Follow TV Tropes


The Dung Ages

Go To
Those were really shitty times.

"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."
Hob Gadling at a Renaissance Faire, The Sandman (1989)

A really crappy time to be alive. Literally.

The Dung Ages are the representation of the Medieval Era as a Crapsack World of pustule-faced, cat-beating, dung-caked, mud-farming peasants, the antithesis of Ye Goode Olde Days, made popular by the Monty Python team. This was partially for Rule of Funny — Monty Python's Terry Jones was a historian and knew 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: prior to the widespread adoption of underground sewage infrastructure in the late nineteenth century, human shit and the menagerie of diseases associated with it were everyday sights and smells. This was especially true for armies and towns.

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.

See the analysis page for more details on the historicity of this trope.

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 Dungeons & Dragons/Sword and Sorcery tropes and modern-day aesthetics. See also Medieval Morons.


    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • In the setting of Berserk, while you get occasional pockets of Ye Goode Olde Days in the land, and the nobility and royalty live in shiny splendor, many peasants and poor people suffer from famine, dress in rags, and live in filthy hovels. It gets especially bad during the plague and invasion that create a refugee crisis in Midland, leading to thousands of people huddling in a tent city beneath the Tower of Conviction mired in filth, starvation, and ignorance. In contrast, the magically created city of Falconia is considered to be a fantastic marvel, because unlike everywhere else, it has running water, a modern sewer system, public baths, and flushing toilets!
  • Dororo, parts of Phoenix and other Jidaigeki 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.

    Comic Books 
  • During the brief Post-Crisis 'Team-Up' phase of Action Comics, Superman is sent back in time by the Demon Etrigan in order to stop a mystic plot that is killing Metropolis in the present. John Byrne had recently established Superman's costume as not being invulnerable but mostly protected under a skin-tight force field his power generated. As a result, his walk through a medieval mudscape is no bother to him, and two passing peasants say "That one walks as a King." "Why say you this?" "Look! His Robes Are Untouched By Filth."
  • The Sandman (1989):
    • Hob Gadling, 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".
    • A mere hundred years after Gadling's deal with Death, there's an old guy complaining that newfangled inventions like chimneys have replaced brasiers, because the latter would keep the smoke inside, strengthening wood beams and the occupants' health. Hob tells him to shut it.

    Fan Works 
  • Gospel of the Lost Gods: King's Landing absolutely reeks and more than one character has something to say about it. The Wards as a whole loathe the lowered standards of cleanliness than they are used too in the modern day.
  • 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 wretched 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.
  • The Good Omens fic I shall endure to the end by A.A. Pessimal sees the demon Crowley attending a public execution in Paris in 1314. Crowley would prefer to be somewhere else, ideally somewhere where people have rediscovered soap and regular baths:
    Crowley sighed, with a heavy heart. He'd have much preferred not to be here. But Hell had insisted. The throng of close-packed mediaeval bodies in a typical mediaeval city was irritating his nasal passages, for one thing. And several thousand had gleefully turned up in this particular place, all intent on the elaborate street theatre that was about to happen. Even though he could professionally appreciate the heady cocktail of joyous anticipation, the psychic miasma of sin which was in its way a bouquet to his demonic senses, the way in which practically everyone down there was bringing something to the party for Hell to rejoice in, it was the heavy constant stench of everyday life that was making him feel queasy. And the Seine, that stinking open sewer of a river, was adding its own unmistakeable perfume to the day. Even up here on this expensively-rented balcony, Crowley could smell everything.
    He looked over to the river, past the square, and frowned. That little islet in the river looked familiar from somewhere. Never mind, he'd place it. Not important. Paris, like everywhere else, had grown and changed with the centuries. He caught a whiff of unwashed clothes and stale bodies. But not to the point where they'd discovered the secret of soap yet. Heigh-ho.
  • Averted in Transcendence. Ichigo assumes that a medieval city like Stormwind would be pretty dirty, but finds himself mildly surprised by how clean the place turns out to be.
  • Defied in Ward/The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim crossover Point Me at the Skyrim. Since she has landed into some kind of quasi-medieval world, Victoria Dallon assumes basic hygiene rules are unknown to her friends. Appalled, Invictus states that OF COURSE they wash their hands before touching their food.
    Antares: "Do you guys wash your hands? You... You know what germs are right?"
    Invictus: "What do you think we are, Argonians? Of course we clean our hands. Who would eat with dried blood and feces on their hands?"
  • 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.
  • Halloween Unspectacular: Briefly discussed in "The Curse of the Cursed Curse", a fairytale parody from the ninth edition narrated by Rick and Morty, where it's stated early on that Mabel's job as a peasant is to work on the "poo farms". Morty protests this concept, citing the fact that historians have debunked the idea that Medieval peasants were constantly surrounded by filth, but Rick shuts him up and carries on with the story.

