Up Betimes And To The Office

Things continue apace.

I am reading the diary of Samuel Pepys, which is really interesting, needless to say. It’s also incredibly boring, which in itself is sort of interesting too. He set himself the task of writing in his diary every day, and he did so for ten years, from the age of like 30 to 40 or thereabouts. He was a naval administrator living in London in the 17th century. And the vast majority of the diary is just the tedious repetition of the same daily events, over and over again. “Up betimes and to the office where all the day with my papers, then home much wearied, and to my office to set papers in order there, then home to dine and to bed.” Over and over and over again.

Periodically things are livened up, for example by the Great Fire of London, when half the city burned down and Pepys was running around telling the King about everything and worrying about his parmesan cheeses, which ultimately he buried in the garden to save from fire. Or for example he lived in London during the great plague of 1665-66 in which maybe 3/4 of the city perished, and he writes a lot about that. In fact, those are the two volumes I got–the plague and the fire–as there’s no way I’m reading all 12 volumes or whatever.

Pepys’s diary, due to the vagaries of time, ended up being one of the most important historical documents from this period, simply because it’s so comprehensive and it happened to survive intact. So not only is it basically the most detailed firsthand account of things like the fire and the plague, it also includes an insane amount of super boring data that can be cross-referenced with other documents of the time in order to find out, like, how much money the King had loaned somebody Pepys is complaining about, or which ship was sunk by the Dutch on which day, etc.

Things are also often livened up by the kind of mundane daily-life details that are delightful either because they are a window into a world so wholly alien from our own that we can’t believe it, OR for the opposite reason–that they give us glimpses of how similar we still are to our ancestors in some way.

When I first got volume six I opened it AT RANDOM and saw this:

So homeward, in my way buying a hare and taking it home–which arose upon my discourse today with Mr. Batten in Westminster-hall–who showed me my mistake, that my hares-foot hath not the joynt to it, and assures me he never had his cholique since he carried it about him. And it is a strange thing how fancy works, for I no sooner almost handled his foot but my belly begin to be loose and to break wind; and whereas I was in some pain yesterday and t’other day, and in fear of more today, I became very well, and so continue.

which is about how rubbing his friend’s magic rabbit’s foot gave him the farts.

It turns out he writes a lot about the farts, as he suffers from what sounds like gas but could be any number of horrible 17th century ailments. Like most of us, Pepys is very interested in the workings of his own body. He develops elaborate ideas about what external elements cause internal disorder. For example, he thinks that sitting with his back to the fire makes it hurt when he has to pee; he thinks wearing too many clothes in the wintertime gives him gas; and he thinks drinking this weird sour beer makes him barf, which is probably true. He also talks a lot about his “testicles,” which is jarring because for us period imagery is usually so whitewashed–historical dramas don’t really show us the rotten teeth and fleas, and they present historical subjects as super uptight and proper. When really what you learn when you start actually reading historical documents is that everyone–EVERYONE–is always thinking about boners and people’s bad breath and everything else you’d expect.

And anyway, it seems fair to be worried about your testicles in the 17th century! Especially when you learn that Pepys himself had actually survived SURGERY to remove kidney stones. He’s so relieved to have survived that he throws a “stones party” every year on the anniversary of the surgery, and he invites as an honored guest the woman whose house the surgery was performed in.

So you can imagine how he felt when, having sat with his back to the fire, stupidly, he develops a great pain in his back that moves to his testicle, and then in the morning while passing water two stones come plopping out. He’s as euphoric as you can get in your diary when you’re a 17th century naval administrator. There’s also this:

Thence to my office late, my cold troubling me and having, by squeezing myself in a coach, hurt my testicles; but I hope I will cease its pain without swelling.

Which is so funny because for YEARS we have had a joke about my old man “sitting on his balls” because it happened one time when he was getting into a car. Now I find that the great Samuel Pepys did it in 1666! Timeless testicle problems!

