The Elizabethan People/Chapter 2
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Country Life and Character
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COUNTRY LIFE AND CHARACTER
The Quadrangle, Leicester's Hospital, Warwick, illustrating timber and plaster framework; also court with galleries
There was also, during the reign of Elizabeth a remarkable rearrangement of the social scale. The latter half of the sixteenth century, more than any other period in the history of England, marks the rise to affluence and importance of the middle class. Not only was the small merchant becoming wealthy, but also his position and that of his class was becoming one of greater dignity. England at large began to recognise the importance of these people and the stability their order contributed to the realm. It is hardly too much to say that their assistance contributed so largely as to be almost responsible for the great naval victory over Philip of Spain. Thomas Gresham, a typical representative of the merchant class, built the Royal Exchange, was recognised throughout the land as a public benefactor, and became the Queen's trusted adviser in matters of finance. In consequence London became the money centre of the world, a distinction it has retained without intermission to this day.
There had never been in England a marked line of separation between nobleman and commoner; the distinction was drawn, rather, as Mr. Trevelyan puts it, between gentle and simple. The relation between the two was generally that of master and servant as we associate it with the better form of patriarchal community. There was greater freedom of manners between lord and tenant, the family and domestic, than is found to-day. At certain seasons of the year, as Yule Tide, all social barriers were thrown down, master and servant dancing and feasting on terms of equality in the same hall of merriment. The old rivalry between town and country was vanishing before the same causes that produced the shifting of population, assisted not a little by the strolling minstrels and travelling players, among whom we find Shakespeare himself.
Another element that contributed largely to this confusion of old lines of separation was the Queen's habit of making progresses. A progress was merely a visit of Elizabeth to the country seat of some favoured nobleman. The visit was planned in advance. When the time came, the Queen and all her court, accompanied by numerous dignitaries, trains of baggage, and hosts of curious wayfarers, made "progress" through the land. In spite of the improvements in the roads they were oftentimes in such poor condition that this ponderous parade could move but a dozen miles a day. Thus the progress ostensibly occasioned by a single royal visit would eventually involve a score, with, in addition, elaborate civic receptions in honour of the Queen whenever she approached the vicinity of a city of her realm.
The streets of London were poorly paved, many not paved at all. The Strand was a mud lane. On the occasion of a queen's progress through the city, Cheapside and other streets traversed were copiously strewed with gravel. In going from east to west the people avoided as much as possible the unruly streets and resorted to the great popular avenue of travel, the river Thames. The river was not then the filthy race it is to-day. "Silver-streaming" is Spenser's epithet, and Barnfield alludes to "Thy christal billowed waves." "That lady of fresh waters," as a writer of 1608 calls the river, abounded in beds of beautiful water flowers and in flocks of snow-white swans. Used as it was as a thoroughfare, it swarmed with watermen. Their wherries were hailed from the shore by the familiar cries of Eastward Ho! or Westward Ho! and their ranks furnished at least one writer who has been designated by the courtesy of time a poet.
Though I have referred to the improvement of roads they were still in many parts of the country little better than uninclosed tracks, frequently rutted by the lumbering wheels of the recently introduced coaches, muddy, and full of holes. Travel was often altogether prohibited by flooded rivers. Besides the new coaches, horse litters and carriers' carts were occasionally to be met upon the road. In general, however, goods were transported upon pack-horses, and people fared from place to place in the saddle. A man accompanied by wife or daughter carried her behind him on a pillion. Travel, too, was unsafe, for the road was likely to be infested by robbers. Men rode together in parties for mutual protection, each accompanied by one or more domestic servants, all the party fully armed and ready to draw at a moment's notice. On arrival at an inn each person had to look with care to the provision of his horse and the bestowal of his luggage; for only too often the drawers and other domestic servants of country inns were in league with the neighbouring highwaymen.
