In “How to Be a Tudor,” historic-lifestyle expert Ruth Goodman vividly illustrates how people lived in the era of “Wolf Hall.” Goodman appears Tuesday, March 8, at Town Hall Seattle.
‘How to Be a Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Tudor Life’
by Ruth Goodman
Liveright, 336 pp., $29.95
“My heart lies somewhere in the middle of Elizabeth I’s reign,” confesses author and historic-lifestyle expert Ruth Goodman in the introduction to her new book. As she teaches the reader “How to Be a Tudor,” it’s abundantly clear that her heart does lie in 16th-century England, which she knows with the familiar intimacy of a particularly enchanting backyard. An adviser for the BBC’s series “Wolf Hall,” Goodman has “walked the walk,” spending many years in experiments recreating Tudor life — even following the Tudor clothing regime for three months without bathing, rubbing her body instead with linen cloths and going about in modern society.
Goodman offers “a broad gallop through a typical day” in the period, starting with daybreak and ending with nighttime, in a narrative liberally peppered with period sources like John Fitzherbert’s “The Boke of Husbandry.” Parents, servants and children often slept in the same room, rising at dawn to pray. There were no bathrooms. “Washing the body with hot soapy water was obviously a stupid and dangerous thing to do,” the author explains, “in a world wherein disease entered the body through the open pores of the skin.” Bathing, after all, “openeth the pores of a manne’s body and maketh the venomous ayre to enter and for to infecte the bloode,” according to Thomas Moulton (“This is the Myrrour or Glasse of Helth,” 1545).
We learn the details of herbs, perfumes, toothpicks and the virtues of soot from a wax candle to clean teeth and gums. Tudor attire is described in all its wonderful variety: the author’s favorite surviving item of Tudor attire is a pair of men’s “upperstocks” (trunk hosiery), with a “full-blown explicit codpiece.”
The author of “How to Be a Tudor” will appear in conversation with historical-fiction author Jennie Spohr at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 8, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5 at townhallseattle.org and at the door. Information: 206-652-4255.
We learn how Elizabethan ruffs were stiffened with starch from the Low Countries; how breakfasts could run the gamut from pancakes and kippers to porridge, bacon, bread and ale.
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Goodman tells us about education, etiquette, gardening and farming, the details of learning to read (taught separately from learning to write), even the making of ink from oak galls and copper sulfate, wine and gum arabic. She knows how the shaking and jolting of the plow hurts your arms, shoulders, back, hips and legs, because she has pulled a Tudor plow. Goodman has also made cheese, brewed ale, shot heavy Tudor-style bows, made bowstrings and learned to dance. All of this is described with entrancing gusto: “Being thrown five feet into the air by your partner when you are dancing the volta is exhilarating. Galliards leave you seriously out of breath, sweaty and laughing.”
The reader also learns about bearbaiting, theatergoing, tennis (Henry VIII had six pairs of tennis shoes with felt soles) and early football (which one commentator, Sir Thomas Elyot, described as “unsuitable for gentlemen: wherein is nothing but beastly fury and extreme violence, whereof proceedeth hurt”). The accounts of Tudor practices in love, marriage and sex are all highly entertaining, as are the book’s beautiful period illustrations, paintings, portraits, coats of arms, and other artwork depicting the Tudors at work and play.
Seldom has history been offered up in such exuberant detail that the scenes of everyday life positively leap from the page. You may find yourself reading way into the night, but remember Goodman’s advice about sleep positions: “Lying on your right side was considered healthiest!”