    Film — Animated 
  • This was the situation in The Sword in the Stone. England's good king had died and no one could figure out who was rightful heir to the throne. And when no one was able to draw the titular sword, England was left without a king for years. As the narration described "This was a dark age, without law and without order. Men lived in fear of each other, for the strong preyed upon the weak". It got to the point that it was decided that the winner of tournament would become king. Of course, this becomes moot and the dark age ends when young Arthur pulls the sword and becomes king.

    Film — Live Action 
  • The 13th Warrior accurately depicts the Viking method of bathing, as detailed in the Real Life section below.
  • The England depicted in Black Death is a filthy, depressing place to live (and probably die).
  • Black Knight (2001) has this as part of the humor. At first, Martin Lawrence's character Jamal thinks he's in a Medieval theme park. Then he needs to go to the bathroom and discovers, to his horror, that Medieval privies are... not exactly hygienic. Earlier, a bum (actually the disgraced Sir Knolte) offers him some food, which is a nasty-looking critter on a stick. The scene with the royal feast also shows the Medieval table manners (e.g. loud farting, no utensils, letting a dog lick your fingers). After his first attempt at riding a horse, Jamal is comforted by Victoria... and some leeches. Even the idea that Jamal is literate seems incredible to the locals. Strangely, No Equal-Opportunity Time Travel is averted (except for Jamal getting tired of people calling him "Moor"), but this can be partly explained by him pretending to be a ducal messenger. His odd mannerisms are attributed to him being perceived as a Norman.
  • Mel Gibson's Braveheart.
  • Catherine Called Birdy (2022): The film is set in the middle ages, and the opening sees noblewoman Catherine playing about in the muck. Her lady's maid mournfully comments that she had just been bathed a fortnight ago.
  • The village landscapes in Dragonheart are several shades of brown and quite muddy.
  • Another Python offshoot (see a pattern here?) Erik the Viking (directed by Terry Jones) is also filthy dirty.
  • All of the characters in A Field in England spend the whole film covered in dirt and do things like spitting on someone else's hand to "clean" it and taking a shit out in the open.
  • Combined with Gorgeous Period Dress in Flesh+Blood (1985).
  • The 1989 version of Hard to Be a God is set on an Earthlike planet where the Renaissance never happened, stranding the population in medieval stasis. It is incredibly filthy, including scenes where residents will step into something, scrape it off their foot, then smell it to ascertain what they stepped in.
  • The Hour of the Pig: Averted. The characters are shown as largely clean (with some peasants not as much, but that may just be after a hard day's work) and going to a bathhouse. In fact, it may be unrealistic, since by the time the bathing culture had deteriorated after the Plague (bathhouses were a disease vector and often closed).
  • The Italian movie The Incredible Army of Brancaleone.
  • Ironclad: Almost everybody is covered in grime, and things like wooden buildings and carts appear very ramshackle and shoddy.
  • Terry Gilliam's film Jabberwocky, overall depicting the Middle Ages the same way as Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Even the king's clothes are ragged and dirty.
  • Robert Bresson's 1974 film Lancelot du Lac, in many ways, instigated this trend in film. Most people do not realize 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.
  • Nineteenth century Paris in Les Misérables (2012).
  • A Million Ways to Die in the West takes elements of this trope, transports them into The Wild West, and plays the whole thing for laughs.
  • 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  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 modern 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.
  • The English countryside, and the towns and villages apart from the castles in Robin Hood (1991).
  • Ridley Scott arguably invokes this with his grittier, dung-ier take on Robin Hood.
  • In Sin (the 2019 Michelangelo Buonarroti biopic), people empty the content of their chamber pots in the streets through the windows in both Florence and Carrara. Michelangelo ends up showered twice.
  • The town of Big Whiskey in Unforgiven is covered in so much mud.
  • A central humorous theme in the French Time Travel comedy film series Les Visiteurs. A 12th century French knight and his squire are sent to the late 20th century by mistake and pretty much everyone notices how smelly they are, Jacquouille (the squire) in particular (and since he ends up in the house of a dentist, the rotten state of his teeth does not go unnoticed). Peasants in the era they come from look like they're taken straight from one of the aforementioned Monty Python movies and Jacquouille's Neat Freak descendant emphasizes the trope even more by his reactions to his ancestor's dirtiness. Even the 18th-century characters of the third movie are disgusted by Jacquouille, despite their era not having 20th century hygiene standards. And Jacquouille's brother is a manure gatherer, with the expected smell and scabbies he transmits to everyone...
  • Yellowbeard starring Graham Chapman could be seen as an extension of the Monty Python motif.

