“There are other periods of history I have an interest in, but in truth my heart lies somewhere in the middle of Elizabeth I’s reign. I am both constantly delighted with the otherness of Tudor thinking and beguiled by the echoes that have slipped through into modern life.”
We have a tendency to assume that life in the past was both more and less different than is actually the case. We might assume that historical people were foul smelling because we fail to imagine how it is possible to bathe without soap and hot water, while also completely overlooking the sayings, mannerisms, and customs of the Tudor period that are still with us today, from Shakespeare’s turns of phrase, to certain sexual superstitions. Using a combination of primary documents from the period, and her personal experience re-enacting Tudor life, Ruth Goodman surveys what a typical day was like in the life of a citizen of Tudor England, repeating the dawn-to-dusk format she used to great success in How to Be a Victorian.
The Tudor period is a long one, beginning with the reign of Henry VII in 1485, and concluding with the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. Much changed over nearly 120 years, and Goodman is careful to specify at what point in time her information is drawn from, and to track changes through the period. However, there are sometimes long stretches were she does not specify the source of her information, and since this is not academic text it is not footnoted either, though a bibliography is provided. She addresses the aristocracy, which is well documented, but she is fundamentally more interested in the lives of the regular working people of the period. By looking at surviving wills, household accounts, and ships’ manifests, Goodman is able to provide an idea of what goods were available when, to whom, in what quantities, and at what cost. This hardcover edition includes three sections of colour plates, but unfortunately the text does not refer you to the images, so that often you do not know they are there until after you have read about whatever is depicted.
Goodman is eager to dispel many myths about sixteenth century living, but she takes particular aim at the idea that Tudor people were necessarily smelly or unhygienic. Because the miasma theory of disease still dominated medical thinking, unpleasant smells, including bodily odours, were thought to be agents of disease, and smelling clean was highly valued. The layer of linen clothing that was worn against the body was to be changed and laundered frequently, since it would absorb most of the sweat and oil from the skin. Tudor people cleaned their teeth with soot, salt, or chalk, and could even have their teeth scraped or bleached by the barber surgeon. Tudor remains show that wear was a bigger problem than rot when it came to teeth, since most people could not afford much sugar. Goodman’s own experiments with Tudor living have shown that not laundering one’s clothes is a bigger problem for body odour than not washing the body with soap and water. In any case, the lye soap available at the time was far too caustic to be frequently used on skin or hair.
Given that many tech millionaires today dress in jeans and hoodies, one of the most fascinating aspects of the Tudor period are the sumptuary laws that governed dress. These regulations were designed to preserve distinctions of social status, and disincentivize peoples’ tendency to “ape their betters.” Ermine and purple cloth were reserved for the royal family alone, while only the uppermost aristocrats could wear gold or silver embroidery. Well-off merchants or skilled tailors could not hope to dress like the aristocracy without running afoul of these regulations. These laws also served an economic function; preventing the lower classes from purchasing imported cloth kept money in the country. In practice, sumptuary laws were policed more by social pressure than prosecution, but nevertheless, clothing provided important visual cues about a person’s status.
Since Goodman’s career has involved recreating period-accurate experiences for film, television, and folk museums in the United Kingdom, she can supplement her textual enquiries with practical experiments. Stylistically, you can tell when she is discussing something she has tried because her writing switches to the present tense, such as “Tudor food is generally very good indeed. It’s fresh, seasonal, and cooked over wood or peat fires whose smoke is a pleasant flavour addition.” Yet she acknowledges when recreation can be insufficient or difficult. For example, after four hundred years of selective breeding, wheat today is vastly different from its Tudor counterpart, which can make recreating period-accurate baking difficult in a modern setting. Re-enactment experiments and primary texts from the period work together to create a more rounded picture of Tudor living.
How to Be a Tudor is by no means a complete picture of Tudor life. Sometimes emphasis in the text has to do with the significance of the subject, such as ploughing, which “more men spent more time ploughing than any other single activity across the country, and without their labour everyone would have starved.” Though it is a somewhat dry subject, its importance becomes clear in the twelve pages spent on the matter. But other lengthy sections seem more a product of Goodman’s own interests; she admits to a particular fondness for Tudor dance, and devotes a dozen pages to the subject. Religion figures a little more strongly here than in How to Be a Victorian, perhaps because the Protestant Reformation was underway, and this was a period of significant religious upheaval, but is still far from the primary focus. Nevertheless, this is a very intriguing and accessible overview, notable in that it does not focus only on the royal court or the upper classes.
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2 thoughts on “How to Be a Tudor”
This like such a fun read! I feel as though a lot of books, both fiction and nonfiction, focus almost exclusively on the nobility and more on big picture events than they do the daily lives of ordinary people, but the daily lives of ordinary people can be fascinating.