights to the death, slaughtering of wild animals) that made today's "Ultimate Fighting" look tame. Also, all that technology has extended lifespans and made basic existence more comfortable, despite its annoyances and erosion of traditional ways.
- Generally speaking, this is a case of Ludd Was Right crossed with Nostalgia Filter. For times not in one's living memory, simple lack of knowledge.
- 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
- 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, and also due to public baths having spread The Plague, which was blamed on people "pridefully" wanting to be clean. Taking what we call a sponge bath, 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.)