  • 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 the stereotype would have it. Indeed, Julie Sims Mackay's infant daughter contracts a severe infection while passing through Edinburgh from which she almost dies.
  • Mary Renault didn't dwell on this too much in her books on Alexander the Great but did bring out his habit of frequent bathing (meaning that a lot of other people followed his example). Bathing was also important in the Persian court as described in the second book of the Alexander trilogy. In the non-fiction book The Nature of Alexander where she gives all the background information she found, she mentioned that the Persian courts also had lots of incense to cover up "the almost universal human stink". Greek culture in general is, rather famously, a subversion: and Alexander adhered more closely to Greek customs than his Macedonian countrymen. If a Greek couldn't bathe in water, he would cover himself in oil and then scrape it off: bringing any dirt (and usually hair) along with it. Greek men might very well bathe multiple times in a day: obsessive even by today's standards.
  • Invoked in the Animorphs book Elfangor's Secret, which makes a big point of how bad the hygiene and poor health of the general populace was in medieval times. The Animorphs find the time-travelling 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".
  • Averted 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.
  • 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.
  • Beka Cooper, 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 medieval times) sewer system.
  • In Blood Drain, the village of Qe'Lam is smelly, poor, and implied to be covered in poop.
  • 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."
    • Note that the Alerans are descended from Romans displaced into an alternate universe, so the standards of cleanliness are derived from the Roman ones.
  • Played straight in El Conquistador. Quetza discovers that, although the Europeans are a fearsome threat, they are dirty and smelly as hell. Even his Love Interest isn't from there, as she is a Japanese maiden.
  • 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.
  • Doomsday Book: Subverted. Kivrin takes a while to adjust to the idea that the Middle Ages are neither: both better and worse than she might have expected. The doctor who immunizes Kivrin offers to cauterize her nose because they think the stench will be just that overpowering. However, people are described as smelly and more unwashed than would be realistic at the time. Only after the Plague did the bathing culture fall away.
  • 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.
  • Discussed in Ghoul, by Michael Slade. A section of background about London notes that sewage used to be thrown in a trench in the middle of the road. Workers known as "rakers" were paid to push the slop around, and one unfortunate fellow drowned in his own shit. The novel also helpfully points out that the expression "going to the loo" came from the cry of "Gardy-loo!" (translated from "gardez-l'eau") as one emptied the chamber pot out the window. The tradition of the man walking on the outside also came from this, as he'd be more likely to be hit by falling excrement.
  • Household Gods by Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove highlights how much this was indeed the case in the late Roman Empire. It's mostly because of ignorance or simply inability to do anything else, however. How do you keep the flies or lice away with no screens or shampoo, for instance? Nonetheless, it's really hard on the protagonist, who's a time traveler from the US in the late '90s. They still do bathe frequently, but it doesn't help much since the grime quickly sets in again, bath water is rarely changed, and sick people go too.
  • In The Lighthouse Duet, the land of Navronne has famine, rain, and copious amounts of mud, and Valen sees the relatively simple food offered by the monks at Gillarine as a luxury, which says a lot about what the food is like elsewhere. In this case, it's justified, as Navronne is mired in a protracted civil war that includes a faction of necromancers and a doomsday cult.
  • Played straight and averted in Scott Meyer's Magic 2.0 series.