From an account published about 1610 (see Rye, p. 131) we learn that riding "post from Dover to Canterbury costs three English shillings; from Canterbury to Sittingbourne the same; from Sittingbourne to Rochester about two shillings and sixpence." To this large expense (for money was then worth about eight times its present value) must be added the discomfort of sitting upon hard, awkward saddles. Further annoyances of post riding were due to the almost universal maltreatment of the post horses; for, as Taylor the Water Poet writes, "For poor hackneys England is a hell." Those of a sensitive temperament might wish to avoid travel altogether, not alone because of hardship and danger, but also because of the repulsive sights seen by the wayside. The account quoted above continues with a typical illustration: "Just before coming to Sittingbourne you will see a robber hanging on a tree; he treacherously killed the messenger sent from the Elector Palatine to the King of England; the body is surrounded by chains and rings that it would be likely to last a long time." Possibly enhanced for the sake of stage effect is the finery of the following description of a post-boy's habit.
"Gallus comes in first, attired like a post in yellow damask doublet and bases; the doublet with close wings, cut like feathers; a pouch of carnation satin, wherein was his packet hung in a baldrick of the same; a pair of yellow boots; spurs with one long prick like a cock; a little hat of yellow damask, with a plume of red feathers like a crest." (Stage directions, The Masque of Flowers, 1614.)
The introduction of coaches into England is thus recorded by Taylor the Water Poet.
"In the year 1564, one William Boonen, a Dutchman, brought first the use of coaches hither, and the said Boonen was Queen Elizabeth's coachman; for indeed a coach was a strange monster in those days, and the sight of it put both horse and man into amazement; some said it was a great crab shell brought out of China, and some imagined it to be one of the Pagan temples, in which the cannibals adored the devil; but at last those doubts were cleared and coach-making became a substantial trade." (Works, ed. 1630, p. 240.) As late as 1598 this vehicle was still looked upon as a novelty. "Now to diminish and cut this charge, as well of horses as of men, there is a new invention, and that is, she must have a coach, etc." (From a black-letter pamphlet by W. W., 1598, quoted by Rye, p. 196.)
So popular, however, became the "new invention" that in 1601 an act was introduced into the House of Lords "to restrain the excessive and superfluous use of coaches within this realm. The act, however, was rejected on the second reading.
Coaches soon came into very general use. They are frequently mentioned in contemporary plays. They were not for the use of noblemen alone. In Eastward Ho one belongs to the wife of a knight. A "lady" owns one in The London Prodigal. "Coaches are as common nowadays as some that ride in 'em." (Middleton, A Mad World, etc.) "As the nobleman's coach is drawn by four horses, the knight's by two, and the cuckold's by three." (Dekker, The Devil's Inn.) The latter is a facetious allusion to the carting of lewd women, and neither two nor four horses were necessarily appropriate to knights or noblemen. We often read of six and eight horses attached to a coach.
These were crudely-built conveyances with heavy wheels and without springs. In 1568 the Queen complained to the French ambassador of "the aching pains she was suffering in consequence of having been knocked about in a coach which had been driven a little too fast a few days before." "A coach!" contemptuously exclaims a character in Dekker's Westward Ho, "I cannot abide to be jolted." For all that, they were gorgeously decorated. "They strangle and choke more velvet in a deep-gathered hose than would serve to line through my lord what-call-ye-him's coach." Middleton, The Black Book.) Shortly after the death of Shakespeare Lady Compton writes to her husband, Lord William, "I will have my two coaches, one lined with velvet to myself, with four very fair horses, and a coach for my women, lined with sweet cloth, one laced with gold, the other with scarlet, and laced with watchet lace and silver, with four good horses. Also, I will have two coachmen, one for my own coach, the other for my women. Also, at any time when I travel, I will be allowed not only carroches and spare horses for me and my women, but I will have such carriages as shall be fitting for all orderly; not pestering my things with my women's nor theirs with either chambermaids. . . . Also, for that it is indecent to coop myself up with my gentleman usher in my coach, I will have him to have a convenient horse to attend me either in city or country. And I must have two footmen. And my desire is, that you defray all the charges for me." (Quoted by Drake, Vol. II., p. 145.)In spite of the fact that it took a sturdy frame to escape from a long ride in a coach uninjured, or, at least, without aching bones, it was considered a sign of effeminacy for a man to ride in a coach, and is often referred to in terms of
The Gateway, Leicester's Hospital, Warwick, illustrating ornamental woodwork and plaster construction.
