The Elizabethan People/Chapter 4

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THE American in Paris often asks himself the question: What do they all do for a living? At first sight, every one, whether high or low, seems to be wholly bent on pleasure, a bent the Parisians have developed into a fine art. One is also likely to contrast the slow-moving, business-like Londoners of to-day with their mercurial neighbours by the Seine. This, however, is a contrast wholly of modern times. London, in fact all England, in the time of Shakespeare was in a state of transition, undergoing a rapidity of change, an enlargement of horizon, that has not been equaled before or since. Their increasing importance created in the Elizabethans a feeling of self-satisfaction. Since 1588 they had been care free. The development and diversity of fun-producing sports and customs reached a climax at the end of the sixteenth century. Inasmuch as space-limits prevent a complete enumeration here of the amusements of the time, it is interesting to note a partial list of games, which, though written long before the Elizabethan age, is quoted by the contemporary Stow as illustrative of his own time.

"But London, for the shows upon theatres, and comical pastimes, hath holy plays, representations of miracles, which holy confessors have wrought, or representations of torments wherein the constancy of martyrs appeared. Every year also at Shrove-Tuesday, that we may begin with children's sports, seeing we have all been children, the schoolboys do bring the cocks of the game to their master, and all the forenoon they delight themselves in cock-fighting: after dinner all the youths go into the fields to play at the ball.

"The scholars of every school have their ball, or baston in their hands ; the ancient and wealthy men of the city come forth on horseback to see the sport of the young men, and to take part of their pleasure in beholding their agility. Every Friday in Lent a fresh company of young men comes into the field on horseback, and the best horseman conducteth the rest. Then march forth the citizens' sons and other young men, with disarmed lances and shields, and there they practice feats of war. Many courtiers likewise, when the King lieth near, and attendants of noblemen, do repair to these exercises; and while the hope of victory doth inflame their minds, do show good proof how serviceable they would be in martial affairs.

"In Easter holidays they fight battles on the water; a shield is hung upon a pole, fixed in the midst of the stream, a boat is prepared without oars, to be carried by the violence of the water, and in the fore part thereof standeth a young man, ready to give charge upon the shield with his lance; if so be he breaketh his lance against the shield, and doth not fall, he is thought to have performed a worthy deed; if so be, without breaking his lance, he runneth strongly against the shield, down he falleth into the water, for the boat is strongly forced by the tide; but on each side of the shield ride two boats, furnished with young men, which recover him that falleth as soon as they may. Upon the bridge, wharfs, and houses, by the river's side stand great numbers to see and laugh thereat.

"In the holidays all the summer the youths are exercised in leaping, dancing, shooting, wrestling, casting the stone, and practicing their shields; the maidens trip in their timbrils, and dance as long as they can well see. In winter, every holiday before dinner, the boars prepared for brawn are set to fight, or else bulls and bears are baited.

"When the great fen, or moor, which watereth the walls of the city on the north side is frozen many young men play upon the ice; some, striding as wide as they may, do slide swiftly; others make themselves seats of ice, great as millstones; one sits down, many hand in hand do draw him, and one slipping on a sudden, all fall together; some tie bones to their feet and under their heels, and shoving themselves by a little piked staff, do slide as swiftly as a bird flieth in the air, or an arrow out of a cross-bow. Sometimes two run together with poles, and hitting one the other, either one or both do fall, not without hurt; some break their arms, some their legs, but youth desirous of glory in this sort exerciseth itself against the time of war. Many of the citizens do delight themselves in hawks and hounds; for they have liberty of hunting in Middlesex, Hartfordshire, all Chiltron, and in Kent of the Water of Cray."

The above passage from Fitzstephen's early account of London was quoted by Stow as characteristic in 1598. Within a few years of the latter date another authoritative list of sports was published, a list that should be carefully noted, for it was written by no less a person than the King of England, who hoped that his utterance would at once stamp out all sports that did not have the royal hall-mark of respectability.