    • While there are many smells that Martin isn't used to, life in 12th century England isn't that bad, even for the common folk. However, Martin specifically chose that time period after a quick Google search for the best time to live in Medieval England. As it turns out, this was the intention of Phillip and the other wizards, who keep a certain book in print to get more time travelers to join them.
    • There is one persistent man who keeps bothering Phillip about helping him with his dung-sifting business. Naturally, Phillip is not inclined to get involved.
    • All wizards find ways to be more hygienic than the locals, especially where bathrooms are concerned. Being able to teleport and time travel helps. Tyler is noted as keeping an apartment in his own time specifically to use its bathroom. Phillip's toilet has a perpetual portal that transports the waste to just above Jimmy's statue's head.
  • 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 narrator of Perfume has this to say about 18th century France:
    The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulfur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth... even the king himself stank, stank like a rank lion, and the queen like an old goat, summer and winter.
  • 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" and announces that he would prefer to write about 17th century England as it should have been.
  • Schooled in Magic: Outside of the mage schools, the world is in this, with abusive nobles, brutal serfdom and poor sanitation contrasting the meritocracy and hot running water of Whitehall. To a magician's nose, even the king smells like shit. In Past Tense, everyone in the past is as bad off as peasants of the modern-day Nameless World.
  • James Clavell's novels are explicit on the mutual Culture Clash between West and East. Shogun sees the Values Dissonance between Blackthorne's Dutch sailors and their unwilling hosts in mediaeval Japan. The Westerners consider three baths in a lifetime is a sufficiency and come from cities where it is common to sling all your waste and refuse into the street. The Japanese have other ideas. Their first action is to have Blackthorne forcibly bathed and his clothing taken away, at arm's length, for incineration. Blackthorne learns to adapt and bring his personal hygiene up to Japanese levels. His crew do not - they end up in the ghetto set aside, and preferably downwind, for the Eta, the Untouchable caste who do all the dirty work. Even the Eta are repulsed by typical Western standards of cleanliness...
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Timeline: Subverted and mocked. The protagonist walks around, expecting horribly disgusting conditions, but is surprised to learn everyone is reasonably well kept. In the afterward, Crichton notes this was mostly an invention of the Renaissance, during which many scholars romanticized the Classical period above their own era. Personal hygiene declined significantly only once the Black Plague became epidemic (which started around the time the book is set) when the public baths that were common in most Medieval towns and cities became disease vectors. This made frequent bathing a hazard, and it was denounced as sinful. Because of this, the post-Black Death cultural attitude towards bathing went too far in the other direction, with monarchs like Isabella I of Spain boasting of only bathing a few times in their entire lives. A servant insists that Chris is not clean enough after he washes himself, to his surprise, and scrubs him quite thoroughly.
  • The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: Cities in Fantasyland will usually have heaps of refuse, along with being near hovels. Though a certain amount of this makes sense, Jones notes it never seems to break down. It gets to the point of her inferring that Fantasyland must lack insects, which means it's severely messed up. Abusive nobles and very downtrodden peasants who have a miserable time are also common, though usually country-specific. Lands ruled by The Good King can expect to have happier peasants and nicer nobles. Those of the Aristocratic Feudalists though... not so much. Obviously, in the land of the Dark Lord it's mostly living hell.
  • The Warlord Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell rips Arthurian Legend from the medieval version of Gorgeous Period Dress setting into this one.
  • 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.