There were numerous characters to be met with constantly on the road. Next to the dangerous highwayman was the pestiferous sturdy beggar. Some were cheats, Abraham-men, or Tom-o-bedlams. "An Abraham man is he that walketh bare-armed, and bare-legged, and feigneth himself mad, and carrieth a pack of wool, or a stick with bacon on it, or such like toy, and nameth himself poor Tom." (Awdeley, The Fraternitie of Vacabondes, 1565.) Others were more respectable, for they carried a royal license to beg throughout the realm. It will be remembered that with such a license King James rewarded the plea for help from the age-stricken historian, John Stow. Gipsies are often referred to as consorting with rogues and vagabonds. A poor living these beggars must have earned if we are to believe the line spoken by one of them in a play of Heywood's, "I scarcely earn me three pence by the day."
Pedlars were frequently met upon the road. They usually stopped at the porter's lodge, where they unbound their packs. This contained a miscellaneous assortment of articles, always with full provision of articles for needlework, cloths, and garments. They also peddled ballads. These doggerel verses commemorated the events of the day, and are the forerunners of the modern newspapers. Pictures and almanacs, the latter full of prognostications, political as well as meteorological, were a part of the pedlar's stock in trade. The retired, often bankrupt soldier, strolling jugglers, wandering minstrels, and troupes of travelling actors were plentiful during the summer months, and were always sure of a warm welcome in the baronial hall.
As illustrative of life in a country town let us glance for a moment at the birthplace of Shakespeare. Stratford in early times possessed a famous guild, so famous that people from all parts of England were glad to become members of the Holy Cross. Not Stratford merchants alone, but nobles and even kings, were part and parcel of this time-honoured institution, from whose records we derive much of our information concerning ancient Stratford. If one can dissociate mountains and the sea from one's idea of natural beauty, Warwickshire leaves nothing to be desired. "The heart of England," as Drayton calls it, lies in the centre of the lowlands. It is a flat country, but not monotonously flat, the roads bordered with hedges, and the fields teeming with wildflowers. In the immediate neighbourhood are Warwick with its great castle and its associations pertaining to the King-Maker, and the hospital founded by Leicester; Kenilworth is but a step beyond; and Guy's Cliff, one of the most splendid palaces of country England; and Coventry, which played such an important part in the ancient struggle for civic liberty; not to speak of the numerous Shakespeare associations.
Now that the restorations of the Stratford church are complete, it appears much like the church of Shakespeare's day. Before the death of John of Stratford in 1348, the church was a small and incomplete though substantial structure of Norman architecture. John of Stratford provided for the building of several chapels, notably those to the Virgin Mary, and to Saint Thomas à Becket. He remodelled the tower, and probably added the wooden spire that existed in the time of Shakespeare. In 1332, with the permission of the Bishop of Winchester and of Edward III., he formed a chantry out of some of the chapels that he had built, and dedicated it to Saint Thomas the Martyr, and endowed it with some neighbouring lands for its support. There were five priests, one of whom was to be warden. "Among those whose souls his masses were expected to free from purgatory were, besides self, and his brother Robert, his father and mother, the Kings of England and the Bishops of Worcester."
In 1351 Ralph of Stratford built for his uncle's chantry priests a stone house in the churchyard that was known in Elizabethan times as the College of Stratford. Many others followed these men in beautifying the local church. In the time of Edward IV., the warden of the college "added a fair and beautiful choir, rebuilt from the ground at his own cost," which still exists.
Ralph Collingwood, the warden at the close of the fifteenth century, renewed the north porch of the nave. "The low, decorated clere-story was removed, the walls pulled down to the crowns of the arches, rude angels (by some 'prentice hand) were inserted to carry the philasters, and the walls were panelled with huge lantern windows, with a flattish roof." (Knowles.) He also improved the service by the introduction of a boy choir, placing them under the rigid supervision of the college priests.The Stratford guild in the Middle Ages was known by the name of the Guild of the Holy Cross, the Blessed Virgin, and Saint John the
The Great Hall, Warwick Castle
In the reign of Edward I., John of Stratford built for the guild its chapel, dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, and almshouses adjoining, which, together with the hall, were probably situated in Church Street, where the Guildhall subsequently stood. In 1332 Edward III. gave the guild a charter; and the following description of its customs is taken from the report on the ordinances, set forth by a commission of Richard II.
"These are the ordinances of the brethren and sisters of the Guild of the Holy Cross of Stratford.
