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If you thought that history was all about kings and queens and political leaders, this book, which accompanied a TV series of the same name, first broadcast in 2004, will give you an alternative perspective. Tony Robinson sheds light on what he refers to as "life in the underbelly of history", telling the stories of the ordinary working men and women from different eras who toiled away behind the scenes in jobs that were dangerous, tedious, exhausting, smelly and definitely not for the squeamish.
These people never made the history books, but they were vital cogs in the wheels of society. Without them, the country would have come to a standstill. As Tony succinctly puts it: "Behind all the great men and women who made the headlines has been an unseen army doing all the really hard, dangerous and unpleasant work."
The information in the book is arranged chronologically, beginning with the Roman invasion and ending with the reign of Queen Victoria. I found this a useful format, as it meant that I could easily refer to a period of history that I had a specific interest in. It isn't a book that needs to be read in any particular order, which makes it great for dipping in and out of in a relaxed, informal way. It is written in a conversational, witty, easy-reading style. Tony is quick to point out that he isn't comfortable with the term 'social history' because of its dry, studious, statistical connotations and instead he has produced a book which manages to be both entertaining and informative, painting colourful and often graphic pictures of the people who have been rendered virtually invisible and doomed to anonymity by the pages of traditional history books.
The author has also included timelines throughout the book, which record key historical events and inventions that had a major impact on the lives of working people. This is a useful feature and enables the reader to access interesting details at a glance. There are also lots of illustrations in the form of artwork from the specific periods (and photos for the Victorian chapter) and extracts from contemporary documents. The book ends with a fun multi-choice quiz, in the form of a career guide, which will tell you which 'worst job' you are best suited to.
The Underbelly of History
As I explored this book, it certainly made me feel as if I was uncovering hidden history and that the famous names in the history books of my school days only provide part of the story. For instance, there is a section dealing with the miserable conditions endured by the men who sailed in Admiral Nelson's navy. In the Victorian section Robinson describes the hard and dangerous working conditions of the navvies who built the railways which defined the age. The book also refers to the beautiful buildings that have become part of our heritage and the little-known people who were responsible for their construction. Most of us have heard of Sir Christopher Wren, the architect who designed St Paul's Cathedral, but the name of James Thornhill is less well known. Commissioned in 1715 to paint the inside of the dome of St Paul's, he worked for 2 years at terrifying heights with ineffective scaffolding and little natural light, battling vertigo, discomfort and freezing cold conditions.
There are countless other examples of the 'unseen armies' at work, carrying out back-breaking, boring or disgusting tasks that allowed 'history' as we know it to be made . We all know about the technical and engineering advances made by the Romans, but how many of us have ever given a thought to the unfortunate individual whose job it was to crawl around in pitch darkness, cleaning out the pipes so that the Romans could enjoy their under floor heating? (If you think that was an unpleasant job, imagine being a 'puke collector' after an over-indulgent Roman banquet!) Here are a few other aspects of the book that I found particularly interesting.
A Knight's less than shining armour
When we read about famous battles of the Middle Ages, such as Agincourt, we undoubtedly think of brave, chivalric knights, but this book reveals that behind every knight was a lowly arming squire, whose job it was not only to clean off the blood and mud on the outside of the knight's armour after battle but all the sweat from the inside as well - (plus any other unpleasant body fluids, given that lengthy battles allowed no time for toilet breaks!) Tony Robinson shows that there was a lot of arduous, messy work going on that shatters our often-romanticised view of The Age of Chivalry and it made me realise just how distorted our perceptions of history can be.
To be or not to be - (Better not to be an actor in Tudor times)
Ordinary working people suffered for the arts. Although the Elizabethan era was a golden age for the theatre, being an actor was certainly not a glamorous profession in the way that it is viewed today. Women were forbidden to act at all, so female parts had to be played by young boys, with all the joys of being squeezed into corsets. Not only were there serious fire hazards as a result of the illumination in the theatres, but the lead-based stage makeup was toxic. If that wasn't bad enough, dresses were not stitched but pinned together. A ruff could contain up to 200 pins and it could take 5 hours of pinning to dress an actor.
Nude Modelling in the 18th century
British art flourished in the Georgian era with the paintings of Gainsborough, Hogarth, Constable and others but in order for painters to perfect their techniques, artists' models were required. These models were often required to adopt a classical pose, stark naked, and hold that pose for hours. To help them maintain the pose, they were often tethered with ropes from the ceiling. So next time you admire a piece of 18th and 19th century art, spare a thought for the person who shivered in the cold and no doubt suffered excruciating cramps.
Some jobs needed real guts
Next time you hear some charming Baroque music, remind yourself that in the 17th century violin strings were made from a sheep's lower intestines. Tony Robinson sums up this nasty job of the string maker when he says: "Stradivarius gets all the attention, but he never had to pull a sheep's rectum out backwards."
Why I love this book
What I particularly like about the style of this book is that Tony Robinson is keen to remind us that squeamishness is something of a modern luxury and therefore the jobs he describes have to be seen in context. To our ancestors, a bit of muck, boredom or danger was not perhaps the big deal it seems to us today. As long as people got paid, that was what mattered. In our cosseted world, it is hard to imagine a situation where, if you didn't get paid for work, your whole family starved. Tony effectively helps us to guard against judging things by 21st century standards.
I like the way that many of the historical topics we learned at school are there, but they are looked at from a new perspective. For example, Tony uses the Gunpowder Plot as a starting point for a discussion of the job of saltpetre men, who collected human waste for its nitrate content to make into gunpowder. He also explores The Great Plague from the point of view of the various grim employment opportunities it brought.
I was impressed by the variety of documents that are included in the book, to help illustrate particular points - newspaper articles, bills of mortality, extracts from Samuel Pepys' diaries, workhouse census returns etc as well as references to works of literature that touch on key themes in employment history, such as the boy chimney sweeps in Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies, and the leech collector in William Wordsworth's poem, Resolution and Independence.
From 'nit pickers' who cleaned infested wigs in the 17th century, to chimney sweeps, from sedan chair bearers to Gong scourers (the Tudor equivalent of a Dyno-Rod man) this book will tell you things you never knew. To be fair, it will also tell you things that you probably didn't want to know if you don't have a particularly strong stomach. However, it will certainly make you reassess your definition of 'a rotten job.'
It goes without saying that this book is not for the faint hearted. Sections dealing with the job of an executioner in Tudor times or a medieval barber surgeon do not spare us the gory details. I do find it bizarre that in the Middle Ages barbers were qualified to shave your beard, cut your hair or chop off your leg! Although I am quite fascinated by early medical methods and was intrigued by accounts of blood letting and leeches, I did feel a bit squeamish when I read about an early form of colonic irrigation involving a pig's bladder filled with a herbal concoction and a metal pipe greased with lard!
The book sheds some light on the origins of many of our popular words and phrases, which is something I always find interesting, such as 'learning the ropes' and 'square meals'. The section at the end of the book, 'What's in a name?' looks at surnames that describe occupations. Whilst some are obvious, such as Baker and Gardiner, some are less so. I was surprised to learn that a 'farmer' was originally a term for a tax collector.
An interesting and entertaining read. If it wasn't for the less than fragrant subject matter, I would be tempted to say this book was a 'breath of fresh air.' However, it suffices to say that it is a history book with a difference.