English Freedom, Circa 1700


Via Arts & Letters Daily comes this lively Literary Review take by Christopher Hart on Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 1600-1770, by Emily Cockayne:

The personal liberty of every freeborn Englishman and woman to spit, dump and defecate meant considerable misery for everyone. In the streets of London you would stumble over 'the disagreeable Objects of bleeding Heads, Entrails of Beasts, Offals, raw Hides, and the Kennels flowing with Blood and Nastiness'. I never knew that 'Mount Pleasant', near Gray's Inn, was actually a bitterly ironic name for a huge man-made heap of the most nauseous offal and ordure. It is now, of course, home to the Guardian newspaper….

Our Health and Safety goons may be completely deranged with power, but back then, every potter had 'sallow, pale skin due to lead poisoning', while painters had withered limbs and blackened teeth, if any. You may feel a certain nostalgia for the sheer street liveliness and ebullience of our past, so far removed from our own sterile and neurotically manicured townscapes, infested with surveillance cameras and 'community support officers': the open prison that is contemporary England.

Read the whole stinking, and highly entertaining, mess here.

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  1. It may just be me, but the link appears to be broken.

  2. and blackened teeth, if any.

    The more things change……

  3. No it isn’t!

  4. Surely there is a middle ground somewhere between open sewers and the Total Surveillance State?

  5. surely there is a middle ground somewhere between links that work and links that don’t. you need to find that middle ground.

  6. hier


    (note: the doodz from the sports bar polled believed that it was a komnischt plot (cut ’em some slack – they had nearly three bud lights apiece!) to fluoridate our precious bodily fluids.)

    We then had to answer to the coca cola company!

  7. More proof libertarianism is a loony ideology. If you don’t want the SWATters kicking down the door of your penny-ante poker night, you plainly want to claim the right to dump your chamber pot on the sidewalk.

  8. RC Dean – Nope. Obviously not. And it’s our optimism about not needing the government to fulfill this function that keeps you and I drinking unflouridated water that makes our teeth rot in our heads, not to mention the lead poisoning, food poisoning, and exposure to life-threatening medicines that have been “insufficiently tested.”

    (Sorry, sarcasm is apparently a free service on pre-coffee mornings… Available for a limited time only!)

  9. Sensibilities have evolved.
    Humans have learned the benefits of modern sewerage handling. That’s why people in even remote areas install systems for handling waste rather than hauling it out back.
    It’s not necessary to enforce what people prefer.

  10. Not at all. I want to claim the right to send my buxom, indentured Irish chambermaid out in the middle of the night to dump my chamber pot in your street.

  11. Don’t you have to have a sewer system for your city to grow beyond 12 citizens?

  12. Could we have a correlation-causation problem here? The growth of state power directly correlates with the removal of crap from the streets. Must we therefore embrace the nanny because she has taken care of the offal? Or have we just decided we don’t like offal? I think the Londoners’ naming the place Mt Pleasant in a fit of irony might indicate that they saw a problem.

  13. I’ve always been amused by people who romanticise the past.

    Even Roman cities, with their sewer systems and aqueducts, stank of dung and offal. Dying of old age was rare, even in the upper classes. Typhoid & pneumonia were death sentences.

    The countryside was marginally better health-wise, but farm life had its own hazards, like dying from an infected cut from a scythe.

    I may detest over-regulation, but the improvements in health care more than makes up for it.

  14. Aresen,

    Spot on. I’ve often questioned what was so great about the damn Roman Empire. Nice buildings, for the super-rich? Public water via the aqueducts which carried disease? Bathing in contaminated water with 1000 other people? So the barbarians had fleas. Whatever.

    More on point: just before my grandmother, who was born in 1903, died, she told me about the “good old days” She almost spit at me for daring to suggest anything, and I mean anything, might have been better. “I’ve got a titanium & plastic knee that works better than the crap one it replaced,” she said, “screw the good old days!”

  15. But, Aresen, I must return to my point. Have we overcome the vileness of the past because of public health nannies, or just coincidentally with the rise of them?

  16. I’ve always been amused by people who romanticise the past.

    Few people romanticize any past era lock, stock and barrel. Lots of people, however, romanticize certain aspects of the past in an attempt to highlight current deficiencies. There’s nothing odd about that.

  17. Rhywun

    A fair point. Perhaps the nastiness of the past is worthy of contempt, yet the freedom of the past is worthy of mourning?

    Again, do we have a correlation-causation problem?

  18. Albionite

    I honestly don’t see how something like the sewer systems in modern cities could have arisen except as a public works project.

    I may be able to sue my neighbor if his effluent overflows into my yard (or the stench of it makes my house uninhabitable), but it is not practical to have to run to the courts for every person who will not take appropriate measures to dispose of his waste.

