Life during the Medieval and Renaissance eras is often romanticised as being quaint, quirky, idyllic, relaxing and easy. A simpler time where simpler people with simpler pleasures led simpler lives. But what were the realities of life during the Medieval era and the Renaissance which followed, a period of time lasting 1,200 years?
Before the Industrial Revolution, technological innovations were slow. It wasn’t uncommon for things to be done the same way that they’d always been done, for hundreds of years. The same building techniques, the same methods of cooking, the same basic styles of clothing and countless other practices remained unchanged for generations.
In this posting, I’ll be looking at some aspects of daily life as it would’ve been lived during the Tudor era, from roughly 1485-1600.
Housing in the Tudor Era
In the 1500s, the majority of people would’ve lived in humble wattle-and-daub houses, often with a thatched roof. The walls were made of thick posts driven into the ground, and braced with wooden beams. Rods were driven up and down between the open spaces, and reeds (the ‘wattles’) were woven in and out of the rods, back and forth, up and down, a bit like weaving a basket. It was easy work and could be done relatively quickly. Wattles (reeds, essentially) were always sourced green, and never dry. Dry reeds, like dry wood, cracks and breaks really easily. The reeds had to be green when they were woven, or they wouldn’t have the elasticity to be bent back and forth between the rods.
A basic wattle & daub house, with a thatched roof. Until the mandatory manufacture of bricks in the 1660s, after the Great Fire of London, the majority of houses were built like this.
Once the walls of the house were rodded and wattled, then came the daub – a mix of water, mud, grass or straw-clippings, and excrement – usually horse, or cattle – which was easily found almost anywhere in Tudor England! The mixture was trodden and mixed underfoot, and then toshed up onto the walls, packed into the reeds and wattles and rods to create a thick, weatherproof layer to set and dry and harden. Entire houses were built using this method, with gaps in the framework for windows, doors and passageways.
What about windows?
Glass for the most part, was extremely expensive. If it couldn’t be made locally, then it would’ve been imported from Europe (most likely Italy), so most people didn’t actually have glass in their windows. They might’ve had lattices, and at night – shutters – but for the most part, windows were open to the breezes. At night, it was common practice for the head of the household to go around ‘locking up’, which meant barring the doors, and shutting and bolting the windows.
For people who were a bit better off, and could afford glass, windows were often leadlight – meaning that they were a lattice of dozens of square or diamond-shaped panes, held together by strips of lead, melted and crimped into place. Glass was expensive, and large panes of glass were difficult to transport over bumpy and pothole-riddled streets, so smaller panes which could be clipped, chipped and broken down to smaller sizes, and then simply ‘glued together’, essentially, by strips of lead, were easier to produce.
Okay, not everyone had nice glass windows. But what about flooring?
Again, that varied according to what you could afford. If you were absolutely dirt poor, then you had…a dirt floor! Usually just earth, packed and compacted and rammed down with sledgehammers. If you were a bit wealthier, then hardwood floors were common. If it was possible or necessary, your floor might be made of stone, or if you were of the upper echelons of society – marble or granite, or fancy tiles.
Every home in Elizabethan times would’ve had at least one fireplace. Temperatures during this time were a lot colder than they are today, due to a phenomenon known as the ‘Little Ice Age’. In fact during Stuart times, the weather in winter could be so cold that the River Thames in central London would freeze over solid! ‘Frost Fairs’ were held, where people could go skating on the frozen river!
Fireplaces had been rare in the medieval era. They had to be made of stone or brick, which was expensive, so most people had open floor hearths, with the smoke just finding its way up out of the house through the roof, but by late Tudor times, fireplaces and the materials to make them were becoming cheaper, so it was now possible for most people of moderate means to have at least one fireplace in their house, usually in the kitchen.
Fireplaces were of course used for cooking, heating water, keeping warm, and providing light, but one thing they couldn’t be used for was baking! The inconsistent heat from the fire being stoked and fuelled and dying down meant that baking was not possible at home. It was for this reason that most people took their bread, cakes or pies to the local bakehouse to be baked by their local baker. This is why you prick it, and poke it, and mark it with ‘B’, so that you knew which pie was yours, so that you could get it back when it came out of the oven!
Houses in the Tudor period could be surprisingly large. It was common for houses to be two, three, or even four storeys high, often with the upper floors being wider than the lower ones. The result was that in especially narrow streets, your bedroom could be almost kissing the bedroom of your neighbour, which could be as little as just a couple of feet apart! Often, houses doubled as shops, so the ground floor of a building was often the family business, whereas the upper floor or floors, contained the family home.
But what about rooves?
The majority of rooves were thatched. This meant that bundles of straw were sewn to the roof using yarn, to keep the rain out. Thatch could be extremely thick, and while it was surprisingly weatherproof, it would still have to be replaced occasionally, as old bundles wore out, and new ones had to be brought in to replace them.
With the majority of houses built in this manner, you can bet that fire was a huge risk. Close-packed wattle-and-daub constructs with straw rooves are highly combustible, and it was what caused, a hundred years after the start of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the Great Fire of London, in 1666.
