A Short History of Social Life in England/Chapter 11

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Circa 1509 — 1547


"Let me review the scene,
 And summon from the shadowy Past
 The forms that once have been."

WE turn from the period of the Middle Ages, with its tyrannies and trammels, its bondage and blindness, its mental stagnation and spirit of superstition, with feelings akin to those which ushered in the new era of the wondrous sixteenth century. It is like turning from the darkness of night to the morning sunshine, if we allow the period under Henry VII. as the breaking of the dawn and the Elizabethan era as the noontide of triumphant glory. This is not the place to repeat the charming story of the Renaissance, that movement which marks the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern World, or to dwell on the spirit of the time which witnessed the liberation of reason and gave rise to that passionate recognition of humanity—that escape, "at first hesitating and then triumphant, from a circumscribed life of ecclesiastical tradition into "joyous freedom and unfettered spontaneity." It is not the intellectual side of the New Birth that concerns us here: there was movement everywhere, affecting every sphere of life. The awakening of the nation meant new energy in every department—an energy that was daily gaining strength under Tudor rule. A new England was shaping itself—Englishmen had broken with tradition; they questioned where once they were dumb; they were filled with new hopes, new desires, new ideas. But if men were thirsting after a wider knowledge, they were still as boisterous and merry as in the olden times; if they were ready to educate their children more effectually, they were still keen on festivities, shows, masques, revels, public processions and tournaments; if they reasoned within themselves on matters of State and reform, they were just as unreasoning as heretofore on matters of dress. Thus the age that saw the great Reformation witnessed the Field of the Cloth of Gold: the same King who encouraged the new learning set his people an example of every kind of extravagance. In one year he spent £5,000 on silks and velvets, and during his reign banquets and pageants reached the summit of luxury. Familiar enough is the description of Henry VIII. at the famous Field of the Cloth of Gold, from which he returned "all safe in body but empty in purse." "His grace—the most goodliest Prince that ever reigned over the Realme of England—was apparelled in a garment of Clothe of Silver, of Damaske, ribbed with Clothe of Gold, so thick as might be; the garment was large and plited verie thicke and canteled of verie good intaile, of suche shape and makyng, that it was marveillous to beholde." What the King did the people did, then as now. When Wolsey became Chancellor of the kingdom, his gorgeous dress rivalled that of the King himself He wore silks and satins of the finest texture dyed a rich crimson, his shoulders were covered by a tippet of costly sables, his gloves were of red silk, his hat was scarlet, his shoes were silver gilt inlaid with pearls and diamonds. His retinue consisted of some 800 persons, his very cook wore a velvet jerkin with a chain of gold about his neck. The wardrobe of every gentleman was full of furs, frills and feathers; there were doublets of cloth of gold, gowns of rich velvet, coats of crimson satin, hose of crimson, fur-lined hoods, rings and brooches, chains of gold and jewelled caps, broad-toed shoes with huge Tudor ribbon roses on the instep. Indeed, the servants had much ado to tie up the many points of their master's hose, to lace his doublet and to arrange the frilled shirt to his satisfaction. It was well-nigh impossible for a sixteenth-century gentleman to dress alone: all his garments were laced and tied together—even his sleeves were often laced to show his fine lawn shirt beneath, dainty ruffles of which appeared at the wrist. Low velvet hats with large plumes were introduced by the King, who also insisted on his courtiers cutting off their hair, which they had worn long and lavishly dressed for some time past Indeed, an almost effeminate vanity characterised the men of the time, specially with regard to hair-dressing:—

"I knyt yt up all the nyght
 And the day time kemb it down ryght,
 And then yt cryspeth and shyneth as bryght
 As any pyrrled gold,"

says an old ballad. Ladies, on the other hand, now let their hair flow over their shoulders from beneath little gold nets, which they wore on their heads like caps. The tall head-dress had given way to a diamond-shaped gear, which in its turn was superseded by a close linen cap, projecting forward with a lappet hanging down behind, allowing the hair to be seen. Dresses fitted closely, being cut low in the neck. Very often they were looped up all round, a fashion which prepared the way for the full gathered skirt of Elizabethan times. Thus it would seem that at this period the women were more moderate in their dress than the men.