    Live Action TV 
  • On Adam Ruins Everything, Adam explains to Murph and Emily where all those studies that say you have to have children before age 35 OR ELSE got their data from: French farmers in the 1500s. He lets in several people, all of whom are dirty and tracking in straw. Murph opens up a window because they smell. One of the farm girls comments in French, "No dirt, no plague...this must be Heaven!" A researcher on the subject (who herself had all her children relatively late in life) follows and explains that this is a problem because the data comes from an era before fertility treatments (such as IVF), antibiotics, modern medicine, etc. Also, it's only census data, so it doesn't explain why few of those women were having babies after 35. Sure, it could mean that those women were going through menopause or perimenopause sooner than women today do. But it could also reflect that those women were dying early of diseases (such as The Black Death), or dying in childbirth, or that their husbands had gone off to war, or maybe sex after a certain age was considered "unseemly," or many other possible explanations. note 
  • In an earlier episode, he goes on to explain that up until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many towns and cities were like this, and many people got sick and died. Even rich people just relieved themselves wherever. It took the construction of sewer systems, and even reversing the direction of a river to solve this problem.
  • The BBC Historical Farm Series examines this in detail. The hosts note that while hygiene was more difficult and there were a lot of very mucky tasks, people also weren't blithely going around covered in grime and manure and would clean themselves and their clothes as best as they were able given time and resource constraints. On the other hand, they also go into great detail about the various uses that waste was put to on farms, from the reason manure was an essential component of wattle-and-daub, to the near-limitless chemical applications of human urine.
  • 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.
    • Blackadder Goes Forth has a pretty harsh view of life in the trenches during World War I. Aside from being cold and miserable, food is so scarce that they have to rely on Baldrick's barely edible cooking, and Edmund willingly starves himself just to be spared it on multiple occasions. Just about every meal involves rats, and "coffee" is just hot mud in a cup. It doesn't help that they're overseen by an insane general who has a habit of randomly sending large numbers of people directly into enemy fire and almost certain death.
  • Cadfael generally averts this. Though the dirt roads and lack of running water are prominent, most of the characters are generally in clean clothes and well-groomed. One notable aversion is when the monks travel to Wales—the town of Gwitheryn and its people are much grubbier than Shrewsbury.
  • Roman-era is portrayed this way in Chelmsford 123. Of course, the Roman characters complain about how much filthier everything is in Britain compared to Rome.
  • The Dark Ages, a 1990s Brit Com by Rob Grant, starring Phil Jupitus.
  • This trope is pretty much the premise of the BBC Two miniseries Filthy Cities, which explored 14th century London, 18th century Paris, and 19th century New York.
  • Hygiene is a luxury in the far future of Firefly.
  • Featured in one of the regular sketches in French and Saunders.
  • Chef and Gwynne's love duet in Galavant invokes every single cliché associated with this trope.
  • On Game of Thrones, Westeros under King Joffrey is this, mainly because Joffrey doesn't give a damn about anyone but...well...Joffrey, and doesn't see to it that his subjects have adequate food or infrastructure.
  • 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 upper class could afford better stuff and had more time for it but "unwashed masses" the lower classes were not.
  • 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.
  • A major theme of History Bites is making use of this trope, from the Neolithic Period to the Old West, for Black Comedy.
  • 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!")
  • 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 might just as well have been shot in a cave.
  • A source of much humour in Maid Marian and Her Merry Men.
  • Making History (2017) depicts Colonial America this way. When Chris first arrives there, he immediately throws up, as Dan warns him that the past smells like poo.
  • 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 BBC's Robin Hood (2006) includes some elements of The Dung Ages.
  • 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).
  • Tony Robinson's Worst Jobs In History confirmed this to be quite literal Truth in Television. A key component of the daub in wattle and daub construction was manure.