"Certainly," says King James, "bodily exercises and games are very commendable, as well as banishing of idleness, the mother of all vice; as for making the body able and durable for travel, which is very necessary for a king. But from this court I debar all rough and violent exercises; as the foot-ball, meeter for laming, than making able, the users thereof; as likewise such tumbling tricks as only serve for comedians and balladines to win their bread with: But the exercises I would have you to use, although but moderately, not making a craft of them, are running, leaping, wrestling, fencing, dancing, and playing at the catch, or tennis, archery, pelle-melle, and suchlike other fair and pleasant field games. And the honorablest and most recommendable games that ye can use on horseback; for, it becometh a prince best of any man to be a fair and good horseman; use, therefore, to ride and danton great and courageous horses;—and especially to use such games on horseback as may teach you to handle your arms thereon, such as the tilt, and the ring, and low-riding for handling of your sword.

"I cannot omit here the hunting, namely with running hounds, which is the most honourable and noblest sort thereof; for, it is a thievish form of hunting to shoot with guns and bows; and greyhound hunting is not so martial a game. "As for hawks, I condemn it not; but I must praise it more sparingly, because it neither resembleth the wars so near as hunting doth in making a man hardy and skillfully ridden in all grounds, and is more uncertain and subject to mischances; and, which is worst of all, is therethrough an extreme stirrer up of passions.

"As for sitting or house pastimes—since they may at times supply the room which, being empty, would be patent to pernicious idleness—I will not therefore agree with the curiosity of some learned men of our age in forbidding cards, and suchlike games of hazard: when it is foul and stormy weather, then, I say, ye may lawfully play at the cards or tables; for, as to dicing, I think it becometh best deboshed souldiers to play at on the heads of their drums, being only ruled by hazard, and subject to knavish cogging: and as for the chess, I think it over fond, because it is over-wise and philosophic a folly."

The Elizabethans were very quick to take advantage of any mirth-producing opportunity. The Thames which had not been frozen over since the fifth year of Queen Elizabeth's reign was again frozen in the fifth year of King James. In a moment the people were out upon the bosom of "that Lady of Fresh Waters" as a contemporary writer calls the frozen river. The people turned out en masse to enjoy the unusual phenomenon. There was a "tavern that runs upon wheels on the river, as well as a thousand have done besides."

"This cold breakfast being given to the city," continues a contemporary historian of the subject, "and the Thames growing more and more hard-hearted; wild youths and boys were the first merchant-adventurers that set out to discover these cold islands of ice upon the river. … As the ice increased in hardness … both men, women, and children walked over and up and down in such companies, that, I verily believe, and I dare almost swear it, the one half, if not three parts of the people of the city have been seen going on the Thames. The river showed not now, neither shows it yet, like a river, but like a field, where archers shoot at pricks [targets] while others played at the ball. It was a place of mastery, where some wrestle and some run. … Thirst you for beer, ale, or usquebaugh, &c., or for victuals? There you may buy it, because [in order that] you may tell another day how you dined upon the Thames. Are you cold with going over? You shall ere you come to the midst of the river spy some ready with pans of coals to warm your fingers. If you want fruit after you have dined, there stand costermongers to serve you at your call. And thus do people leave their houses and the streets; turning the goodliest river in the whole kingdom into the broadest street to walk in."

So much for the generality of all sorts of fun. Rich and poor, in town and country alike, looked upon or took part in the pageants connected with progresses and days of festivity. The dramatic productions which the popular mind readily recalls to-day as the most characteristic form of Elizabethan amusement, have been described elsewhere by the present writer and are therefore omitted from the following pages. Doubtless hawking and hunting, the most popular rural sports of the time, lent more colour to the language than all the other sports combined. In the hey-dey of Elizabeth's reign it was as incumbent on the fashionable gentleman to be able to speak with facility the technical language of venery as it had been a few years earlier to be able to mimic the elaborate phrases of Lyly's Euphues. Yet, in the long list of diversions that follows, there are many others that claimed an almost equal share of the attention of Shakespeare's people.