The per­ils of every­day life in Tu­dor Eng­land

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Television & Radio -

With an adap­ta­tion of Hi­lary Man­tel’s Wolf Hall about to de­but on BBC Two (Wed­nes­day, 9.00pm), we’re all once again aware of the dan­gers of the Tu­dor court and the se­ri­ous chal­lenge of keep­ing one’s head when all about were los­ing theirs. Yet, one didn’t need to be a courtier to risk life and limb in the Tu­dor age. For the pro­fes­sion­als and ar­ti­sans who made up the emer­gent mid­dle class – peo­ple such as physi­cians, lawyers, lock­smiths and yeo­man farm­ers – every­day life had more than its fair share of per­ils, which I ex­plore in (Tues­day, BBC Four, 9.00pm). Th­ese peo­ple lived in a world very dif­fer­ent to our own. The pop­u­la­tion of Eng­land in 1525 was a mere 2.3mil­lion and the vast majority of peo­ple lived off the land. But this was an era of great change. New ideas were bub­bling up about faith and the cos­mos, and con­quest, coloni­sa­tion and trade with the New World were thriv­ing. The mid­dle class were in­creas­ing in power and pros­per­ity, and so was their stan­dard of liv­ing. Yet, quo­tid­ian dan­gers hid in both the con­ti­nu­ity with me­dieval ways of life and the cen­tury’s new dis­cov­er­ies. There was still a great per­me­abil­ity be­tween the in­door and out­door life. Not un­til the 1580s did the rich­est houses get piped wa­ter. For most peo­ple, draw­ing wa­ter and wash­ing clothes, dishes or them­selves had to be done at a lo­cal pond or river, all year round. With this came great risk. Re­search on the coroners’ re­ports shows that 40 per cent of ac­ci­den­tal deaths in Tu­dor Eng­land came from drown­ing (to­day, the fig­ure is two per cent). Ac­counts in­di­cate that the vic­tims were usu­ally car­ry­ing out mun­dane house­hold tasks when they lost their foot­ing and were pulled un­der by their heavy, woollen clothes. Suzan­nah Lip­scomb ven­tures into the Tu­dor home in search of the house­hold killers of the era for BBC Four Some­one who had a nar­row es­cape at the river might have en­joyed the warmth of a new hearth – be­cause of a won­der­ful new in­no­va­tion called a chim­ney which kept smoke to a min­i­mum. But there were dan­gers here too. Chim­neys could eas­ily catch fire be­cause they were badly con­structed or not reg­u­larly cleaned – a se­ri­ous threat in a thatched house. The one grace was that tim­ber houses took time to burn, which al­lowed time to es­cape; so rather than dy­ing by fire, most chim­ney-re­lated deaths were the re­sult of chim­neys col­laps­ing on the house’s in­hab­i­tants. The New World also brought its share of new prob­lems. The in­tro­duc­tion of sugar into the diet of a mod­er­ately wealthy Tu­dor per­son was a great lux­ury, but changes in den­tal health as a re­sult were stark. Com­par­ing the skulls of those who died in the 16th cen­tury with those of ear­lier pe­ri­ods, the sud­den ap­pear­ance of tooth de­cay, cav­i­ties and ab­scesses is clear. With Tu­dor medicine be­ing what it was, it was em­i­nently pos­si­ble that one could die from poor teeth. If not sugar, another plea­sure might have been one’s un­do­ing. His­to­ri­ans de­bate whether a new dis­ease that pro­duced pus­tules, le­sions and ate into the bones came from the New World or was merely a new mu­ta­tion, but ev­ery­one agrees that the ter­ri­ble symp­toms of the “great pox” were the re­sult of sex. The treat­ment wasn’t much bet­ter: mer­cury poi­son­ing might kill you if syphilis didn’t. Henry VIII had lit­tle chance of drown­ing in a pond wash­ing his li­nen, had the best of ma­sons, and we have no ev­i­dence he was treated with mer­cury, so – con­trary to myth – he prob­a­bly didn’t have syphilis. But it’s likely that sugar con­trib­uted to his obe­sity, and the com­bi­na­tion of this and Tu­dor med­i­cal the­ory was prob­a­bly enough to see off any­one. Suzan­nah Lip­scomb

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