The Tudors lived and ruled 500 years ago and more, yet they still capture our imaginations. Perhaps it’s the continuing universality of Shakespeare’s plays, and partly, perhaps, the distant echo of the much-married Henry VIII. The Tudors remain with us, perhaps not in our day-to-day lives, but deep in the substrate of the culture around us. Ruth Goodman, a cultural and social historian who has spent her career trying to understand ordinary Tudor life, writes, “I am both constantly delighted with the ‘otherness’ of Tudor thinking and beguiled by the echoes that have slipped through into modern life, from the belief that redheads have hot tempers to the order in which we eat our meals, with starters, mains and desserts to follow.” Her book, structured through an ordinary day, is an attempt to understand the “practicalities, thoughts and difficulties” of these forebears.
The population of England was small, around 4,000,000 in 1603, and mostly rural; London, which housed half the entire urban population, had approximately 200,000 residents that year. Most were yeomen, who owned their farms, husbandmen, who rented theirs, and laborers, who owned almost nothing and had to work for others. Days were long and governed by, well, daylight – in the summer, many people were up at dawn. Goodman’s structure means that early on she describes the beds in which people slept (the good ones were four-posters whose hangings protected the sleeper from drafts and the noise of other sleepers), the houses that held those beds (mostly two-rooms) and the contents of the mattresses.
From there it’s on to floor coverings because, as Goodman writes, at the beginning of the Tudor period many people didn’t have a bed, and simply slept on the floor. “This is not quite as grim as it sounds…[m]any homes still used loose rushes in a deep layer as a floor covering, which removed the necessity for furniture.” This worked well, because Goodman adds, most houses had open hearths without chimneys – meaning the higher up you were, the more smoke surrounded you. It made sense to live life “beneath the smoke layer” on a floor that is “warm, dry and comfortable to sit and sleep upon.” Open to any page of this entertaining book and you’ll learn something interesting and perhaps relevant: how to make and starch a ruff. How often people changed their clothes (every day, when it came to undergarments). What it means to have cross-garters, and why those garters were needed in the first place. Why the alternating loops for the lace fastenings of a dress meant that a woman could fasten them herself.
Part of the charm of “How to be a Tudor” is that Goodman has used many of the items she discusses and tried out various housekeeping techniques. She once lived with six inches of rush floors for six months – not for sleeping, but for sitting, walking, standing, working. There’d been cooking, eating and drinking, and a hen had moved in. It was a bit messy, she reports, but not at the bottom – there the rushes had broken down a bit, but were not moldy or mildewed or slimy.
Goodman carries on in this vein throughout the day, discussing meals, cookery, education, work, games and clothing, among other topics. Dancing was a popular and public activity, and she reports on at least one person who danced across country. Then as now there was the possibility of take-out meals, and every household knew how to brew its own ale. The book ends with night-time, bedtime and, well, sex and sexual practices.
“How to Be a Tudor” is meticulously researched (primary sources include wills and surviving books) and beautifully, lovingly written. It’s fun, immensely readable, and explains all kinds of things you’ve seen in movies and on the stage (remember those codpieces in ‘Wolf Hall’?). To think that Tudor lives were not as complex as ours is to live in an anachronism; the beauty of this book springs from its author’s refusal to regard the Tudor years’ daily tasks and preoccupations as any less meaningful than our own. Read “How to Be a Tudor” and you’ll learn a lot about the world you live in.
Have a book you want me to know about? Email me at email@example.com. Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.