    The problem is to balance what is a necessary health measure with an individual’s right to live as he pleases. What was acceptable in the city 100 years ago – the smell of the stable where you kept your horse – is considered an offense against civility – not to mention the law – today. What will 22nd century polite society think of the exhaust from my car?

    Redress through the courts is the traditional libertarian response, but is it feasible?

  19. Aresen

    I have to admit that I agree with you that case-by-case redress through courts is not ideal. Nor do I see how modern sewers could have arisen without state sanction.

    But I have often viewed regulation as a societal “shortcut.” As we evolved, we decided that certain things were impermissable, and rather than attempting to control them case-by-case, we created a legal structure to ban them altogether. Nonetheless, such laws as “murder is illegal,” “stealing is illegal,” “rape is illegal,” never would have come about in the first place had we not agreed that such things were bad for all. These things came to be illegal not because we created a state, but because we became disgusted by them.

    I think the state, per se, is just a way to impose what a majority have already decided to be good, without having to resort to litigation. I am not sure whether, in the absence of the state’s power, we would have created sewers. I think we might have anyway, because we were all sickened by shit in our streets.

    Am I making any sense?

  20. I took a “Philosophy of Human Nature” course once and the professor kept trying out thought experiments in class about how we students would react if transported to certain time periods. Every time called on me, I pointed out I would be dead from a lack of insulin in a few days. He learned to stop calling on me.

  21. SugarFree

    I’m happy you live in a time where your disease can be treated. Just as I’m happy I live in a time when my own physical shortcomings can be treated or dealt with.

    The question is, has the growth of the state created these technological and social advancements, or has the growth of humanity itself created them?

  22. Albionite

    I agree regulation is a shortcut.

    The worst problem with it seems to be that, while it MAY be justifiable for something like sewers, it becomes all too easy to use the same shortcut for something that the majority objects to – say, pornographic sculpture in your yard – but is not an actual injury to their interests.

    Sewage in your yard is a definite health hazard to your neighbors, so the neighbors could sue you in a libertarian society if you refused to take some measure to deal with it. The question then is, so long as you are dealing with your sewage in a way that does not have any risks to your neighbors, do they have the right to demand that you do it their way?

    Another problem is the “pre-existing condition”. I ride horses. The barn where I keep my horse used to be in a rural area, but it is rapidly turning into subdivisions. People who move to the subdivisions then complain about the smell of the horses and their poop on the roads. These conditions existed when the newcomers moved in; should they, now that they are the majority, have the right to demand that the stable be removed/subjected to new regulations?

  23. Aresen

    You have horses? Well done! I used to ride, and even enjoyed the smell of a good stable. Not just the manure, but the scent of horse sweat and straw and leather. It’s been too long. If I could only convince my better half of the value of the country!

    Anyway, where was I? I had a point, I think.

  24. Albionite,

    Like a Chinese restaurant menu, it’s a little from Column A and a little from Column B. Some of our progress is from a stable form of government and some is from individualist achievement. The state should be an honest actor in the support of individual achievement. But too many people put the cart people the horse and worship the state, either from an impulse to control or from a willful blindness that the way things are is not the way things have to be in order for anything to work.

    I think people who believe in an all-encompassing view of society (I’m not suggesting you are), where the definition of “civilized” is the entire web of our society and nothing else, are very dangerous to freedom. The idea that if you rock the boat at all, then it must capsize is very insidious and is a problem of both the left and the right. There a many people (a few on this board) that think if you enjoy any part of the state (roads, libraries, police for personal and property crimes) then you must embrace it all (the War on Drugs, Social Security, insanely high taxes.)

    This is a bizarre notion to me, the idea that society is so delicately balanced that if SWAT teams don’t kill gradmas in the middle of the night, then I don’t get to have insulin.

  25. SugarFree

    Overall, well stated. But let me go into one example you noted: libraries. As we all know, libraries are about to become extinct thanks to technology. When will the state stop taxing us to support them or the sadly sub-human people who have MA’s in some worthless field called “library science”?

    The state, it seems to me, is always very late in addressing problems, and even later in realising solutions. Illiteracy was a problem in the USA for decades after our founding; then the state finally addressed the issue with librarians. Google, et al., have replaced librarians; the state will, I predict, address this issue in 300 years.

  26. Aresen

    Seriously, horses? Fantastic! Call me nostalgic, but I’d rather shovel a horse’s shit than change the oil in a car.

  27. These conditions existed when the newcomers moved in; should they, now that they are the majority, have the right to demand that the stable be removed/subjected to new regulations?

    Don’t know if they should, but I’d bet a $1000 they will. In L.A., where I grew up, all it took was for the second wave of homeowners to move into the relatively cheap subdivisions adjacent to the pre-existing oil refineries.