  • Greg and Ella of Relative Disasters describe medieval London in these terms in their episode on the 1091 London tornado.

    Tabletop Games 
  • 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.
  • Pendragon is this at the earliest points in its timeline, with the player characters being little better than armoured thugs on horses. As the game's metaplot progresses, it moves towards and finally reaches Ye Goode Olde Days with the player characters as Knights in Shining Armour.
  • 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.
    • The Empire, while not nearly as bad, is still pretty dung-ey. The countryside stinks of manure due to being used as fertilizer.
    • The Bretonnian dukedom of Mousillon is the logical extreme to this trope. Mousillon is a filthy, rundown region built on a swamp, so most the buildings are rotted and/or abandoned and streets are little more than sewers. The malformed peasants are almost all inbred, mutants, or infected with plague. The graveyards of Mousillon are larger than the city itself, and undead roaming outside the gates is a constant problem.
    • Logical Extreme for humans, anyway. The Skaven, which are bipedal intelligent rat people with a penchant for highly advanced if unstable technology, are much, much worse still. Since they exist in the hundreds of millions all over the world but live underground, and are back-stabby and cannibalistic and worship a God of pestilence and decay, their cities are more mold and rot than wood and stone (the capital is literally sinking a little more into a morass of death every year), their soldiers are disease-ridden and wear more filth than cloth (to say nothing of the "peasants") and they even have a magic discipline focused around decay and disease. Where humans usually at least try, Skaven don't even care, nor do they need to.
    • And then there's the Nurglite cults, who encourage this as it strengthens their god, who has power over disease, decay, and love (yes, love for all living things, it's just that bacteria and vermin are so much more numerous than humans).

    Video Games 
  • Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, both being heavily influenced by Berserk are this. It's most obvious in the Valley of Defilement and Blighttown respectively. These areas are nasty, disgusting, plague-ridden towns built over swamps.
    • The third installment brings this back a few times, most notably The Undead Settlement, the Corvian Settlement is also pretty nasty and there is something clearly wrong with its residents.
  • 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 it's 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.
    • Yet they are well aware of hygiene. Every bandit camp has at least one corner with a bucket, and houses have washbasins - which is historically accurate; Norse people bathed at least weekly, had running water, and saunas are as antique as the Norse people.
  • Kingdom Come: Deliverance is set in medieval Bohemia and averts this quite a bit. The people around have some hygiene standards and will comment to you if you've gone a long while without bathing, especially if you've travelled a lot or been in a fight. People around will regularly wash in public troughs, though it's not the most effective at doing so given that everyone's using it, and public bathhouses are available if you want to be more thorough (and if you want to solicit a washerwoman for sex, which is coincidentally among the reasons the practice falls out of favor). When it comes to shit in the streets, cities have garderobes, latrine closets and such around with gong farmers being paid well to remove all the excrement accumulated in them and villages are surveyed with residents understanding that one has to defecate some distance downstream.
  • Of Orcs and Men loves this, particularly in the lower-class human areas.
  • Thief (2014) has technology well beyond The Middle Ages, but it still fits this trope. People make comments like "We still have our lives and most of our teeth!" and there are rats, garbage heaps, and filthy beggars everywhere. Some thugs in Riverside can be overheard discussing a particularly sweet-smelling prostitute who lathers herself in perfume; she apparently has quite a waiting list.
  • A Plague Tale: Innocence has this view of medieval France, just with the dung replaced by rotting corpses and plague rats. Justified as it is set during the Hundred Years' War, The Black Death, and a more fantastical rat-based plague, so there are a lot of bodies around. It doesn't help that the Big Bad is trying to weaponize the rat plague. It's not that anyone doesn't notice or mind the bodies everywhere, but circumstances are keeping the supply high and the Inquisition in charge has little interest in proper disposal. A scene of the characters picking their way across a corpse-strewn battlefield does include soldiers digging mass graves for their fallen countrymen rather than leaving them to fester and be eaten. There's also a note that advances in hygiene have been made as the people start to associate filth with disease, and it's become common for people to wash their hands with soap before eating.
  • Plants vs. Zombies 2: It's About Time: The second new era added to the game are the Dark Ages, a time of plague, mistrust and peasants (of which the standard zombie variants are). It's also a pun, as it's the only time set at night, thus reintroducing the use of mushrooms and no sun from the sky.

  • 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."
  • Appears in The Order of the Stick once, with some dirt-farming peasants.
  • Tales of the Questor: Averted by the raccoon-like Rac Cona Daimh, but played pretty straight by the human kingdoms surrounding their hidden villages. Quentyn is horrified to see that the first person he meets outside the racconan villages has fleas, and later on it's mentioned that the reason they hid was humans blaming them for the plague when they didn't catch it (due to washing their hands!)