"First, each of the brethren who wishes to remain in the guild, shall give fourpence a year, payable four times in the year; namely a penny on the feast of Saint Michael, a penny on the feast of Saint Hilary, a penny at Easter, and a penny on the feast of Saint John the Baptist. Out of which payments there shall be made and kept up one wax candle, which shall be done in worshipful honour of our Lord Jesus Christ and of the Blessed Virgin and of the Holy Cross. And the wax candle shall be kept alight every day throughout the year, at every mass in the church, before the blessed cross; so that God and the Blessed Virgin, and the venerated cross, may keep and guard all the brethren and sisters of the guild from every ill. And whoever of the brethren and sisters neglect to come at the above-named times shall pay one penny.
"It is also ordained by the brethren and sisters of the guild, that, when any of them dies, the wax candle before named, together with eight smaller ones, shall be carried from the church to the house of him that is dead; and there they shall be kept alight before the body of the dead until it is carried to the church; and the wax candles shall be carried and kept alight until the body is buried, and afterwards shall be set before the cross. Also, all the brethren of the guild are bound to follow the body to the church, and to pray for his soul until his body is buried. And whoever does not fulfil this shall pay one halfpenny.
"It is also ordained by the brethren and sisters, that if any poor man in the town dies, or if any stranger has not means of his own out of which to pay for a light to be kept burning before his body, the brethren and sisters shall, for their souls' health, whosoever he may be, find four wax candles, and one sheet, and a hearsecloth to lay over the coffin till the body is buried.
"It is further ordained by the brethren and sisters, that each of them shall give twopence a year, at a meeting that shall be held once a year; namely, at a feast that shall be held in Easter week, in such manner that brotherly love shall be cherished among them, and evil speaking be driven out; that peace shall always dwell among them, and true love be upheld. And every sister of the guild shall bring with her to this feast a great tankard; and all the tankards shall be filled with ale; and afterwards the ale shall be given to the poor. So likewise shall the brethren do; and their tankards shall in like manner be filled with ale, and this shall also be given to the poor. But, before that ale shall be given to the poor, and before any brother or sister shall touch his feast in the hall where it is accustomed to be held, all the brethren and sisters there gathered together shall put up their prayers, that God and the Blessed Virgin and the venerated cross, in whose honour they have come together, will keep them from all ills and sins. And if any sister does not bring her tankard, as is abovesaid, she shall pay a halfpenny. Also, if any brother or sister shall, after the bell has sounded, quarrel or stir up a quarrel, he shall pay a halfpenny.
"It is also ordained that no one shall remain in this guild unless he is a man of good behaviour.
"It is moreover ordained, that when one of the brethren dies, the officers shall summon a third part of the brethren, who shall watch near the body, and pray for his soul, through the night. Whoever, having been summoned, neglects to do this, shall pay a halfpenny.
"It is ordained by the common council of the whole guild, that two of the brethren shall be Aldermen; and six other brethren shall be chosen, who shall manage all the affairs of the guild with the aldermen; and whoever of them is absent upon any day agreed among themselves for a meeting, shall pay fourpence."If any brother or sister brings with him a guest, without leave of the steward, he shall pay a halfpenny. Also, if any stranger or servant, or youth, comes in, without the knowledge of the officers, he shall pay a halfpenny. Also, if any brother or sister is bold enough to take the seat of another, he shall pay a halfpenny.
"Also, if it happens that any brother or sister has been robbed, or has fallen into poverty, then so long as he bears himself well and rightly towards the brethren and sisters of the guild, they shall find him in food and clothing and what else he needs."
The annual banquet was the chief social event of the year. "The receipts," says Mr. Lee, "under the various headings of 'light-money,' rents, and fines, increase with satisfactory regularity, and the expenses grow correspondingly. Candles both of tallow and wax, repairs of house and property, the setting up of hedges, form large items of expenditure, but in each year's balance sheet the details of the food and drink provided for the annual feast occupy more and more extravagant space. The small pigs and large pigs; the pullets, geese, veal, and 'carcases' of mutton; the eggs, butter, and honey; the almonds, raisins, currants, garlic, salt, pepper, and other spices were gathered in from all the neighbouring villages in appalling quantities. Gallons of wine and bushels of malt for brewing ale were alike provided in generous measure. Horsemen were often equipped at the guild's expense to bring in the supplies. After the feast was done there came the settlement for such items as washing the napery, rushes for the floor of the dining hall, coal and charcoal for the kitchen, the cooks' and other servants' wages. At times the feast was enlivened by professional minstrelsy. Thirty pence was paid to minstrels from Warwick in 1424, and a single performer was often engaged at a fee of fivepence."
