Tag: Ruth Goodman

How to Be a Tudor

Cover image for How to Be a Tudor by Ruth Goodman. by Ruth Goodman

ISBN 978-1-63149-139-9

“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.


Cover image for How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman You might also like How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman

How to Be a Victorian

Cover image for How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodmanby Ruth Goodman

ISBN 978-1-63149-113-9

“My own historical laundry experiences have led me to see the powered washing machine as one of the greatest bulwarks of women’s liberation, an invention that can sit alongside contraception and the vote in the direct impact it has had on changing women’s lives.”

Formatted as a dawn-to-dusk guide, How to Be a Victorian thus begins with the experience of getting up, washing, and dressing, before progressing through the day, addressing everything from food, to clothing, to employment and education. I was pleased to discover that it covers not just the upper classes, but the broad swathe of society, with much more focus on the average person. You can find out what kind of underwear Queen Victoria wore, but also what would have been handed out in the clothing allotment of a poorhouse. Ruth Goodman is also attentive to the length of the Victorian period, and thus how every answer must be qualified by mentioning that changes that occurred between 1837 and 1901, as well as how much depends on the gender of the person under discussion.

How to Be a Victorian is concerned with the minute details of everyday life, and thus makes a great read for those who are interested in the more mundane and quotidian aspects of history. However, it would also be a great resource as a jumping off point for someone intending to write historical fiction set in the period. To be sure there are more detailed and narrowly targeted accounts available of everything Goodman covers here, but what she succeeds at is using mundane details to provide a broad picture of Victorian life that is more accurate than the one given to us by popular culture. There is no hint of romanticism or idealization of the period; Goodman clearly sees the suffering and growing pains that existed alongside the Industrial Revolution and all the modern conveniences that it brought.

Each reader will undoubtedly find some sections more interesting than others. For myself, I got a bit bogged down in the long section dedicated to clothes, which were multilayered, changed according to age and gender, and evolved throughout the period. Indeed, the great quantity of clothing worn by Victorian people is even more astounding when you consider that it all had to be washed by hand. While there are sections on education and even the rise of leisure, it is notable that a very great deal of the book deals with food, clothes, and shelter; the daily business of life was, for most people, keeping cold and hunger at bay. Equally important was staving off illness, and Goodman dedicates ample time to Victorian beliefs about how disease was spread—the older miasma theory was still contending with the newer germ theory—and the many (and often terrifying) remedies used to try to beat it back. Notably however, the dawn-to-dusk day we are following is not a Sunday, and religious practice receives relatively short shrift.

Goodman draws on diaries and other primary documents in which people speak directly about their daily work and routines. She also provides the necessary historical context to understand what they have written, and how it would have been particular to their class or locale. In addition to historical research, Ruth Goodman can draw on her own experiences with simulated Victorian living, gained from working on British reality television programs, and consulting for historical productions. She is quick to acknowledge where this must differ from the actual historical experience, but can also give some idea of what it actually feels like to scythe a field while wearing or corset, or how effectual (or dangerous) traditional cleaning agents or medicines can be. Crucially, however, re-enactment is not her only method of historical inquiry.

The minute and mundane nature of the subject matter ensures that this title will appeal to a particular and perhaps limited audience. Nevertheless, Goodman’s work is well-structured and readable. I am eagerly looking forward to her upcoming treatment of the Tudor period, which will be tackled in a similar dawn-to-dusk fashion.

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