    Web Original 
  • Cracked:
  • Discussed in this Public Service Announcement from the Global Health Media Project. It details the story of a young boy whose father came down with cholera, and who worked to create change in his village so that no one would ever get such a horrible disease again.
  • The country Glordale from the Legatum series is well-known for how abhorrent its hygiene is. A lot of its residents are just fine not bathing for weeks, sometimes months, it's not uncommon for people to empty their chamber pots into the middle of the street, many characters wear basic, tattered clothing, trash litters the streets of certain towns, and some of the grosser residents are just fine urinating or defecating in public—or, in some cases, going right in their trousers.
  • 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.

    Western Animation 
  • Averted 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 '50s unflatteringly, with iron-toothed racial segregation (even in the North!) and people so grotesquely gluttonous that they literally eat cigarettes.
  • 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.
  • 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 Star vs. the Forces of Evil, the regular peasantry of Mewni live in dirty squalor, in contrast to the shining, magic-fuel royal palace. It's one of the first hints that Mewni isn't as great as it seems... Oddly though, this specific aspect is quietly forgotten after the first season or two, after which the common folk are shown with a much higher quality of living.

    Real Life 
  • It is a commonly repeated belief that bathing was considered sinful during the Middle Ages. This is not entirely true; what the Church disapproved of was not bathing, but bathhouses, which were holdovers from the Roman Empire, and not without reason. In Greek and Roman times, bathing was a social activity when people would go to public bathhouses and gymnasiums not just to keep clean, but to relax, socialize with peers, and also to engage in prostitution. These were seen as places of decadence, with opponents describing them as brothels in all but name (and this being Ancient Rome and Greece, would have involved homosexuality as well). The fact is many people in the Middle Ages did bathe, but mostly at home or in streams. It was actually after the Middle Ages in the supposedly "enlightened" Renaissance and the Early Modern Period that bathing and hygiene standards declined.
    • In Russia, where the forests were so abundant that even now there are moose 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.
      • That and the climate was not friendly to the primary disease vector, the Oriental Rat Flea, which required a warmer climate, even during the Medieval Warm Period, when the Black Death occurred.
    • 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.
  • Even the United States wasn't immune to this trope. Before the 20th century, horses and other pack animals did their business wherever they were, and the cities were rife with animal waste. In New York City, for instance, over 500 tons of manure was shoveled from the streets every day. Ironically, the invention of automobiles and trains was seen as good for the environment at the time, as fewer animals on the streets meant less manure. Not to mention the "occasional" dead horse. In 1880 alone, NYC removed fifteen thousand dead horses from its streets.
  • Up until the 19th century, the water from the Thames was used both for drinking and sewage. The brutally hot summer of 1858 was known in London as "The Great Stink": the Thames became so pestilential that the Parliament at Westminster (which is right by the river) shut itself down because the stench from the river was unbearable. In some places, it was said that that feces, dead fish, and industrial sludge piled up six feet deep by the shore. Fortunately, this became the final straw that led to the building of massive sewers and water treatment facilities that rehabilitated the Thames. Though earlier examples existed, these Victorian sewers have become one of the archetypal examples of another trope, the Absurdly-Spacious Sewer. That's because they were built with extra capacity to account for the city’s future growth.
  • Averted by the Vikings, surprisingly. In fact, everything seems to indicate that the old Scandinavians were downright obsessed with proper grooming and personal hygiene when compared to their neighboring cultures. 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", and it even still survives in modern Scandinavian as "lørdag/lördag"). Indeed, several somewhat sour English chroniclers noted this apparent "vanity" (along with generally dressing nicely) as the reason why they were so popular with Englishwomen.
  • 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 had 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.
  • Jews as well averted this, due to being required to wash their hands upon waking and before and after eating, as well as bathing before the Sabbath. They are also required to salt their meat after slaughtering it, which helped disinfect it. As a result, they were much less susceptible to diseases like the Black Plague, resulting in them being blamed for it.