He is also a sort of terrible person, although it’s hard to judge such things so far in the past; it’s possible he was a very ordinary sort of person for his time but because of things like feminism and child abuse laws we now see him as a monster. He devotes great chunks of the diary to his amorous exploits, for example, which he narrates in an irritating French-English hybrid clearly intended to be sort of debonair and charming, and many of which frankly sound like straight-up rapes:

and it being dark, did privately entrer en la maison de la femme de Bagwell, and there I had sa compagnie, though with a great deal of difficulty; nĂ©anmoins, enfin je avais ma volontĂ© d’elle

which means, like, he went in to Mrs. Bagwell’s house and had “her company” (a euphemism), though with a great deal of difficulty (meaning struggle); nevertheless, finally he had his way with her.


The next day, in fact, he writes: “Up, and to the office (having a mighty pain in my forefinger of my left hand, from a strain that it received last night in struggling avec la femme que je mentioned yesterday)”

He is also forever beating his servants. Again, though, I assume this was fully normalized at the time. Not to excuse people in the past–there is no more irritating rejoinder to observations of historical racism than “that’s just the way it was back then”–but, well, sometimes that IS just the way it was back then, which doesn’t excuse it or make it “good” but does mean that an individual practitioner of racism/sexism/etc. isn’t a “monster,” like an unusually bad man, but just a denizen of his time. Still, the cute Frenchy rape scene does rankle, as does all the rote description of watching animal torture down at the local science academy. People basically are terrible and always have been, I guess is the takeaway.

I also have this really intense interest in historical bathing/bathroom customs (such that my students are always sending me emails from their adventures abroad and I would say 80% of them concern toilets they see in museums. “I knew you’d like this!!!”) so you can imagine my delight when I discover that the volume of Pepys I’m reading happens to include one of the only mentions he ever makes of BATHING. Apparently his wife at one point hasn’t left the house in weeks (great example of something you’d love more information on but he doesn’t think to give this information, because for him it’s obvious and boring why a wife would not step outside for 6 weeks, whereas to us it’s like, what was she DOING in there??) and then finally to much fanfare she goes down the street to a bathhouse and bathes. This was an unusual enough occurrence that Pepys actually devotes a pretty big chunk of an entry to it. He also says the next day that he had to sleep alone, because his wife, having bathed, slept in a different bed, so he was cold all night. Does this mean that she came home all clean and was like “I’m not sleeping next to your dirty smelly body”? Because the next day he says that because his wife bathed, now he has to bathe, and so he does so, with warm water in the kitchen.

It’s amazing to think about how filthy everyone was. They were all as chronically, deeply filthy as homeless people today, I think. You know how the dirt and grime gets caked in to the crevices of the skin, and the body odor is so beyond anything you’ve ever experienced personally, like it’s the smell of a body that hasn’t changed clothes in a year, and that body has been sweating and drying out and getting a fever and sleeping in dirt for all that time. I think they did wash their clothes, but hardly ever, and they essentially never washed their bodies. Alain Corbin’s book about smell in historical France has tons of stuff about how they thought drafts and wetness caused all kinds of sicknesses–they thought bathing MADE YOU SICK. So culturally it was like BATHING was what was sort of gross, not dirt and grime and odor.

It makes you think though, about bacteria and health. With all the stuff scientists are just now starting to realize about bacteria and how much bacteria we need in and on our bodies all the time, and how antibiotics are going to lead to some heinous plague because none of us have the full bacteria complex we’re supposed to have anymore, it really makes you think about medieval people, Renaissance people, and their filthy, flea-infested, disgusting bodies. Maybe they weren’t so disgusting, is my point. Maybe they had super robust microbiomes and they actually inhabited that amazing place you supposedly get to if you stop using any soap or shampoo. Like that girl who stopped using soap and instead covered herself every day with bacteria powder, and then eventually it was like she’d never looked better in her life, her skin cleared up and started glowing, her hair got beautiful and shiny and soft, etc. So maybe when we think 17th century people reeked horribly and had horrible breath, maybe we only think that because that’s what WE would smell like if we suddenly stopped using all our products. But maybe if you never had those products in the first place, you actually wouldn’t be THAT disgusting.