The fee for admission to the guild was from four shillings eightpence to four pounds, and the souls of the dead could be admitted upon payment of the entrance fee. Often those who were unable to pay, worked out their dues: some by cooking the annual dinner, others by labour bestowed upon the carpenter work and masonry; still others gave materials instead of money.
The grammar school of Stratford, which Shakespeare attended, was built in 1427. Attendance was free, and the schoolmaster was forbidden to take anything from his pupils.
The last notable pre-Shakespearean benefactor of Stratford was Sir Hugh Clopton. About 1480 he came from a neighbouring village to make his home in Stratford. In 1483 he erected a large house of brick and timber at the corner of Chapel Street and Chapel Lane. The house became known as New Place, and was bought in 1597 by Shakespeare, who resided there at the time of his death. Clopton built the nave of the Guild-chapel and decorated it with numerous paintings. His chief contribution to the welfare of Stratford, however, was of quite a different kind.
Leland, the antiquary who visited Stratford about 1530, wrote that "Afore the time of Hugh Clopton there was but a poor bridge of timber, and no causeway to come to it, whereby many poor folks either refused to come to Stratford when the river was up, or coming thither stood in jeopardy of life." It was to destroy this evil that Sir Hugh Clopton built a freestone bridge of fourteen arches with a long causeway "well walled on each side at the west." He also left much money to be distributed annually to the deserving poor of the village.
From a structural point of view Stratford was now practically complete, but the organisation of its municipal government had not yet come into existence. At the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Stratford suffered greatly. The College was finally suppressed in 1547, as was also the guild. The latter had exercised civic control, and its suppression left the city without any organisation whatever. At the end of six years,
affairs were in such a state of confusion, that a petition was signed by all the principal men of Stratford and forwarded to the King. Happily, it received favourable consideration. The Guild was reconstituted under the name of the Corporation and given full municipal power. The grammar school was again opened, and a new era for Stratford began.
This, then, is the Stratford in which Shakespeare spent his youth. "It is essential for the student of the social history of Stratford," says Mr. Sidney Lee, "to grasp clearly the leading differences between life in the sixteenth and in the nineteenth centuries, and of the first importance is it to realise how little personal liberty was understood in Elizabethan country towns. Scarcely an entry in the books of the new council fails to emphasise the rigidly paternal character of its rule. If a man lived immorally he was summoned to the Guildhall, and rigorously examined as to the truth of the rumours that had reached the bailiff's ear. If his guilt was proved, and he refused to make adequate reparation, he was invited to leave the city. A female servant, hired at a salary of twenty-six shillings and eighteen pence and a pair of shoes, left her master suddenly in 1611. The aldermen ordered her arrest on her master's complaint. Her defence was that 'she was once frightened in the night in the chamber where her master's late wife died, but by what or when she cannot tell'; but this plea proved of no avail, and she spent some months in the gaol by the Guildhall. Rude endeavours were made to sweeten the tempers of scolding wives. A substantial 'cucking stool' with iron staples, lock, and hinges, was kept in good repair. The shrew was attached to it, and by means of ropes, planks, and wheels, was plunged two or three times into the Avon whenever the municipal council believed her to stand in need of correction. Three days and three nights were invariably spent in the open stocks by any inhabitant who spoke disrespectfully of any town officer, or who disobeyed any minor municipal decree. No one might receive a stranger into his house without the bailiff's permission. No journeyman, apprentice, or servant might 'be forth of their or his master's house' after nine o'clock at night. Bowling alleys and butts were provided by the council, but were only to be used at statedtimes. An alderman was fined on one occasion for going to bowls after a morning meeting of the council, and Henry Sydnall was fined twenty pence for keeping unlawful or unlicensed bowling in a back shed. Alehouse keepers, of whom there were thirty in Shakespeare's time, were kept strictly under the council's control, They were not allowed to brew their own ale, or to encourage tippling, or to serve poor artificers except at stated hours of the day, on pain of fine and imprisonment. Dogs were not to go about the street unmuzzled. Every inhabitant had to go to church at least once a month, and absentees were liable to penalties of twenty pounds, which in the late years of Elizabeth's reign commissioners came from London to see that the local authorities enforced. Early in the seventeenth century swearing was rigorously prohibited. Laws as to dress were always rigorously enforced. In 1577 there were many fines exacted for failure to wear the plain statute woolen caps on Sundays, to which Rosaline makes reference in Love's Labour's Lost, and the regulation affected all inhabitants above six years of age. In 1604 'the greatest part' of the population were present at a great leet, or law-day, 'for wearing their apparel contrary to the statute.' Nor would it be difficult to present many other like proofs of the persistent strictness with which the new town council of Stratford, by the enforcement of its own orders and of the statutes of the realm, regulated the inhabitants' whole conduct of life."