Water and Sewerage
Clean water and removing sewerage are the two biggest challenges of any city in the world. In Tudor times, water was sourced from springs and rivers far from the city, or else from the River Thames. Finding clean drinking water was such a problem that most people didn’t even drink water – well into the 1800s, the drink of choice for most people was alcohol – either wine, beer or ale. The boiling process for making beer and ale, as well as the alcohol content that it contained, killed bacteria and made it safe to drink.
Alright. What about going to the toilet?
The majority of houses in towns had either a cesspit or a chamberpot. Cesspits were dug out as frequently as every three to six months, to maybe once a year. Any filth on the streets was swept and shovelled away by streetsweepers. But what about the sludge in your cesspit?
Enter: the nightman.
Sewerage was meant to be carted out of the city by gong-scourers, muck-rakers or nightsoil-men, who worked the night-shift, digging out cesspits, clearing crud off the streets, loading it onto carts and then driving it out of town where it would be used as fertiliser. Nightsoil labouring was dangerous to one’s health, pretty unpleasant, and very physically demanding! For this reason, anybody willing to carry out this unenviable occupation actually got a pretty impressive weekly wage! Provided you didn’t mind shovelling crap all night long, you could earn yourself quite a lot of money…or if you were Queen Elizabeth’s personal gong-scourer…an impressive amount of booze…he insisted that half his wages were paid in alcohol!
So, how much could you make as a gong-scourer? Well, it depended on who you worked for. If you worked for the City of London, for example, you were paid by quantity. Two shillings paid for every ton of excrement removed. If you worked for the Queen at Hampton Court, you earned sixpence a day, or 3/- (three shillings) a week (if we assume a day off on Sundays). Not a bad wage in an era when most daily expenses were counted out in farthings, ha’pennies and pennies and most people earned maybe two or three pence a day! Keeping people clean and hygienic might’ve been unpleasant and messy, but at least the job paid well!
The occupation of nightman or nightsoil-man persisted in London into the mid-1800s, and in other parts of the world, right into the 20th century, although it’s now mostly relegated to history, except in some undeveloped countries.
Travelling Around, Tudor Style
Travelling anywhere in Tudor England was slow and dangerous. Unless you had a horse and cart, your speed and how much you could carry was entirely up to how fit you were. The fastest way to travel was arguably by water. Travelling in London was particularly difficult due to the filthy state of the roads, and the sheer congestion of people. London Bridge, the only bridge across the River Thames for hundreds of years, dating all the way back to Roman times, was the only nearby river-crossing in Tudor times. The bridge had shops and houses built on it, and traffic was often so congested, it was faster to jump from boat-to-boat across the river, than wait at the bridge! The bridge also had to abide by a strict curfew. The gates were locked each night and unlocked at dawn. If you were unlucky enough to fall foul of the Tudor courts and end up with your head on a spike…that spike was driven into the bridge, so that everyone passing could see it.
Cooking and Cleaning
For most people in Elizabethan England, food comprised of pottage, vegetables and bread. Meat was often a luxury as animals such as chickens, sheep and cows were more important alive rather than dead. The only exception to this was the pig – which could be fattened and slaughtered regularly. Pork and bacon were the most common foods you were likely to come across in Tudor England.
Okay, what about cooking, then?
In theory, if you had a fireplace at home, then you could do most of your cooking at home, too. Cooking was traditionally done on a round-bottomed pot called a cauldron, hung over a fire on an iron hook and chain. Raising or lowering the hook (and therefore, the cauldron) determined how much heat was transferred to the pot (and the contents), thereby varying temperature and cooking-times. Most people just ate pottage – whatever they could find to chuck into the pot. Fish. Meat. Vegetables. Peas. Bread. Oats. Barley.
It’s the origin of the modern word ‘porridge’.
A fire in an open hearth, or fireplace, with a cauldron above it filled with pottage, would’ve been a common sight in many homes right up until the 1700s, when the first cast-iron stoves started being made.
As mentioned, most homes did not have ovens. Ovens were larger and generally harder to work properly. Part of the reason was that most ovens (not all) required you to rake out the flames, embers and burning wood, before chucking the bread in and closing the door, not like the wood-fired pizza-ovens we know today, where you keep the fire going while the bread bakes. The danger was that an errant spark could set the whole house on fire, and obviously this could only really be done safely in homes with dirt or stone floors.
Well that’s cooking. What about cleaning?
Although it would be centuries before knowledge of microbes was available, that did not mean that people back in Tudor times did not at least try to keep clean, although their concept of hygiene was somewhat different to ours.
Contrary to popular belief, people did wash and bathe, and keeping clean was considered important, but at the same time, bathing was not done as often as we might do today. Even into the 20th century, it wasn’t uncommon for most people to have just one bath a week. This was because of the expense of water, soap and firewood or coal to heat the water.
In Elizabethan times, personal hygiene as well as keeping a clean house were just as important then as now. Bathing was often done whenever and wherever it was practical to do so – a pond, a stream or river, or simply by heating water up in the copper (the enormous copper basin in the scullery or kitchen) and bucketing it into a tub for a quick scrub-up in the kitchen.
Cleaning the house involved many of the tasks we still associate today with cleaning – hot water, rags, brushes and brooms, however the Tudors did have some other rather more interesting cleaning methods, which they used in an era before soap and detergent.
For scrubbing wooden surfaces such as chopping boards, tables, benches, buckets, milk-churns and other wooden food-preparation items, salt and boiling water was used, one after the other, to sterilise and clean out an item thoroughly. They of course did not understand sterilisation, but the Tudors did know that improper cleaning spread disease.
For cleaning clothing, linen and fabrics, the Tudors used lye, an alkaline solution created by straining water through wood-ash, which was simply scooped out of the fireplace. The concentrated alkaline-water solution created by this straining process was added to the laundry and it helped to loosen up grease and sweat stains to make washing clothes easier.
Along with the lye solution, another common cleaning agent, for a whole host of things was…urine!
Stale urine, usually collected and left to sit for a few days, up to a few weeks, was the Tudor washing-liquid par excellence! Urine degrades over time, turning into ammonia (which gives it its delightful fragrance), and it was this concentrated ammonia that was useful in shifting stains, polishing metals, fulling cloth, and a whole host of other household tasks! Urine was also actively collected out in the streets, the nitrate inside it was concentrated and added to charcoal and sulphur to create gunpowder. Householders were encouraged to donate their urine to the State for gunpowder manufacturing. Public houses, inns and taverns often had large, communal piss-pots parked outside the front door where the gentlemen of a community could make a contribution to the safety of the realm and aid in the production of gunpowder!
During the Tudor era, the majority of people wore garments made of wool and linen. Cotton wasn’t generally available, and silk was extremely expensive. For most men and boys, the typical outfit was the doublet and hose, complete with underclothes, stockings, a belt and boots.
The hose was a pair of leggings with an opening at the crotch, which was covered with a removable pouch or flap of fabric known as a codpiece. Underneath, one wore one’s linen underwear, and a linen undershirt. Over the top, a man would wear his doublet – a short jacket made of a double-layer of wool (hence the name ‘doublet’). The doublet was buttoned at the front, and then to keep everything together, short cords were looped and tied through eyelets at the top of the hose and the bottom of the doublet, holding everything together. This was reinforced with a belt, onto which things like knives, pouches or pockets could be tied to, or hung from. Garments with pockets included in them would not be a feature of clothing for another few centuries!
If it was cold, a man might wear an overcoat, or a cloak or cape on top, along with a hat. If it was sunny and hot, he might remove his doublet and just wear his hose and undershirt, however to be seen in one’s shirtsleeves was tantamount to being seen in one’s underwear – It wouldn’t be until the 20th century that the shirt would gain any sort of respect as a garment in its own right. Even in the Victorian era, it was considered impolite to show off one’s shirt in public, without a waistcoat to cover it.
Women on the other hand wore a whole host of fabrics! An undershirt or blouse known as a chemise typically went on first. Then came a corset stiffened with reeds, whalebone, or wooden stays. Then came petticoats, a stomacher, an overskirt and then another jacket or blouse to go over the top. Everything was held together by drawstrings tied in elaborate knots, or else by clothespins which were sharp little brass or steel pins designed to keep everything from coming apart at the seams. Pins were essential for proper dressing in those days, especially for women, which spawned the expression of ‘pin-money’ (a bit of cash on the side), but which came from the days of the Tudors, when you actually needed money for pins, otherwise your clothes wouldn’t stay together!
The rhythms of life were very different five hundred years ago. In general, people woke up earlier and went to bed later. Waking up at dawn or near to it, was common. Work was started early and the main meal called ‘dinner’ was taken at late morning or midday, and another meal of ‘supper’ was had in the late afternoon, before one went to bed in the early evening.
The reason was light. The availability of light affected everybody. It affected when and how long you could work, when you woke up, when you went to bed. The only forms of light were either oil lamps, candles or rushlights – cheap reeds (rushes) drenched in tallow (animal fat), dried, and then lit to provide illumination.
For most people, the main source of light was either an open fire, or candles, either made of beeswax, or tallow. Tallow candles were cheaper, but as with anything – you get what you pay for. Tallow burned horribly, it stank to high heaven, and it was never very bright. It was basically a candle made of animal fat! Eugh…
A rushlight in its holder. Extremely cheap to make, they only burned for a few minutes, unlike candles, which could burn for hours.
Beeswax could be melted and purified, it could be coloured and scented, and it burned and melted more cleanly. This gave beeswax candles a much brighter, purer light. But this light came at a price, and candles were taxed…five hundred years later and we still have electric light bills…so not much changes! Because of the expense of candles, however, people, rich or poor, burned as little light as possible at night, and generally retired early. This was what dictated the rhythms of everyday life.
This article was originally posted in the September, 2016 issue of TAT History, and was reproduced here by permission of its author…me!