Definitely they were disgusting in the sense of living with fleas and lice, and their clothes being filthy and disgusting, but I just wonder about actual body odor/bad breath/etc. There’s no question their microbiomes were 100 times healthier than ours, so what would that mean, what would that look/smell like, in day-to-day terms? I would love to know.

Two things have been really striking to me, as I’ve been reading this thing. The first is that it’s incredible to get this window into an earlier form of capitalist life. The monetization of labor, primitive accumulation, the enclosure of the commons, all of these incredible changes characterizing the transition from feudalism to capitalism were so much closer to Pepys, historically, than they are to us. And yet already in this diary you see a man fully entrenched in the ideological network of capitalism. He returns again and again to pondering his net worth and giving gratitude to God for helping him rise from a lowly clerk to someone who now is actually drawing money out of the Exchequer. He values everything in terms of money. For example, at one point someone brings a pocket watch to his house as a gift, trying to buy his favor, and at first he’s annoyed, but then when he has the watch valued he finds that it’s worth a lot more than he thought, so then he’s pleased and takes the watch to be cleaned and repaired. His self-worth is very much tied up in how much he’s worth, in monetary terms. And there are these moments where for example he goes and gets fitted for a silk suit, the finest, most expensive clothing he’s ever owned, and he writes about it in almost spiritual terms–how in awe he is of this silk suit, yet how he knows he deserves it because he’s just done his tallies and discovered how much money he has, and he can’t believe he’s become this great of a man. Fascinating.

The second, and perhaps more interesting, thing that’s struck me is that this is a diary written before the Romantic Era, and it’s actually INCREDIBLE to see that historical difference in play in someone’s actual intellectual experience of the world around him.

I think today, almost anyone who started a diary would be thinking of it primarily as a place for recording inner thoughts and feelings. For Pepys though, it is very much a place to record data and details. There are feelings and observations in it, but my point is that there is NOTHING poetic. There is not even a faint smidgen of an aesthetic consciousness–even though he loves plays and music! He’s not a money-counting robot! But he uses no metaphors whatsoever; he never pauses to muse upon anything in aesthetic terms. He’s not saying the smoke from the fire rose up into the air like a great dragon, he’s not writing down all his dreams, he’s not describing the Thames glinting in the first sunny day of spring, he’s not wondering about what people were like 100 years ago, he’s not IMAGINING anything. It’s all observation and data. He walked to town because there was a hard frost; the next day he had to take a coach because the frost melted. He beat his servant because she did wrong. He said this to the King. He ate this for dinner. At most he’ll be like “a very good dinner.” Even his horrible sexual exploits are narrated in this peculiarly data-driven way. He had his hand up her skirts. He got one kiss and then one more but then she made him leave. He’s not, like, describing her hair or her fine eyes or the way her body makes him feel. He’s not comparing her to a summer’s day.

Everyone knows that Shakespeare wasn’t universally beloved/revered until the Romantic Era, and I think it’s this sort of thing that made them revive him at that time. Shakespeare’s all bloody eyeballs and poetic metaphors and comparisons and emotional intensity, at a time when I think your average person didn’t really prioritize thinking in that way. I may be wrong as I’m kind of just making this up, but I just find it really striking, Pepys’s lack of all the styles of writing we now associate with a “diary.”

It’s crazy to think about inhabiting a pre-Romantic subjectivity. So much of what we take for granted in our lives was really not common until like 1850. Our love of individuality and personal freedom; our aesthetic sensibility; our conception of “childhood” as a special time needing to be nurtured in a certain way; the way we decide how to value art and artists; it’s really all coming from such a short time ago, relatively speaking. I find that amazing and humbling. Did Samuel Pepys not NOTICE the Thames glinting in the sunlight, or would it just have seemed odd to him to write it down, like, who cares? I would love to know.

I’ve got a million things to do, from the grand (send out book proposal; write article) to the minute (get pants hemmed; buy boxes). I’m plugging away at it all. Up betimes and to the office.

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One Response to Up Betimes And To The Office

  1. Alex says:

    I got really itchy reading this.

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