Between the years 1557 and 1577, John Shakespeare, the poet's father, filled at one time or another, all the principal offices of the corporation from ale-taster to chief alderman. Stratford, during the period of his prosperity, was a thriving commercial town. The trading companies represented skinners, tailors, shoemakers, saddlers, glovers, tanners, collar-makers, chandlers, soap-makers, ironmongers, and bakers. Pewterers, butchers, brewers, drapers, grocers, carpenters, painters, were numerous in the town. Tradesmen's shops were usually the downstairs part of their dwellings. A man frequently carried on trade in a number of different wares at the same time. Adrien Quiney, for instance, dealt in ginger, red-lead, Southwich cloth, lime, salad oil, and deal boards.
"Trade was maintained," says Mr. Lee, "at a normal rate of briskness by the weekly markets and the half-yearly fairs, the chief of which fell in September. The town council strictly regulated the procedure of the fairs, and appointed to each trade a station in the streets. Thus, raw hides at markets and fairs were to be laid down at the cross in Rother Market. Sellers of butter, cheese, and all manner of white meat, wick yarn, and fruits, were to set up their stalls by the cross at the chapel. A site in the high street was assigned to country butchers, who repaired to the town with their flesh, hides, and tallow. Pewterers were ordained to 'pitch' their wares in Wood Street, and to pay for the ground they occupied fourpence a yard. Saltwains, whose owners did a thriving trade in days when salted meats formed the staple supply of food, were permitted to stand about the cross in Rother Market. At various points the victuallers were permitted to erect booths. These regulations were needful to prevent strife, and fines for breach of the rules often reached as large a sum as five pounds. The townsmen were anxious to secure for themselves all the advantages of these gatherings, and the council often employed men armed with cudgels to keep Coventry traders out of the town."
In 1547, 1600 people regularly took the sacrament at the Stratford church; and it may be inferred from the householders' reports in 1562 that the population at that time was about 2000.
The majority of the houses were constructed of timber, a heavy framework, of which the squares and triangles formed by the wooden braces were filled with lath and plaster. The roofs of the better houses were of tile; but thatch was the more common material. If the front did not rise in steep gables, the slope of the roof was sure to contain dormer windows peeping out of thethatch. Porches invariably sheltered the door; and, if the house were that of a trader, a penthouse formed a covering beneath which he set up his stall. The better houses of the main streets in the village were built of timber and brick instead of timber and lath and plaster. Shakespeare seems to have rebuilt New Place of stone, a material of which the College was wholly constructed. Often the timber framework in front
of a house was elaborately carved. Barns and office buildings were constructed like the smaller dwelling houses, of timber, lath and plaster, and always thatched.
The gardens were usually separated by mud walls that were thatched on top as a protection against the rain. These walls were in constant need of repair, easily broken down, and, consequently, offered little or no real protection. The gardens about the houses were generally planted with fruit trees. Flowers, vegetables, and medicinable herbs were grown by almost every householder. Trees were a common feature of the smaller country towns. Stratford was especially noted for its elms.
Once inside of a smaller Elizabethan house one found few of what we now call comforts. Chimneys were rare till towards the end of Elizabeth's reign. The fire was built upon the floor, often on the bare clay, and the smoke found its deliberate way out of a hole in the wall or roof. Frequently the lower story was not partitioned off, the single room, or "hall" serving as kitchen, dining-room, and general living-room. The second story contained the sleeping-rooms, or, perhaps, the sleeping-room, for it, like the floor below, was sometimes unpartitioned.
