The Magazine

Stink for England

The assault on the senses in early modern Britain.

Jul 9, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 40 • By DAVID AIKMAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

"Noisy," in fact, is another chapter heading. England's city streets were a constant cacophony of street hawkers, hammers banging metal, and the squealing of pigs, who often rutted wild through the waste and offal in the street. A Hogarth illustration in the book, "The Enraged Musician," depicts a violinist attempting to practice while looking out of an open window on an alleyway filled with sources of noise that must have made his heart sink: a bawling baby, cawing cat, chirping parrot, piper playing his pipe, barking dog, and the screeching of a knife-sharpener's wheel.

In one use of animals that will strike the 21st-century sensibility as particularly cruel, cats were sometimes used as parts of a musical instrument, their bodies held in place in a piano-like contraption and their cries--elicited by a spike being driven through their tails--tuned to a certain required pitch. Traffic through the city streets was another source of noise, with draft animals often neighing or hooting. Then there were nightly revelers (often students in university towns) whose alcoholic forays were every bit as binge-like as they are supposed to be on college campuses today. In some cities, there were ordinances against beating wives after 9:00 P.M.: It interrupted the sleep of other citizens.

This volume is a useful corrective to unrealistic modern suppositions about urban life in jolly old England as a frolicsome idyll of handsome beaux and Jane Austen heroines. Many of the inhabitants of its pages are curmudgeonly grouches, and even some of their complaints will strike modern readers as unrealistic outrage at--well, life itself in the 18th century. Cockayne dwells almost lovingly on some of the more grotesque uglinesses of daily life in that era, and the reader is left wondering if the main purpose of the book isn't a tad voyeuristic. Perhaps it would have been useful to narrate a little of the processes by which urban life was, indeed, made more pleasant in urban England after her chronological cutoff date of 1770. But at bottom--so to speak--Hubbub is revelatory and as amusing as its author, who is described on her agent's website as living "with her busy husband and noisy daughter in an ugly house in Nottinghamshire."

David Aikman, senior fellow at the Trinity Forum, is writer-in-residence at Patrick Henry College.