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Shakespeare & Beyond

A solution for pollution?

What, is Brutus sick, / And will he steal out of his wholesome bed / To dare the vile contagion of the night / And tempt the rheumy and unpurgèd air / To add unto his sickness? (Julius Caesar, 2.1.83-87)

Even in Shakespeare’s day, air pollution was not a new problem (indeed, many current environmental issues were prefigured by Shakespeare and his contemporaries). In ancient Rome, writers such as Seneca and Horace had commented on the effects of kitchen fires and smelting furnaces, which spread soot and toxic metals into the air. The effect was especially concentrated in cities, where people lived in close proximity to manufacturers of all kinds. Doctors blamed noxious air for all kinds of diseases, including the plague (a concept that was later known more formally as “miasma theory”).

Despite periodic complaints, pollution issues persisted and multiplied throughout the continent over time. In the early modern era, pamphleteers echoed their ancient counterparts and decried the contaminants produced by the industries of their time. A succession of proposals were brought to Parliament, though only a few became full laws. In honor of Earth Day, here’s a prominent early modern treatise against air pollution from the Folger collection: Fumifugium. (While it may not rank among the classics of environmental literature today, it’s certainly one of the most fun to pronounce!)

Fumifugium title page - a treatise about air pollution in London

Fumifugium: or, The inconveniencie of the aer and smoak of London dissipated : Together with some remedies humbly proposed was written by John Evelyn and published in 1661. It’s divided into two sections, as suggested by the title; the first identifies several causes of air pollution, while the second suggests several measures to counteract them. Evelyn, like other writers, targets industry as the source of air contaminants, singling out “Brewers, Diers, Sope and Salt-boylers, Lime-burners, and the like” for opprobrium. All of these industries relied on large coal-powered fires to produce their products, which sent numerous particles into the London air. Evelyn’s solution to the irritations produced by these activities was two-fold: first, banish these industries from the city to the countryside, and then, surround London with gardens full of fragrant plants to mask the city from any lingering scents of smoke or chemicals.

Would Evelyn’s ideas have actually worked? Well, forcing coal-burning industries out of the city almost definitely would have improved London’s air – but only by sullying the air of the towns and countryside beyond London instead. And while a garden circling London like an enormous nosegay to ward off miasmas might have beautified the city, it seems unlikely to have worked as a serious anti-pollution measure. However, it’s possible that Evelyn’s proposal was never actually meant to be implemented. Rather, as some modern scholars have suggested, his text was at least partially allegorical, and was intended to curry favor with Charles II, recently crowned king of England, to whom Evelyn dedicated Fumifugium. Charles was in the midst of undertaking a Restoration of the country after more than a decade of upheaval, and Evelyn’s work was at least partially symbolic of removing unwanted politics and rhetoric from London. Other scholars have suggested, to the contrary, that his suggestions were entirely in earnest and sensible.

Fumifugium page 16

Regardless of Evelyn’s original intent, his Fumifugium continued to strike a chord with readers over the centuries, as London’s air quality continues to be a source of consternation. Fumifugium has been reproduced several times over the intervening centuries, from an 18th century reprint to a 2011 electronic edition. And to further emphasize Evelyn’s point, here’s another book from the Folger collection: Pollutants in the museum environment, published 2002. The Conservation and Facilities departments at the Folger work to make sure that the environment in our stacks, offices, and Reading Rooms is clean, cool, and dry; these conditions help prevent our books and other materials from mildewing, becoming discolored, or worse, and insures that they will be available for generations of readers to come. (They do make people a little chilly sometimes, though!)


[…] might think this is a modern problem, but this post by Sarah Hovde from the Folger Shakespeare Library notes that even in Roman times there were concerns about the effects of fires on air quality, and […]

Shakespeare, bonfires and climate change | The Shakespeare blog — November 5, 2021