Delighted not to be living in Tudor Times
Ruth Goodman’s focus on what life might have been like as an ‘ordinary’ person living in Tudor times was a much more interesting endeavour (to me) than accounts of the sumptuous lives of the great and the good. Or the not so great and the not so good who just happened to be wealthy.
Goodman is not just a writer and researcher of the period, but known as a presenter of ‘Reality History’ programmes, where she carries out, as far as possible, practical exercises to see just what things might have been like – how DO you bake bread in a Tudor oven, with flour which is very different from today’s kind, how do you make Tudor ‘ale’ from scratch, fermenting your grains.
Overall, the reading left me feeling utterly exhausted – because the life of a working class Tudor person was unbelievably, dreadfully hard – if, for example, you worked the land, ploughing was something which went on for most of the year, and work needed doing on the soil, No mechanisation of course, and the ploughman, in summer, would be up by 4.30 am and would finish with darkness – so the working day might end at 10pm. And there would be the oxen/horses to take care of. The life of Mrs Ploughman was no bed of roses either. Fires to tend, bread to bake, ale to brew, not to mention endless children to bear, care for and keep out of the way of the fire, the bread and the ale!
The structure of the book works well. Goodman takes us from dawn to dusk, and by this device bolts on all sorts of other considerations – what do you do with your small amount of earned leisure, what was the Tudor attitude to sex – the day ends with bedtime, after all – what about the clothes you wore, how would they have been made, how were they washed?
I was fascinated to read how in some ways little changes – what sounded like a description of a Tudor rave where
an alehouse keeper in 1606 in Yorkshire was fined for holding Sunday dances that were attracting over a hundred young people to dance to the music of the piper and drummer he had laid on
I’m not planning on trying this one myself but Goodman wanted to see whether our perception of everyone in Tudor times stinking because they didn’t wash themselves top to toe – but just the bits that showed – hands and faces, was accurate. Well, apparently those Tudors who could were scrupulous about changing their undies. Goodman discovered to her surprise (we are of course talking about natural fabrics rather than synthetics) that for true stinkyness the wrong choice is to bathe the entire body but wear the undies for several days. Unwashed bodies with daily fresh undies is the sweeter smelling option. And is even more remarkable (those undie changes) when you think that hot water did not gush from taps, everything had to be heated on wood (or coal) fires, so clean linen was an incredibly time consuming activity.
I was impressed by the care and understanding Tudor agriculturalists showed to their land and their seeds. Not for them the disaster we have made of the earth by flogging land to mineral deficiency by monoculture, and by drastic reduction of the seed bank, leaving our crops far more vulnerable to the effects of a blight which could sweep world wide. The Tudors were farming via rotation of crops, allowing a field to lie fallow to replenish every few years – and deliberately mixing varieties of grain, so vulnerabilities to a decimating pathogen attacking a single species is minimised
I was fascinated to discover how formal and controlled society was – there was legislation around clothing – depending on your social class and employment certain cloths, cuts and colours were not allowed and fashionistas who attempted to dress ‘above their station’ could be prosecuted. Clothes were meant to show who you were, and what your place was in society. Wearing clothes not applicable to your class, wealth or occupation was in some ways seen as attempting fraud or deception. I thought about modern attempts, for different reasons, to ban female clothing covering the body on French beaches. Clothes as a medium of state control
There was so very much to enjoy and find fascinating in this – and, particularly as a female, to feel incredibly grateful to be living in this place and this time. Many of us feel desperately short of time, with far too much to do..but, in truth we are remarkably fortunate
Perhaps one enviable thought is that this was a time of expansion, and a time of confidence, particularly in Elizabeth’s reign. A sense of energy, positivity – and I suppose the still felt repercussions of the Renaissance.
My only real cavil with the book itself comes from making the wrong decision to get this on digital download – I strongly advise the wood book. There are illustrations, and on digital they are not where you want them. They are all lumped at the end, difficult to get to/make happen, and there is no way of knowing where they might have usefully fitted into the text. Some of Goodman’s not quite easily understood instructions on how to make a ruff or the layers and slashings on doublets, kirtles, false sleeves and the like would have made much more sense with facing pages of illustrations.
That aside, this was an absorbing read, and I am minded to investigate a similar book she has written about the Victorians