  28. Albionite,

    You couldn’t possibly know, but my wife and I both have a Masters in Library Science. We’re not so bad once you get to know us.

    Actually, if you’ve never interacted with a university librarian or a public library bigwig then you’ve probably dealt with few people with library science degrees. The people out on the desk are usually divorced housewives or people who couldn’t hack it as school teachers.

    I won’t defend most public library systems (we both work at a university) because they do waste tons of money occasionally, but if you use a public library you can get a fantastic return on your tax money, much more so than schools for kids I never plan to have. But then, the public library only works because so few people use it.

    I’d probably pay more per year than I do in taxes for a private library or just a straight rental store like home video, but the public library is such a small fish in the overall tax scheme of things I don’t get too worked up about it. But don’t get me started on the fucking garbage men…

  29. As we all know, libraries are about to become extinct thanks to technology.

    Maybe a bad example. Around here, at least, the public libraries are adapting quite well. Still lending books, plus videos and other assorted media. Internet access, study areas, children’s story time, and generally taking on the role of community center.

  30. Mike, et al.

    I am beginning to appreciate this point. Libs emphasise “neighbourhood associations” as an alternative to zoning. But yes, what is to stop bastards (i.e., people who hate horses) from surrounding me and then forcing me to clean out my stables? Or stop me playing my music which I was playing quite peacefully before they showed up?

    Of course, the state is even worse at protecting me in these circumstances, unless I have good connections.

  31. Wow! I think I just got creamed by the library lobby.

    In my defense, I do know a number of Masters and Mistresses in LS. And I would submit that your defence–that libaries are becoming community centers–is evidence that your field is no longer necessary in the form it was originally conceived.

  32. Oh, for the days when people knew how to romanticize the past!

  33. Albionite,

    I would like to gently suggest that you are wrong again. I finished my Masters three years ago. We didn’t talk about books at all, much to my consternation. The degree is now about using information technology. We are becoming the user interface side of computer science. Illiteracy may be mostly dead, but computer illiteracy gallops rampant across the land.

    I think there is a legitimate debate to have in libertarian circles about taxation and public libraries, but less and less of MLSs suckle at the public teat. It’s not like we are education majors or something.

  34. Albionite

    Yeah, I got horses in the blood.

    I own a trakhener* and also ride a friend’s anglo-arab.

    That’s why you never see me posting here on Saturdays [unless the weather is so bad that I can’t leave the house.]

    *Trakhener: Imagine a very fit 8 year old. Who weighs 1200 lbs. And has ADD. And has been off his ritalin for 5 days. And has just eaten 4 lbs of Easter candies.

  35. “Horses in the blood” is so going to be on House next season.

  36. Aresen

    I envy you, you bastard.


    Maybe I picked a bad example.

  37. Why is that statists insist on bunk correlations. There is a difference in 18th century knowledge and knowledge now. It’s interesting that they never use slavery when they are counting the blessings of erstwhile government.

    Hell, you can take a look at America during the New Deal and Great Society and look what followed it.

    Besides, I would think it was the fringe of the movement that would argue that sanitation couldn’t be a valid function of government as long as the market isn’t denied entry (private waste management, bottled watter, that sort of thing)

  38. Returning to romanticizing the past:

    Libertarians seem just as prone to it as anyone else. We may resent the growth of taxes and state control of the economy, but we tend to forget that women had to get their husbands’ signatures to have a bank account, that blacks couldn’t stay in most hotels, that Chinese had to pay a tax just to come here, and that Americans and Canadians could be thrown into concentration camps just for being descended from Japanese.

    This is not to say we shouldn’t resist the growth of statism; I’m just pointing out that there are things which have gotten better as well.

  39. Great. Now every time someone writes “libertarian” I see “librarian”.

  40. Take out 3 more letters and you get “libran.”

    I’m a capricorn.

  41. Albionite-

    I’m with you; in this part of the world, “Head Librarian” is apparently shorthand for”Self-Aggrandizing Commie Pyramid Architect.”

  42. SACPA.

    nah. too hard to say.

  43. “The Voluntary City” by Beito, Gordon, and Tabarrok gives a very good accounting of the various ways the private sector has and does provide infrastructure. The big lesson I came away with is that just because “I” can’t imagine how something might be done on a large scale in modern times, that doesn’t mean that a non-coercive, free market solution doesn’t exist. Furthermore, I know government has a long history of pointing at progress and taking credit for it based on government regulations. On examination, progress from the time the regulations are implemented seldom exceeds or even matches progress prior to implementation.

  44. Now every time someone writes “libertarian” I see “librarian”.

    I’m so turned on by that.

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