"I think no realme in the worlde … doth so much in the vanity of their apparell as the Englysh men do at thys present," says a contemporary writer. "Theyr cote must be made after the Italian fashion, theyr cloke after the use of the Spanyards, their gowne after the manner of the Turks, their cappe muste be of the Frenche fashion, and at the laste theyr dagarde must be Scottish, wyth a Venetian tassel of sylke. … O what a monster and a beaste of manye heads is the Englyshe now become. To whom maie he be compared worthely, but to Esoppes crow? For, as the crow decked hys selfe wyth the fethers of all kynde of byrdes to make hys selfe beautifull, even so doeth the vaine Englyshman, for the fonde apparelyng of hymselfe, borrow of every nation to set forth hymselfe galaunt in the face of the world."

Extravagance in dress was but one item of the reckless expenditure and love of display which characterised this period. The pageants which had existed from quite early times were a special feature of the sixteenth century. Full of dramatic elements, together with moralities, interludes, and masques, these pageants were the forerunners of the drama, which was to arise in all its glory before the century had died away.

Though full of fanciful suggestion, they would seem tame spectacles compared with modern ideas of amusement The pageant was drawn before the spectators by two beasts, perhaps a lion flourished all over with gold damask and an antelope with silver damask and tusks of gold, ridden by ladies richly clad, and led by men covered all over with green silk. Chained to the animals by golden chains was a forest scene: the forest was full of trees and flowers, fern and grass, made of green velvet, damask and silk, in the midst of which stood six foresters in coats and hoods of green velvet. There, too, stood a golden castle, before the gate of which sat a man making a garland of roses, as a prize for the victor of the joust which would follow. As this strange spectacle—a compound of the real and unreal—rested before the spectators, the six foresters blew their horns, the forest opened, and out stepped four armed knights ready to fight.

Equally extravagant were the huge banquets given in this reign. The "glory of hospitality" was an Englishman's boast. For every man who chose to ask for it, there was free food and free lodging, though the latter might be but a mat of rushes in a spare corner of the hall. There was little fear of this privilege being abused, for suspicious characters might not wander at large in these days, and for any one who could not give a satisfactory account of himself there were the village stocks. For the sin of idleness our forefathers had no mercy; they abhorred it as a vice which would undermine their sturdy commonwealth, as, indeed, it is undermining the England of to-day. An Act passed in 1531 decreed that any person "being whole and mighty in body and able to labour," found begging, might be arrested, and if unable to give a satisfactory account of himself, he was brought to the nearest market town, tied to the end of a cart, stript of his clothes, and beaten with whips through the town, bleeding and ashamed, after which degradation he was sent to his native place, on his oath to "put himself to labour, like a true man ought to do." If the "sturdy vagabond" were caught a third time in idleness, he was to suffer death "as an enemy to the commonwealth." Any child found idle was taken up by the parish officers and handed over to some tradesman or farmer to be taught; if he refused or ran away, he was publicly whipped with rods, at the discretion of the justice of the peace. It is further interesting to remember that at this time private persons were forbidden to give money to beggars, though they might always give food. For the really deserving poor, two collectors were appointed by each parish, with a list of the needy and the parishioners. Their orders were to "gently ask and demand" regular weekly payments from every man and woman on the register (Henry VIII. had added to the already existing coins a double sovereign, a half sovereign, a gold crown and half-crown). If any declined to subscribe, he was sent for and reprimanded by his parish priest, and if still obdurate, handed over to his Bishop. There was little spontaneity about the charity of these times. A day's work meant a day's work in the sixteenth century. From the middle of March to the middle of September, the work hours were from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m., with half an hour for breakfast, an hour and a half for dinner and the mid-day sleep which was allowed from May to August, while in winter the work hours were from sunrise to sunset.

