The sexy side of time travel

posted in: Life and things | 17
Catherine’s Palace St Petersburg

Time travel has been a popular topic in fiction for a very long … well… time. All of us could come up with a heap of examples, starting with HG Wells’ Time Machine and including the Back to the Future trilogy, episodes from Star Trek etc etc etc. It seems to be very common in the Scottish Highlander romance mythos, Regency… you name it.

Sure, it’s fun to read about it, but would you really want to do it? Especially the romance bit.

Tell you what, you can have my seat. No, really. Yes, miss out on the dishy Highlander, naked except for his kilt, rippling abs bared to the world.

Don’t look at me like that. I have my reasons.

Modern baths

Unless you’re talking about heathen countries like Japan, bathing wasn’t a big deal in the middle ages. You’d find very few bathrooms (meant as a place to bathe, not a toilet) in European palaces, let alone a more common house. I LOVE my morning shower, folks. With hot water.

Sewerage systems

Relieving oneself is something (unlike bathing) that Humans have always had to do every day. Flushing toilets and sewers are modern inventions. Back in the day, you used a garde robe or a potty if you were flash, and if you weren’t, well you might use a latrine. If not, a bush would do. What did you do with the potty when it was full? Chucked it out on the street, what else? Remember that scene from Shakespeare in Love? Geoffrey Rush dodging out of the way of a potty full of…? It’s true.


Go back more than a few hundred years and you’d have trouble understanding a word anybody said. It’s hard enough to understand a Scot today, let alone what they spoke back then.


Given the above, that’s obvious, isn’t it? But it gets better than that. You know those elaborate hairdos the ladies at Versaille wore? They were set in place with animal fat and tended to attract an assortment of insects. Apparently, scratching with a special stick was permissible. Same with the men. Rats liked to nibble on pig fat treated hair, like braids. And washing of clothes? Are you kidding me? With all those sequins and lace and ribbons? And while we’re at it, modern dentistry wasn’t top of the list, either. No tooth brushes and mouth wash back in the olden days. Halitosis was, without a doubt, King!


You might well be okay drinking the water from the pristine springs of the Highlands etc but water in the cities wasn’t a great idea. See the entries on modern plumbing and sewerage systems. Take a city like Amsterdam, famous for its beautiful canals. That’s where they dumped the sewage. The canals are opened once a day to ‘flush’ the system. This still happens. And… um… they used that same water in the over one hundred breweries that made beer. Maybe the yeast and hops killed the bugs. You may have noticed that in medieval times people drank a lot of wine, beer, cider, mead. It was safer than the water.


What with all the rats, mice, bugs etc, diseases tended to be endemic in the big cities. Plague raged through London many times in Shakespeare’s day. That’s apart from the devastating Black Death which decimated Europe around 1350. Then there was cholera and dysentery and consumption.

Cold and Dark

No electric light, no gas heaters, no freezers full of food sourced from all around the world. Fires provided warmth, smoky candles light. If you could afford them. Winter was a time of deprivation, when you hoped the food you’d stored in summer would last you through the long, cold, dark. Christmas was a festival where you prayed for the return of the sun.

And the biggest factor of all? For me?

I reckon if I went back to anything earlier than about 1900, I’d die in a month. Apart from anything else, I’m violently allergic to horses.

No, thanks. I’ll stay here with my computer and make up stories of the future.

What about you?

17 Responses

  1. David Jón Fuller

    Love this take on the days of yore. Equally horrifying to a modern person might well be how you would have to walk just about everywhere! Mounted travel mainly for the rich & no public transit in the cities.
    Still, there are past eras I’d love to visit — medieval Iceland, North America around the time of Leifur Eiriksson, the Incan empire at its height… 🙂

    • Greta van der Rol

      I wouldn’t mind a look – from some sort of invisible bubble suit impervious to stinks. But I can’t see me staying in any of those. Tell you what, let me know what it’s like 🙂

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  3. A.B.

    I absolutely love to read books about time travel, but like you I wouldn’t want to do it for real. For exactly all the reasons you’ve named. I may not have a history degree, but I’ve read enough to know (and done a tiny bit of primitive camping which I HATED) that I LOVE my modern conveniences just a bit too much. Except, well, maybe time travel to the future – if it is a better future…?

    • Greta van der Rol

      Ah, but who’s to know? I’ve seen a lot of dystopian future SF. ‘Soylent Green’, ‘Planet of the Apes’, ‘Hunger Games’? Thanks for commenting.

  4. storiesbywilliams

    Now THIS is a coincidence! My wife and I were just talking about the downside to the Outlander story. It’s like, you’re really going to stay in the 18th century? Have you seen what it looks like lately?

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  6. Doug (@AllanDouglasDgn)

    Excellent point. Many of the movies/books that are set in the Victorian era conveniently leave off the little bits about lack of sanitation, poor personal hygiene and rampant disease. City life was no picnic, then. Give me a rural setting any day (or year). And with time travel – especially into the past – there is always the chance you’ll do some small thing that sets off a cascade effect that re-writes your (or everyone’s) entire future. Good (disgusting) stuff, Greta.

  7. Vero

    Great post, Greta! I wouldn’t want to travel in time at all, neither backward nor forward. The past isn’t glorious at all, and the future is much better left to speculation and its due course. 🙂

  8. MonaKarel

    And you’re forgetting one of the facts time travel writers gloss over. Women were less than cattle in far too many historical societies. They were left behind when the men went off to war, to maintain the homestead and be attacked by the enemy.
    Nah, I’ll stick with flush toilets and lighting. Wouldn’t mind a few horses around but as pets, not transportation.

    • Greta van der Rol

      I agree. Often, they write as if the men would accept this weird sheila and let her play her games her way. Uh – no. Look at Saudi Arabia or even worse, the Taliban in our own time. OK, a few ancient women had power but they were all born to it – Boudicca, Cleopatra, Elizabeth 1st. Excpet Joan of Arc and we know what happened to her.

  9. jccassels

    I have to agree with you, Greta. In theory, it’s swell. In practice? Meh.

    What decided me against time travel was the birth of my first child. He was facing the wrong way and got stuck in the birth canal. Even fifty years earlier, I’m convinced he and I would not have survived. That cured me of the romance of the past.

    I much prefer my Space Opera, thank you very much.

    • Greta van der Rol

      Hmmm. Yes. You’re right. I underwent a medical situation a few years ago which I’m sure would have led to me bleeding to death fifty years ago. It’s a sobering thought.

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