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Dirt or development?

British air is too dirty, the newspapers reported this week.

But who decides what is dirty? As a historian, I see norms of cleanliness shift over the centuries. What is more, I see some of the roots of current norms going back to the nineteenth century or beyond.

According to anthropologist Mary Douglas, dirt is ‘matter out of place’.

In the case of British air, that matter is nitrogen dioxide. And it is out of place because it should not leave car exhausts in such great quantities as it does, building up in our cities. At least, that is the opinion of the European Commissioner for the Environment, who is about to sue Britain for breaching EU legislation. Environmental NGOs like Client Earth agree. They even have the UK Supreme Court on their side.

Yet local and national governments are failing to implement the legislation. Clearly, their norms and priorities differ from those who want to see British cities cleaned up immediately.

Charles Marville, Parisian rue des Francs-bourgeois-Saint-Marcel, mid-19th-century. Digital version from Paris Secret et Insolite

Picturesque or dirty? Charles Marville photographed the Parisian rue des Francs-bourgeois-Saint-Marcel in the course of Haussmann’s improvement project of the mid-19th-century. Digital version from Paris Secret et Insolite

In my work, I find similar conflicts over what matter is ‘out of place’. Take the case of early-nineteenth-century Dutch travellers. The place where they lived contained hardly any steam engines as yet, and little industry that might blow out polluting particles, when compared to Belgium or Britain in the same period. The Dutch economy ran largely on cows and sailing ships: two things which, although involving a certain amount of smelliness, did not usually concentrate in the streets of their cities.

So when Dutch travellers visited foreign towns, they were not so concerned with smoking chimneys. What they found dirty instead were unpaved roads, dust and mud. Indoors, matters were even worse as they encountered stuffy rooms which occupants kept the windows shut while smoking pipes or even keeping animals in the same space. Where other people felt snug and homy, these travellers felt sick.

On a typical stroll through an Italian city, they complained about streets being ‘[n]arrow, close, irregular, steep and crooked […] The heat […] was unbearable […] The smell, fuming towards me from the black, dirty, six-story high houses, I found insufferable [and I found] grimy rags [hung out] to dry’.

All in all, these travellers associated dirt with a lack of civilisation. In the undeveloped state in which much of Europe remained, according to these Netherlanders, matter had not yet found its way to the right places. Medieval alleys had not yet been straightened out, gutters not been cleared, ventilation shafts in houses not yet constructed. Nothing moved, everything was stuck.

This nineteenth-century ideal of movement and progress is oddly reminiscent of the behaviour of many governments today. Still thinking in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century terms, they like to see things move. They focus narrowly on economic growth, but do not invest in infrastructures that would make this growth a (literally) healthy one.

Of course, this has also much to do with the historical growth of an energy and transport sector that depends heavily on internal-combustion engines. This sector, and those parts of western governments that rely on it financially, have become entrenched: they resist the investments necessary for a shift towards different forms of energy storage (such as water reservoirs) and more efficient forms of releasing this energy (such as public rail transport).

Their public expressions of what is dirty and what is not have by now become pretty old-fashioned. If we follow their norms, the nitrogen dioxide in our streets is not matter out of place at all. It is precisely where it should be, and the sign of a roaring economy.

This text was published earlier on University of Sheffield’s History Matters, in slightly altered form.

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The artist’s arrogance (hidden)

In a previous post, I noted the arrogance some writers display in their works. But many writers in fact do the very opposite. They exhaust themselves in protestations of modesty.

My lack of skill and experience prevents me from setting forth an exquisite narrative in learned language. But the power of heartfelt love more strongly commands us not to be puffed up with vain glory and simply bring the truth to light.

These sentences introduce a medieval Saint’s biography – the ‘Life of Lady Balthild the Queen‘. This Saint’s Life, or hagiography as it is called, deals with the piety, miracles and suffering of a seventh-century slave-turned-queen. She ended her days on earth in a monastery near Paris. Probably, it was one of her fellow nuns who put down her story in writing. This anonymous nun realised perfectly well that her writing would constitute an act of arrogance. However, contrary to Multatuli and Karl May she made this arrogance magically disappear.

The Abbaye de Chelles in 1688

The Abbaye de Chelles in 1688, where Balthild and her hagiographer lived. Reproduction by Achille Peigné-Delacourt in the co-edited Monasticon gallicanum, found on leseglises.chelles.fr/lieu/batiment/histoire-des-eglises.

It was not just a medieval or Christian demand for modesty that made this nun talk of her ‘lack of skill’. For modesty does not ‘veil’ all early-medieval writing. One very famous Christian writer of about that time (admittedly, two centuries earlier) wrote:

To those who do not understand what is here set down, my answer is, that I am not to be blamed for their want of understanding. It is just as if they were anxious to see the new or the old moon, or some very obscure star, and I should point it out with my finger: if they had not sight enough to see even my finger, they would surely have no right to fly into a passion with me on that account. [… They] had better give up blaming me, and pray instead that God would grant them the sight of their eyes.

This is Augustine of Hippo, in a book that explains how one should read the Bible.

Modesty has always been considered a great good in Christian writing. Yet for Christian women, it was not just a good way to write – it was the only way. And so we find women in the nineteenth century, the century that I am most familiar with as an historian, still holding back from writing and publishing, and especially from writing and publishing about their own lives: an inhibition that the male Multatuli has clearly overcome. See, for example, the recent articles by Toos Streng on ‘Female Novel Writers in Netherland, 1790-1899’ and Marijke Huisman on ‘Religion, Gender and Autobiographical Autorship in the Nineteenth Century’ in the journal De negentiende eeuw. Also see Virginia Woolf’s seminal essay A Room of One’s Own. In chapter 3, she describes Judith Shakespeare, William’s imagined sister.

Perhaps she scribbled some pages up in an apple loft on the sly, but was careful to hide them or set fire to them.

I am not saying that all women in Christian history were modest and the men presumptious – that would not at all be in line with the facts. But women who wrote were much more vulnerable to accusations of immodesty, of arrogance, than their male counterparts. This must have kept many women from writing at all. It induced other women to garb their ideas in a profusion of apologies, excuses and legitimations – a greater profusion on average than it made men.

One such ‘excuse’ forms a well-worn topos in literary history. This is the emphasis on ‘truth’. The ‘heartfelt love’ (for Christ, presumably) brings the anonymous biographer of Saint Balthild to ‘bring the truth to light’. The urge to let ‘the truth’ be known makes her overcome her initial reluctance to write. Yet this excuse is in fact a clever trick. She secures her modest image while at the same time conveying that the truth and urgency of her story must be so strong that there is no escaping telling it. And there is no escaping listening to it.

All this brings us back again to Augustine of Hippo. For without playing the trick of combining truth and modesty, he nevertheless invokes the same authority of heavenly truth as our anonymous nun. Their ‘love’ of ‘truth’ even connects them directly to Karl May and Multatuli. In their writings, too, the truth finds its way out against all odds: ‘I will forever keep on showing you the truth!’

In a next episode I hope to further nuance and historicise what I set up in these posts.

The translations I use are by JoAnn McNamara, John E. Halborg and Gordon Whatley (Sainted Women of the Dark Ages (1992)) and Marcus Dods (A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (1987)).