To supply work for all was the duty of the State, and to this end we find abundant legislation, and the faint shadow of Protection creeping over the country. "The King's Highness," runs one Act, "calling to his most blessed remembrance the great number of idle people daily increasing throughout this his Realm, supposeth that one cause thereof is by the continued bringing into the same the great number of wares and merchandise made and brought out and from the parts beyond the sea into this Realm, ready wrought by manual occupation ; amongst which is linen cloth of divers sorts." Seeing then that his people buy ready-made linen, instead of spinning and weaving it themselves, "to the high displeasure of Almighty God, great diminution of the King's people and extreme ruin, decay, and impoverishment of this Realm. … Therefore for reformation of these things … and to avoid that most abominable sin of idleness out of the Realm," every person occupying land shall, for every sixty acres under plough, sow one quarter of an acre in flax and hemp. Thus care was taken to make every Englishman contribute his share of work to the common weal.

It must be remembered that every Englishman at this time was trained to arms, ready equipped for fighting with arms corresponding to his rank, though there was no regular army or uniform for soldiers. The law which in the thirteenth century enacted that every man from fifteen to sixty should bear arms, from bows and arrows to swords and daggers, still held good. Shooting was the common amusement of the people; every village had its pair of butts, and on Sundays and holidays all able-bodied men were required to appear in the field "as valiant Englishmen ought to do." But in the early part of the sixteenth century the people were growing slack: they played their games of bowls, quoits and dice, instead of practising their bows and arrows, until the King, who was the best rider and the best archer in England, set himself to "brace again the slackened sinews of the nation." He ordained that every man, with but few exceptions, under the age of sixty must have bows and arrows "ready continually in his house, to use himself in shooting"; that every boy from seven to seventeen must learn to shoot, possessing a bow and two arrows, and after seventeen a bow and four arrows. Certain it is that at this time Englishmen were a "sturdy, high-hearted race, sound in body and fierce in spirit, and furnished with thews and sinews which, under the stimulus of those great shins of beef—their common diet—were the wonder of the age." "What comyn folk in all this world … is so mighty, so strong in the felde, as the comyns of England?" says a proud writer in 1515.

Strong indeed must our forefathers have been at this time, to have survived the insanitary conditions of their lives. The country during the sixteenth century was hardly ever free from outbreaks of the plague and "sweating sickness," partly owing to the "filthiness of the streets and the sluttishness within doors," says Erasmus, writing after his first visit to this country, "The floors are commonly of clay, strewed with rushes, so renewed that the substratum may be unmolested for twenty years, with an ancient collection of beer, grease, fragments, bones, spittle, and everything that is nasty." This horrid mess was utilised by the sixteenth-century doctors, who professed to cure what they diagnosed as a "stitch in the side" by taking a well trodden clod of this refuse, making it into a cake with vinegar, well toasted, and clapping it on to the side. Other old prescriptions show that medicine had made very little progress.

"If a man were become verye weake and feable by reason of a longe sicknesse, even that he seemeth to be consumed, nether can recover, then take twentye olde cockes, dresse and dighte them as though they should be eaten, seth them in the thyrde part of a tonne of water, stampe them in a morter, so that the bones be al to brused, make a bath therewyth and let hym bathe therein." Yet more inadequate are some other prescriptions. For headache, the patient is ordered to roll up and down on his tongue while fasting, a mixture of pepper and mustard about the size of a bean, in order to draw the evil humours out of the head into the mouth!

Small wonder that the doctors were paralysed when confronted with the plague, though some sort of quarantine was now observed for the first time. The door of an infected house was marked with a wisp, which developed later into St. Anthony's cross painted on a small piece of canvas, together with the words "Lord have mercy upon us." If it were necessary for a member of the infected house to go out of doors, he had to carry in his hand a white rod for forty days, while the penalty for concealment of the plague was death, "the man to be hangit, the woman drownit."

So far, then, in this age of contradictions, there seems to have been but little material progress in the social lives of our forefathers; it was a period still "instinct with vast animal life, robust health and muscular energy, terrible in its rude and unrefined appetites, its fiery virtues and fierce passions."

"It was merry in England before the new learning came up," said the people; but to that new learning and the vast changes it wrought it is interesting now to turn.