Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 1600–1770

Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 1600-1770 BY Emily Cockayne. Yale University Press. Hardcover, 352 pages. $35.

The cover of Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 1600-1770

As its subtitle indicates, Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 1600–1770 is about the dirtiness, clamor, and odor of seventeenth- and eighteenthcentury urban England. It is also about dentistry, furniture, food, hygiene, houses, sewage, and hair. Framed as an investigation of “how people were made to feel uncomfortable by other people” in London, Oxford, Bath, and Manchester, Emily Cockayne’s book succeeds in bringing the overlooked and sometimes downright disgusting details of the period to life without, unfortunately, ever revealing what the upshot of such discomfort might have been. Divided into eight main parts—“Ugly,” “Itchy,” “Mouldy,” “Noisy,” “Grotty,” “Busy,” “Dirty,” “Gloomy”—Hubbub compiles an abundance of information from diaries, newspapers, letters, and municipal documents in a form that reads (for better or worse) more like a reference book than an interpretation of the period. Though Cockayne at times hints at larger themes that emerge from the source material (such as the differences between the living conditions of rich and poor, how sensory expectations were socially constructed, and the growing romanticization of rural idylls and the recent past), she resolutely refuses to abandon the particular for the general. And while her compilation of documentary evidence and her nonnarrative approach may offer a more “authentic” mode of history writing, they can, at times, leave the reader wondering why or how these details signify in a larger sociopolitical context, or even how certain topics relate to the chapters in which they are discussed. For instance, “Itchy” contains a section on skin complaints—and intestinal parasites, body odor, bad breath, and tooth decay.

Nevertheless, in its presentation of the particular, Hubbub is an engaging read. Cockayne, a lecturer at the Open University in Britain, not only appears fascinated by her material but clearly revels in the language of the period. One of the book’s strengths is the insight it offers into the lively rhetoric of various journalists, diarists, and chroniclers— both more familiar (Samuel Pepys, Ned Ward, Margaret Cavendish, Anthony à Wood, Robert Hooke) and less (Dudley Ryder, John Wood, Mary Chandler).

Whether Hubbub is best described as a history of the senses or of the body, or as a microstudy of daily life, it compiles— and, with the help of the index, even organizes— an impressive amount of research. Though general readers may be frustrated by the somewhat arbitrary thematic organization and the lack of narrative, scholars studying the period and those interested in immersing themselves in the sometimes “rusty-fusty-dusty” aspects of living in an early-modern city should be amply informed and discomforted.