Some thoughts on some historical myths
The other day someone showed me a Facebook post —because I don't use Facebook— that was talking about a couple of surprising things about medieval times. It was said, for example, that the palace of Versailles had no toilets, and that people therefore threw their waste out of the window. People bathed about twice a year and, therefore, smelled disgusting all the time. And that, in fact, people were fanning themselves, as is usually portrayed, not because of the heat, but because of the bad smell. Haha. Well, the post went on, it was a bit long, with more myths like these. And it had quite a few likes. But, obviously, most of those stories were false, just misleading half-truths like the ones I just told you. The palace of Versailles did have baths, the origin of this myth is that the baths were too few for the people who lived there. It is also not true that they bathed twice a year, they bathed much more often, like once a week, although it is true that due to the plague it was believed that bathing with hot water brought diseases by opening the pores and that is why the baths with water were reduced to a smaller number, but people still did it, and in addition, dirty parts of the body, such as hands, armpits, etc., were cleaned more or less every day. Although there is a very common myth that they smelled bad and that their hygiene was so poor that they lived dirty, usually all these myths are based on a couple of exceptions that we are aware of, but by no means make this the general rule. They had poor hygiene compared to today, but not that poor. People tend to do this a lot, take a single example, and exaggerate things until it seems like a common thing. That happens a lot when talking about history. I mean, we all know the legend that because of the great depression supposedly a lot of investors on Wall Street were jumping off buildings to commit suicide, yet that only happened twice. To say that because it literally happened a couple of times it was common is truly misleading. I can think of multiple similar examples.
So I wonder why people keep believing these kinds of myths. We believe that the people of the past were dumb and unpleasant in some way, and we simply depend so much on the comfort that we have become accustomed to in modern life that we do not imagine it was possible to live well before it. For example, did you know that toilet paper was invented at the end of the 19th century and its use only became massive only at the beginning of the last century? Our grandparents or great-grandparents probably did not use toilet paper for their entire lives. Does this mean that before the last century people did not clean themselves after going to the bathroom because there was no toilet paper? Of course not! They cleaned themselves in other ways, people always find a way, they used newspapers. In fact, this was not totally bad, because they reused the paper after reading it, however, when the first toilet papers were invented, a propaganda campaign was made in which it was said that newspaper ink could cause disease, which it is totally false, and the toilet paper was recommended as healthier. The funny thing is that the first toilet papers were of such poor quality that they brought splinters, which made them not only not better than newspapers, but it was actually worse because they opened the risk of infection.
There are many more myths from the past that make us believe that those people lived in deplorable conditions, unlike us, such as the myth that people today live longer than those of antiquity because of medicine. It is not true, we have records of people in Rome who lived up to one hundred years (obviously these are exceptions, not the rule, but many reached 90, 80, 70 years old), and in some Greek cities like Sparta you could only fulfill political functions after 60 years of age, for example. This whole myth is because life expectancy is higher now than it was then, however, it is somewhat misleading because life expectancy is only an average, i.e. if I die at birth and you live 80 years the life expectancy based on both of us would be 40 years, this makes things difficult because, well, in the past there were more wars and more violent deaths than now, and many people died young, not from diseases, but from those causes, and lowered everyone else's average. But almost all the people who did not go to war, or who survived, which was the vast majority, lived as long as we do now. The reason why we have the perception that our life span is longer now than in the past is due to industrialization, because when people began to leave the countryside to work in the city, the conditions in these industries were so terrible, that the life span of most workers fell dramatically, and this trend only began to change when working conditions began to improve, along with the development of medicine.
So, I would not say that the modern human has a healthier life than the Romans, Greeks, or medievals. In many ways it is worse; because of the junk we eat; because of stress and anxiety; because of having little or no physical activity; because of spending too much time sitting; and many other things. We are not healthier than them, at least not most of us. But we think we are thanks to pills and drugs. And we depend so much on these things that we believe that it is the only way to grow old, and you know that, maybe we are right, maybe that is the only way to grow old if we continue to lead the lifestyle that we currently have. But we must get this idea out of our heads that humans need these drugs in order to live, they don't, if humans lead the right lifestyle they can live long and well without them. Medicine, however good it may be, cannot compensate for our bad habits.
So, perhaps I went on a little longer than usual, however, it was necessary for what I am trying to say. I think we have become so used to the way things are today that it is very difficult for us to look back and understand how people lived before everything was the way it is. That's the reason why there are thousands and thousands of absurd myths about the past. But I think one thing we need to understand is that humans have always been more or less the same, it's not wise to think that people in the past were dumber because there wasn't as much information, or that they smelled bad because there wasn't this obsession with hygiene, or anything similar, I mean, they had noses too, you know, right? They could tell if people smelled bad too, and bad smell generates an immediate reaction in us, so it's unlikely that they just lived with bad smell. It's about common sense.
This also makes me wonder what kind of myths will be invented in the future about us, perhaps if we were to live long enough to know them we would laugh at such nonsense and understand perfectly the situation in which our ancestors find themselves. It's like they say, we need to know history to know ourselves, but we also need to know ourselves to know history, it's funny, I think.
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