jml's notebook

Review: How to be a Tudor

Before I read this book, I spent half a week being regaled by anecdotes from it as J read through it. She couldn't recommend it enough, and it was a quick read, so I thought "why not?"

Also, it dove-tailed nicely with my ambitions for collaboratively building a history for a medievalish setting for a D&D campaign.

One of our players has stipulated that as far as our history is concerned, ordinary lives matter. That is, our history should not be merely "kings and battles", but also the day-to-day lives of ordinary folk.

What good fortune to get a book on day-to-day life in Tudor England!

The book starts with waking up from bed, proceeds through chores, breakfast, the working day, dinner, leisure, supper, and then to bed. It talks about cheese making and fashion and how to walk and ribald songs and what pubs were like and the difference between ale and beer. It shows the tricks that poor people used to emulate the fashions of the rich (when it was legal for them to do so!). It's wonderfully rich and informative.

The author has been described as a "method historian". She doesn't just take a recipe for cheese making as written, she actually goes and tries it. Early on in the book, she shares her experiences following the Tudor approach to personal hygiene (frequent linen changes, little to no bathing), and the reactions of her fellow cast & crew (they didn't notice). Almost everything she brings up from sources, she then enriches with notes on her actual experience of what it's like to try it.

Two big revelations for me.

First is that, in London, there were probably many skilled woman artisans. They are nearly invisible on the historical record due to their not being allowed to form or join guilds, nor to hold property in their name unless they were widows. A not uncommon thing would be for a widow to set up a business, and then later to perhaps marry a man in a related business, then working together. I've known intellectually about women's contributions being diminished in history, but this was a really interesting concrete example.

Second is the sheer number of things women had to do around the house. While your average bloke spent all his time doing back-breaking ploughing, his wife would have been doing a thousand little and not-so-little things to keep the house going. At a guess, both days would have been exhausting, but the woman's would have been far more stressful.

The book is also peppered with many contemporary quotes, and wry observations from the author. Her delight in the material shines through, and makes the book a joy to read.

Very highly recommended to anyone who enjoys history, wants some light shone on the worlds of medieval fantasy, or who wants a happy, stimulating, but not challenging non-fiction read.

How to be a Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Everyday Life, Ruth Goodman