The furniture of such a house as that in which Shakespeare was born was indeed meagre. From an inventory made in 1592 of the effects of one of John Shakespeare's friends we learn what to expect in the way of furnishing. In the hall was "one table on a joined frame, five small joint stools, a wainscot bench, and painted cloths." There was evidently a fireplace and a chimney, since the list contains and-irons, fire shovel, tongs, pot-hooks, and pot-hangers. In another room was a small table on a frame, two joint stools, two chairs, a press, a joined bed, and a small plank. "Item, three painted cloths (a cheap imitation of tapestry), one feather bed, one flock bed, two bolsters, one pillow, one bed cover of yellow and green, four old blankets, and one old carpet." A chest contained coarse sheets, table cloths, dusters, and napkins. In another were three pairs of flaxen sheets, a pair of hempen sheets, a flaxen table cloth, half a dozen napkins of flax, one of hemp, two diaper napkins, and four pillow cases of flax. In the buttery a small assortment of dishes, platters, etc., among which were a few pewter vessels. There were three brass pots, a pan, six skimmers, a basin, a chafing dish, a frying pan, and a dripping pan. In another room on the ground floor were a truckle bed, an old coverlet, an old bolster, an old blanket, a little round table, and two old chests. In the kitchen were six barrels of beer, five looms, four pails, four forms, three stools, one bolting hutch, two skips for taking up yeast, one vat, a table board, two pairs of trestles, and two strikes (bushel measures), an axe, shovels, and a spade. In an upper room were more beds and bedding, a cheese crate, malt, malt shovels, a beam with scales, two dozen trenchers, and one dozen pewter spoons. In the yard were bundles of laths, loads of wood, buckets, cord and windlass for the well, and a watchman's bill. This list of articles represents the whole possession of a man in well to do circumstances.Cleanliness was unknown in the Elizabethan house, whether great or small. The most pretentious palace boasted nothing better as a covering for the floor than a layer of rushes. In the smaller houses of such a town as Stratford even rushes were dispensed with. The floor of the hall was the bare earth, sometimes sprinkled with sand, but seldom swept or cleaned. Water was plentiful, but not in demand. Woodwork was hardly ever scrubbed, and water upon the person is seldom referred to in contemporary writings. We hear very little of baths, but much of dirty fingers, unkempt hair, and general neglect of personal cleanliness. It was customary to let refuse lie about. When it became too foul it was swept out of the front door into the gutter, or left in a pile against the house wall. Shakespeare's father was fined for such a nuisance. There were several public muck heaps near the edge of town, but far too near the habitations for safety. Pigs and other animals ran loose in the streets, notwithstanding the fact that there were laws against the custom. In 1611 the town council issued an order "that no swine be permitted to be in the open street of the town unless they have a keeper with them, and then only when they are in driving within this borough, upon pain for every strayer of fourpence." The town itself provided for cleaning the bridge, the market place, and the spaces in front of the Guildhall and of the Chapel. Cleaning the streets was left to the individual householder who, however, seldom performed the duty till, like the poet's father, he was compelled by law.
Such a town of filth and thatched roofs was particularly liable to the double danger of disease and of fire. The plague was a regular visitant at Stratford every ten or twenty years. In the summer of 1564 this dread sickness swept away one-seventh of the population. The town was frequently devastated by fire, and several times nearly ruined.
Stratford has been chosen to illustrate the Elizabethan small town. Its manners and customs, government, trade, etc., are typical. It was slightly off the beaten track, however, therefore lacking in that element of bustle, of men of all sorts and conditions passing through on their way to somewhere else, that was characteristic of such a town as Coventry. Stratford also lacked what Coventry had, and York and Chester still have, a city wall.
- Sidney Lee, Stratford on Avon. To this book I am indebted for many of the facts of history in the following sketch.
- The substance of this inventory is given in Mr. Sidney Lee's Stratford on Avon, page 137, and in a similar description of the goods of a wooldriver on page 143. The appendix to Hall's Society in the Age of Elizabeth reprints a number of Inventories of the goods of people in different social ranks of life. A number of Elizabethan inventories were privately printed by Halliwell-Phillipps. The volume contains the Kenilwortb inventory.
- The word carpet, so often met in the old writings, usually refers to a table cloth.