How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England, by Ruth Goodman

38212150I strongly suspect that How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, and Braggarts, by Ruth Goodman, was born from all of the research Goodman did that didn’t make it in to her previous book, How to Be a Tudor. Goodman packs this book full of advice from etiquette books, seasoned with cases of bad behavior that ended up going to court. I wish there had been more of the court cases because I found them fascinating and because they’re much better indicators of what people were actually doing instead of what they are told they ought to do.

How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England contains chapters on swearing, mockery, table manners, dress, bodily functions, drinking and more. In each chapter, Goodman breaks elements of (bad) behavior down into specific no-nos. For example, the chapter on mockery contains all sorts of advice about how different people stood or walked, immediately followed by tales of how people would parody the way a soldier strutted or a minister “halted.” In the chapter on violence, Goodman quotes an etiquette manual for young men and boys that tells them to be many but to avoid murdering people. Then Goodman recounts a series of stories of violence that would be farcical except for all the manslaughter.

The best parts of this book, for me, were the small slices of life provided by the court cases. Goodman gives us the names of these briefly infamous Elizabethans (and Jacobeans, since this book also covers the early Stuart era), their shenanigans, and the insults that caused them. Etiquette manuals are interesting in their own right. They’re full of complicated instructions for how to do just about anything, from dressing to blowing one’s nose in the morning to how to bow to anyone on the social spectrum. But the court cases appeal to my overdeveloped sense of schadenfreude by showing us how it all fell apart in real life. No one can be on their best behavior all the time, after all.

Goodman’s angle in showing us Elizabethan manners in terms of actively pissing people off perfectly serves its purpose of showing readers just how complex it all was. I was a bit lost at times as she described the various styles of bowing or the correct way to stand because I wasn’t sure which joints we were supposed to bend. But by looking at good behavior through bad behavior, I got a very clear sense of how Elizabethan society might function day-to-day. I also learned that I would be spotted as a time traveler in an instant because I would probably slip up and tell someone to sneeze into their elbow if they didn’t have a handkerchief (considered disgusting) while being appalled by people spitting all over the place (this grosses a lot of Americans out). Readers of social histories will enjoy this a lot, I think.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 9 October 2018.

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