How to Be a Tudor, by Ruth Goodman

A few of my friends and I have been waiting impatiently for How to Be a Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Tudor Life, by Ruth Goodman, for months. I was so eager to devour the book’s contents when I got my hands on it that I stayed up far too late on Sunday night that I’m still paying for it. It was worth it. I now know what swashbuckling really means.

How to Be a Tudor follows the same pattern set by How to Be a VictorianGoodman spent time living an approximation of life in sixteenth century England—wearing the clothes, cooking on open hearths, sleeping on rushes, even cleaning her teeth with lampblack. Goodman takes us through the day, blending firsthand knowledge with years of research.

Most of How to Be a Tudor is taken up with dispelling myths. The further back we go—or so I learned in history classes—the smellier people were. Goodman says this is not so. She spent months “in character,” following Tudor hygiene practices. This meant that she changed her linen shift once a week and washed down with water and a linen cloth every night. No deodorant. No showers. And she did not reek! A colleague who took showered everyday but did not change his garb as frequently apparently developed quite a pong. (Goodman likes the word “pong.” So do I.) She also informs us that, while people did drink a lot of beer and ale, it was less alcoholic than later brews. The biggest revelation was how much people spent just on food: 80% of their income!

I continue to be amazed at how much more sense the literature of the period makes now that I know more about the life of the writers and their audiences. Goodman noticed this, too. At one point, she mentions that she and her friends catch more of the Shakespeare’s jokes because they’ve spent so much time in the 1500s, so to speak. The more I read of books like How to Be a Tudor, the more sense New Historicism makes. Understanding the context doesn’t just help one understand the jokes, it helps one understand the meaning of the literature’s intended meaning. I was reminded of the medieval literature students I help at the Library every spring. It’s not enough for them just to read the text of The Canterbury Tales. It’s almost gibberish if they don’t know the allusions, the idioms and slang, and, yes, the jokes.

Because the Tudor era is less well documented than the Victorian era, How to Be a Tudor runs to less than 300 pages of text (not counting the bibliography and index). I’m not exactly disappointed that the book isn’t longer, though I do wish that this book could have provided as complete a picture of life in the 1500s as How to Be a Victorian did for the 1800s. This isn’t Goodman’s fault. The further away we are from a time period, the less likely we are to have documentation about humble life than we do about the high and the mighty. The discovery of the wreck of the Mary Rose was a windfall for researchers like Goodman. She references it frequently because the wreck preserved even things like the cook’s firewood. Without such archaeological finds—and Goodman’s experiences—so much of Tudor life would be a matter of conjecture.

I wonder which (if any) historical period Goodman will tackle next.


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