Could you survive Tudor England?
by Paul Fraser
Welcome to Tudor England. Grab your lute, tankard of ale and codpiece (so to speak) and see if you have what it takes to survive. But if you're over the age of 35, I have bad news: the Tudor version of you is most probably dead. That was the average life expectancy in England at the time. But be merry, there's plenty to enjoy in Tudor England.
London streets were a wonderment of odour and noise. Chamber pots were brazenly tipped out of windows. Traders bawled out their wares. There was the constant sound of hooves on cobbles. Drainage did not exist. Amid such squalid conditions, plague was a constant menace and could wipe out 15% of a town in days.
Out in the country things were quieter, but no easier for the common man working the land. 50% of the population lived at "subsistence level" - having just enough food, water, and clothing to get by.
If you didn't have a job, you were in trouble. There were harsh laws for vagrants, even those who were seeking work. A good whipping might be in order.
Beer for breakfast
If you had somewhere to call home, it would unlikely have been a place to boast about. A poor person's house was a hut with a dirt floor, and sanitation, across all classes, was an unpleasant business. The flushing toilet (invented 1596) arrived too late for most Tudors, which meant crouching over a cesspit or the aforementioned chamber pot instead. Toilet paper too was centuries away, so it was lamb's wool for the wealthy, and leaves or moss for the poor.
Water was dangerous to drink. Adults turned instead to ale or wine (if wealthy) throughout the day, while children drank milk. Bread and cheese were the staples of the diet for the poor, with a watery pottage providing some warming comfort for an evening meal. Lots of meat, including robin and badger, might be on the menu for the rich. Potatoes arrived only in 1580.
Medical thought revolved around the four humours: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. A good balance of the four was required to maintain health. Induced vomiting or blood-letting would get you back on your feet. Influenza, smallpox, syphilis and dysentery were everywhere.
Jail was merely a place for a prisoner to go before a punishment could be meted out. 70,000 people were executed during the time of Henry VIII. Flogging or the stocks were common for small crimes, death by hanging for anything serious, which could include stealing, though you might just have your arm chopped off.
You could find yourself boiled alive for attempted murder, while women found guilty of treason might be burned at the stake. Won't confess? - it's "the rack" for you. Gossiping women were a particular menace, and might have to wear "the brank" - a metal cage that spiked your tongue when you spoke.
Accused of being a witch? The outlook was not favourable. It was off to the ducking stool. If you floated you were definitely a witch and burned at the stake. If you sank, it proved you were not a witch. But by that time it was probably too late.
No sex on the weekend
The church discouraged sex between Thursday and Monday and all sexual relations were off during Lent. Women who enjoyed sex were regarded with suspicion.
So with sex off the menu, what to do? To the theatre perhaps - especially towards the end of the Elizabethan era when Shakespeare came on the scene. No hushed tones in the stalls during Tudor times, heckling, merrymaking and fighting were almost guaranteed.