  • Refugee camps in any era are usually reminiscent of this trope, as the camps are often overcrowded and with limited resources, often leading to disease outbreaks.
  • 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."
  • Speaking of ancient Rome, while a lot is made of the fact that Romans had sewers, flush toilets, and public baths; Roman sanitation was still incredibly gross by modern standards and of questionable effectiveness. The water of the baths was only changed intermittently and it was custom to conclude a bathing session in a swim at the portion of the bath which was essentially a giant unchlorinated pool. Public toilets would be better described as flush latrines rather than flush toilets. People did their business over a big cistern that was only flushed when it got too stinky. And everyone wiped their ass with the same sponge. Worse, the Roman sewer was initially designed just to drain rainwater, but people started using it to dump human waste because it was convenient. But if it didn't rain for a while, it could make the whole city smell rancid. It's telling that wealthy Romans used toilets not connected to the sewer and emptied in a more traditional method.
  • 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.
  • Although against popular perceptions the European bathing culture wasn't yet remotely dead during The Crusades. While newly arrived Crusaders, who were usually fanatics, believed that personal hygiene was a sign of sinful vanity - or at least, that bath-houses were repositories of sin - and are believed to be the reason why the Muslims emphasized the insult "filthy infidels" at the time. Those who had had time to get settled in, however, tended to not only get on much better with their Jewish and Muslim neighbours but also share their bathing habits - including, of all people, The Knights Templar (one of the reasons, incidentally, that they came to be held in suspicion).
  • Surprisingly subverted in the form of dental hygiene: even in the Middle Ages, people used rudimentary toothbrushes and mint to clean their teeth; they had to because the only alternative for dealing with a bad tooth was to yank it out. Also, the relative scarcity of sugar and sugary foods meant that rotting teeth were generally not a problem for most people. In fact, you can actually see a sharp decline in the state of Europeans' teeth after the introduction of sugar.
  • Despite all the talk of how clean Imperial Japan looked, surprisingly the Heian era turned out to be this, at least for the Heian court. Despite the aesthetics of the Heian imperial court, some historians point out that the living conditions would be considered unsanitary by today's standards, rivaling those of the Renaissance period, given that bathing is seldom mentioned but perfume was frequently used.
  • Averted with many of the Celtic cultures, who adored bathing and grooming for both women AND men since the Agent Peacock trope was in full force. Unlike many other mythologies, bathing/grooming is frequently mentioned, manifesting in the prevalence of Outdoor Bath Peeping in folktales. Also, they invented soap. Though it was originally developed to help prevent infection of battlefield wounds and was painfully harsh.
  • Interestingly averted by many Stone Age societies, despite the popular idea of the dirty, ape-like caveman continues, early humans were generally on the go and therefore were less likely to catch diseases from sewage or from rats and roaches. For instance, the Neanderthaler species or subspecies died at around age 40, not because of this trope so much as injuries and starvation. In fact, this trope really began to take off in the past 12,000 years with the rise in cities and urban living.
  • Averted by the civilization at Mohenjo-Daro, one of the first civilizations (if not the first) to have sewer and septic systems, water-supply systems, and even flushing toilets.
  • There are places in the world where this is still Truth in Television to some extent or another, due to lack of water and sewer infrastructure, and lack of toilets in private homes and public buildings. The World Toilet Organization (and several others) are trying to change that.
  • The often-repeated claim that people in medieval Europe drank beer because pure water was too filthy is incorrect. Medieval Europeans got their fresh water from the wells, springs, and rivers close to their towns, which was still not as clean as modern tap water but reasonably potable. Medieval people drank beer (and further south, wine) because everything mankind does is much, much easier if you're ever so slightly drunk. (It was 'slightly' by modern standards; they watered their alcohol down, especially if children were drinking it.)
  • Leonardo da Vinci once designed his "ideal city". One big issue he wanted to solve with this city was the sanitation issues of the European cities of his time, and so the design boasts enough toilets for everyone and round spiral staircases everywhere so there's no corners that people can urinate into.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Dung Ages


Bring Out Your Dead

The Middle Ages portrayed as a very filthy time.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (11 votes)

Example of:

Main / TheDungAges

Media sources: