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REVIEW: How To Be a Tudor, by Ruth Goodman
How To Be a Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Tudor Life, Ruth Goodman (Liveright, 2016).
Sometimes you read a book that, while interesting in its own right, sparks a whole train of thought on something only tangentially related. This is one such, an overview of life in the Tudor world that offers an instructive comparison with contemporary class signaling and then, quite unexpectedly, also illuminates something about recent advances in artificial intelligence. It’s nothing the author intended, I’m sure, but one of the delights of history books (and especially of very practical histories like this one) is the light they cast on humanity as a whole. What are people like? How do they behave? What are our own versions of whatever seems strangest here? And, of course, what’s up with codpieces?
We’ve already met Ruth Goodman — reënactor, costume drama and museum consultant, and historian of Tudor England “as it was lived” — in my review of The Domestic Revolution. This book takes a similarly personal approach: she has actually done everything she describes, so she can explain things the historical record elides but that might be opaque to a modern audience. (If you were writing a book about daily life today, for instance, it’s possible that you would mention shoelaces, but you probably wouldn’t think to describe what a shoelace is, or how one is tied, which someone five hundred years in the future might well need explained.) Compared to The Domestic Revolution, though, How To Be a Tudor is simultaneously broader in scope and much more niche, covering nearly all the daily practicalities but with limited obvious appeal to anyone not already interested in early modern Britain.1 But the appeal is, I promise, there.
When I originally set out to write this review, I was going to open with something like “obviously we all know that medieval and early modern Europeans put rushes on their floors, but what you may not know…” before it occurred to me that I should probably check whether that was actually true. So, like you do, I asked my friends, and since I got answers ranging from “yes of course, everyone knows that” to “what’s a rush?” I suppose I should first inform you that 1) a rush is an aquatic plant of the genus Juncus, sort of like a reed or a sedge, and 2) medieval and early modern Europeans put rushes on their floors. The Anglo-Norman word junchiere2 is first attested in 1170 and means “rush-strewn floor,” and there are records of rush purchases, payment for rush-strewers, and regulations on rush-selling (you have to bundle them before you bring them to the London wharfside for sale) throughout the period. They even appear in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, where Petruchio’s servant checks on the preparations for his master’s wedding by asking, “Is supper ready, the house trimm'd, rushes strew'd, cobwebs swept…?” But imagine trying to walk across a floor covered in vegetable matter in the sorts of long gowns that all Tudor-era women (and many men!)3 wore; it would get caught up in the trailing fabric, wouldn’t it? And indeed, this is what happened with Goodman’s first experiment with strewing loose rushes, but she soon found that they performed very well when laid in bundles. At two inches thick, they form a consolidated layer and do not move around underfoot; at six inches thick, the floor is “genuinely comfortable to sleep on” (and the floor was of course where many people slept in the days before coal reshaped English life). After six months of living this way while filming Secrets of the Castle, she writes,
I had a look at the state of the rushes. Not all of us had been sleeping on them every night, but they had most certainly been heavily used by my colleagues and me, both on and off screen, for sitting, walking, standing and working on. Much food had been cooked in there, much drink drunk, and all the spillages that you might expect had certainly happened. A hen had moved in and raised a brood of chicks among us on the rush floor — we didn’t have the heart to evict her — and they of course had been rather messy; there was also a mouse that kept trying to raid the grain ark. But there was no sign whatsoever of any of this activity. That the surface remained clean was no great surprise: stuff simply fell down between the rushes, out of sight, smell and mind. We never noticed any odour or muck the whole time we were there. But when I came to clean it all out at the end I had expected there to be gunge at the bottom. There wasn’t. It was clean and sweet-smelling, free of both insects and evidence of rodents. The earth was clean and smelt only of itself, while the bottom layer of rushes had broken down a little into a dryish, fibrous sort of compost. There was no mould, mildew, slime or gunge of any sort. … It is clear to me that it is possible to manage a floor with strewn rushes cleanly and comfortably without too much effort.
So if Tudor homes were much more hygienic than popularly supposed, what about Tudor bodies? After all, they famously didn’t bathe, believing that the dangerous miasmas that caused disease could enter through the pores almost as easily as through the nose or mouth. But miasmas were also thought to be caused (or perhaps conveyed) by bad smells, so maintaining a clean and “sweet-smelling” environment — including your own body — was the key to health. How did they manage this without recourse to hot soapy water? One word: linen.
Linen is a luxury textile these days: the flax plant it comes from grows best in cool climates where labor costs are now high, there are several time-consuming steps involved in separating the fibers from the flax stalk, and once separated those fibers are inelastic and must be spun with great care to avoid breakage, all of which contribute to linen’s higher production costs compared to cotton or synthetics. But before the advent of cheap Indian calicoes in the 17th century, linen was your only option for a cool or lightweight fabric, and it has the distinct advantage of being both sturdy and incredibly absorbent. Back in middle school I used to buy these little oil-blotting papers to take the shine off my face, and linen — especially old, well-washed linen — works a little bit like that, drawing sweat, dirt, and natural oils away from the skin and leaving you “clean, neat, and sweet-smelling.” Indeed, in the Tudor era linen was ideally the only fabric that ever touched your skin. Wool, leather, and silk were common outer layers, but beneath those expensive and difficult-to-clean materials you shielded your vulnerable pores with linen in the form of shirts (for men) or smocks (for women), under-breeches, hose, ruffs, cuffs, bands, and caps. When you undressed for bed, you would rub your hair and body down with a linen cloth to remove any residual debris before changing into clean underthings…if you had them.4 Again, Goodman has tried out this no-bathing-but-lots-of-laundry regimen, both the daily changes of linen undergarments that only the wealthy could afford (and that reportedly no one in modern London noticed when she wore), and a more typical once-a-week swap while filming Tudor Monastery Farm:
Although I was working mostly outdoors, often engaged in heavy labor and also lurking around an open fire, I found that just changing my linen smock once a week proved acceptable to both me and to my colleagues — including those behind the camera, who had more conventional modern sensibilities. … There was a slight smell, but it was mostly masked by the much stronger smell of woodsmoke.
She does report that a friend who tried it the other way — wearing the same unlaundered linen clothes every day but otherwise observing a full modern hygiene routine — quickly came to smell like the long-term homeless.
How To Be a Tudor is chock full of other interesting details, from the landraces of Tudor wheat to the different ploughing techniques you might employ depending on the season and your soil (yes, there’s discussion of horses vs. oxen to pull the plow). I was particularly taken with the extensive description of how to bake in a period oven, which if you manage things properly will produce a continuous sheet of flame that plays up over the domed brick interior and carries its exhaust gases back into the fire to be combusted in their turn. But beyond the very practical matters with which the book is mostly concerned — how people made things from clothing to cheese to paintings, and how they used them — Goodman also touches lightly on social behavior. To my surprise, her chapter on education opens not with schooling nor even manners (as in George Washington’s rules of civility) but with the process of learning how to move, in which children were explicitly instructed. “The simple business of walking, standing or sitting,” she writes, “could communicate social position, and all required different postures according to gender and age. A way of standing that was admired in an adult man as redolent of strength and virility could be…thought insolent and faintly ridiculous in a young boy.” Similarly, standing with your hands behind your back made you look like a merchant, a slow and deliberate gait belonged to a plowman, and soldiers (or those who wanted to look like soldiers) thrust out their hips a little and swaggered when they walked.
Predictably, this all gets more complicated and elaborate as you move up the social ladder. In the first few years of Henry VII’s court (the 1480s), the favored posture had “an emphasis on long, sinuous lines. The upper body, from the bottom of the ribcage to the shoulders, was inclined backwards and young people were encouraged to extend one leg a little in front when standing to give a long, smooth flow of line from toe to forehead. The chin was to be gently tucked in a fraction, stretching out the back of the neck.” By the middle of the reign of Henry VIII (the 1530s), “fashion called for full-square postures, the emphasis for men firmly shifting to movement that spoke of solidity, stability and martial prowess. The fashionable walk now led from the hips rather than the bottom of the ribcage.” By the 1590s, the fashionable stance had become diagonal, standing with “weight upon one turned-out foot with the other leg resting casually upon the ground in front with the toe also turned out. A slight bend in the resting leg added elegance and helped the supporting hip to swing outward. Poise and sophistication were further enhanced if the torso was allowed to twist naturally to the diagonal… It is a stance that speaks of casual cultured ease.”
Styles of walking, dancing, and bowing changed just as dramatically. The older, English-style bow was a square-on affair: a simple version, as when you greet a friend, involves bringing the right foot back a little and bending the knees while the upper body inclines a tad; a full bow meant dropping to one knee like a professional athlete and was referred to as “going on bended knee.” (Illustration.) As the diagonal posture became popular, so too did the French-style bow (“making a leg”): to do this, you slide your right foot forward, keeping the weight on your back foot and bending your back knee while inclining your whole body forward. (Illustration.)5 Using the old-fashioned bow in the era of the French bow — or trying to use the new one and doing it awkwardly — marked you as an outsider, which of course is the point of fashion in the first place. Getting all of these movements right, and making them look elegant and natural, took a great deal of practice from an early age, so those who could afford it employed professional dancing-masters to instruct their children in fashionable posture and movement as much as in the steps of a dance. A newly-prosperous merchant’s income might dwarf that of a gentleman of breeding, but his body language was enough to ensure that he would never be mistaken for one.6
Of course, we enlightened moderns no longer invest tremendous time and money in teaching our children to signal their class and sophistication with their bodies; instead, we hire tutors to help them write their college essays.7
Widespread literacy, and especially the ubiquity of the Internet, means that much of our interaction is not done face-to-face, and so much of the nuanced information about social position that Tudor society conveyed physically is now communicated in text. Indeed, one way of looking at the constant churn of preferred nomenclature is as precisely this sort of fashion trend: knowing that you’re supposed to write “people of color” or “Black bodies” instead of “African-Americans” (as I was taught to do in the 90s), or “anti-racism” instead of “civil rights” and “unhoused” instead of “homeless,” demonstrates that you have the means and time to remain au courant. But it goes well beyond the use of the correct jargon: a grammatically correct, properly punctuated sentence is the fashionable posture and courtly walk of the email world. It signals professionalism, which is to say membership in (and adherence to the norms of) a particular social class. You can assume that someone who writes this way will not, for instance, comment on a visibly pregnant woman. They probably won’t pepper their speech with casual expletives, either, but if they do it will be without regard for the gender makeup of their audience. A “hi Mrs Jane I be there wednesday” from my contractor is the plowman’s gait, sending a whole different set of signals.8
Now, though, being able to write the “right” thing is under threat as a mark of the elite, because AI is currently about as good at producing college essays as the modal high-schooler…and improves a lot faster.
There have been a lot of jokes about kids proving they’re human by peppering their college essays with, ahem, the sorts of words a large language model trained by OpenAI won’t use, but the whole situation raises two interesting questions: first, what happens to the class-signaling role of the written word once the code has learned to journalist? If other people’s knock-offs are convincing enough, having a designer bag doesn’t mean anything any more; if you can sound like an educated professional in writing without actually incurring the costs required to become an educated professional, then sounding like an educated professional in writing is no longer a mark of distinction. What replaces it? And don’t say “having actually interesting and novel ideas,” which is of course a delightful pastime but not one that has ever been particularly closely linked to social position. One possible answer is a return to an emphasis on physical presentation, but any digitally-mediated version — selfies, Zoom meetings — is just as prone to counterfeiting as text. Perhaps our society will rediscover in-person interaction and performances of physical virtuosity as class signaling, but we seem to be moving so rapidly in the other direction that it seems unlikely.
But more interesting to me is the second question: what is actually unique and special about humans? It’s a question people have discussed for millennia, but up until about six months ago the comparison was mostly made to animals. Traditionally, the focus has been on rationality and freedom of the will (and in a Christian context, the idea that we are made in the image and likeness of God, of which those are often understood to be a part), but scientific attempts to pinpoint specifically human behaviors tended to point to things like tools, fire, burying the dead, and so forth. However, with our increasing familiarity with the animal kingdom (and especially with our own deep prehistory), we found that these supposedly unique behaviors exist (albeit in simpler forms) among many other organisms, so more recently we’ve come to focus on symbolic behavior — language and art — as the sine qua non of humanity. And now here comes GPT-whatever, or Midjourney, or whatever else the boys in the lab are cooking up, to do language and art as fast as you can throw GPU cores at it. Not as well as the best humans, perhaps, but certainly as well a mediocre one. In fact, computers are much closer to human performance at symbolic manipulation than H. erectus was to modern human tool use. Computers, it turns out, are really very good at the things we think you can only do if you’re smart; their weaknesses come in what “anyone can do.”
Roboticist Hans Moravec noticed this in 1988 and formalized his observation in the paradox named after him: “[I]t is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult level performance on intelligence tests or playing checkers, and difficult or impossible to give them the skills of a one-year-old when it comes to perception and mobility.” Compute power has increased tremendously since then, so previously impossible tasks like getting a computer to pick up a wine glass or walk across uneven terrain are now merely very, very difficult, but purely “mental” tasks have gotten so much easier that the relative difficulty of the two remains basically the same as it was thirty-five years ago. My two-year-old can take a wine glass out of the dishwasher and put it in (the wrong) cupboard without breaking it, though I would prefer he didn’t, and reportedly teenagers can drive cars; it takes millions of dollars of venture capital to develop a robot that can sort of do these things in the appropriate conditions.
All of which suggests to me that the things we do with our bodies are far more fundamental to humanness than they get credit for. There’s a certain way of thinking, popular since, say, the mid-17th century, that regards our identity as primarily intellectual and the physical world as in some sense beneath us. This was, for many people, the appeal of the Internet: a dream that the purely digital realm would free the intellectual, rational self — still tragically confined to electrical impulses transmitted through a bag of salty water — to a freer, purer disclosure of its individuality. At its most dramatic, the mindset manifests itself in the transhumanist dream of uploading your mind (“you”) to a superior meatpuppet, but you also see it in the studied disregard for aesthetics, the idea that caring about “this stuff” is unworthy of our vaunted intellects. It shows up in the nasty reactions to that Twitter menswear guy, and the scorn piled on time and energy spent creating beauty in the home, and the utilitarian boxes in which too many of us spend too many of our waking hours. Perhaps it grew out of pride in our very real triumphs over brute entropy and a world that wants us room temperature, but it’s since metastasized into something shallow and anti-human. Look, I am at heart a lazy nerd and take no pleasure in reporting this, but if a computer can match or exceed your vaunted intellect, maybe that’s not what matters about you. The more of your life that could be taken over by a machine, the faker, the less human, it turns out your life was.
What’s special about us is the intersection between the mental and the physical, the fact that our intellects are embodied and our bodies are directed by rational minds, so the most human things you can do — the ones best aligned with your nature — are those that employ your mind and body in tandem. We’ve long recognized that it degrades a person to reduce them to their pure physicality like a draft animal or (a much later metaphor) a piece of machinery: “What,” Tocqueville once asked, “can be expected of a man who has spent twenty years of his life in making heads for pins?” But by now most of the mindless drudgery that was innovated into existence with the Industrial Revolution has been automated or outsourced away9 and it’s time to confront the fact that a reduction to the purely mental is just as degrading and deformative of the human person. Maybe it’s just as well that email jobs are next on the chopping block of technological progress: what, after all, can be expected of a man who has spent twenty years of his life in making #content?10
It’s going to get worse before it gets better. I don’t for a minute believe that ubiquitous AI-generated text and deepfake videochats will drive the locus of social signaling back to face-to-face interaction (at least not until conditions on the ground obviate the managerial revolution entirely). Much more likely, signaling will continue to shift to personally costly adherence to luxury beliefs. A computer can write the self-flagellating tweetstorm about your personal privilege, but only you can voluntarily take the psychic damage of posting it in public. Sooner or later, though, the elites will change, and with them the status signals. If their new signals are something closer to the Tudor-era emphasis on physicality, it would be a deeper, richer, more human kind of expression. In preparation, I will continue badgering my children about their posture.
Which, of course, I very much am — I discovered this book quite by accident using my patented “wander in the library stacks in the section devoted to a topic of interest and grab anything that looks even remotely cool” method, which I highly recommend.
Or junchire, jonchiere, or jungiere; they hadn’t invented spelling yet.
Not the same as a woman’s gown, of course, but the full-length garments that survive today only in formal academic regalia were part of the daily uniform of educated men like lawyers, clerics, and academics, as well as the symbol of office for mayors and aldermen. As an example, Sir Thomas More is usually painted in a gown.
Clothing was tremendously more expensive in this era, and Goodman goes into a lot of very interesting detail about clothing theft, the secondhand clothing market, and how garments were reworked for new wearers.
It was in this sort of bow that Elizabeth I famously left the French ambassador waiting for a full quarter of an hour to express her diplomatic ire (because of course you can’t rise out of your bow until the monarch allows it). Can you imagine any modern diplomat with the physical capacity to hold that position for more than a minute or two, let alone look elegant while doing it?
Another of Goodman’s books, How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, and Braggarts, goes into much greater detail on all this, including instructions for performing various fashionable walks so that your children can laugh at you. (My favorite is a court walk of the turn of the 17th century that was basically the way ballerinas walk on stage; imagine the Earl of Essex approaching someone this way at court to plot his coup.) The book also has some extended discussion of the changes in sword-fighting techniques, which follow the general trend from square-on solidity (sword and buckler) to diagonal elegance (rapier). This is particularly great because, unlike dancing and bowing, sword-fighting is of interest to dudes — and dudes make YouTube videos, so for once you can actually see what she’s writing about. Unfortunately I haven’t found any amazing direct comparisons between the fighting styles, but some Polish guys have done high production-quality videos based on manuscripts from a 14th century Italian fencing master that are fairly similar to the later German fechtbucher Goodman cites, and there are infinite rapier videos out there.
Not that signaling with the body has completely vanished — after all, fashion is still a thing — but it’s changed tremendously. Sure, if you know what to look for you can tell the difference between $500 jeans from Saks and $15 jeans from Walmart, but you do have to know what to look for, because we no longer use our clothes to indicate our role in society. In the Tudor era it would have been impossible to miss the differences between the attire of a lady and one of the “middling sort” (you can compare videos of the two here and here), let alone a scholar and a ploughman; today, any college campus provides ample opportunity to play a rousing game of “homeless guy or math professor?” Clothing still carries a wealth of semiotic content, but the way you dress is expected not to situate you in your context but to disclose your individuality. (If that sounds familiar, it should: we’ve gotten WEIRD about clothes.)
Among them, “I’m not pricing office staff into your estimate.”
Preindustrial food production and manufacturing are incredibly laborious, but can at least involve a fair bit of thought and skill.
She wrote on her Substack.