A Quick Fix To Improve Your Historical Drama, Fast: The Thing About The Past Is People Still Liked Being Clean
As a rule, it’s safe to assume that regardless of the time period your book/movie/TV show is set in, people generally like to be clean.
That doesn’t mean they’ve always shared modern hygienic standards or technologies, obviously.
But the last fifty years’ worth of media has done plenty to stress that pre-modern societies were a little gross, by contemporary sensibilities.
Think back to how many shows you’ve seen where somebody dumped a bucket of effluvium out the window in a background shot, just as a reminder of how gross the past was!
Even the Muppets did it in A Muppet Christmas Carol (someone tosses a bucket of banana peels out of a window in the opening number).
It was probably a reasonable reaction to the elaborate, rose-tinted historical adaptations like Ivanhoe and King Richard and the Crusaders of the ‘40s and ‘50s but at this point we’ve overcorrected and need to swing back in the other direction.
You don’t have to pretend that tanners were taking daily hot showers in the 11th century, that’s not what I’m saying.
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But why not show an 11th-century tanner appreciatively wiping off some grime and changing their shirt at the end of a long tanning shift,
Instead of saying something like, “I had a bath last year!!” and spitting directly into the camera.
Not to be all “Medieval peasants — they’re just like us!” but I think there’s value in using consideration and discretion when deciding when to highlight the differences and the similarities between the past and the present
You’re never going to perfectly recreate the past but why not try to depict something relatively new, instead of repeating something you already expect to see?
I always remember that toothbrushing scene from Shakespeare in Love (which also had plenty of gross-out moments where extras tossed garbage out of their windows)! It was so delightful and fascinating; I always want to know how people tried to keep clean at different points in history. It’s fun to watch!
There is sometimes pleasure in being gross, and there is sometimes pleasure in getting clean. The pleasure that can be found in grossness is sometimes repulsive; the pleasure that can be found in getting clean is sometimes exhausting. There is a wealth of experiences to be excavated therein! No more buckets out of windows; we have seen them too often. If you want to communicate grossness without dullness, you must find another image.
At the very least, why not show someone cleaning the bucket?
After all, somebody had to do it.