Academic Review - Everyday Life in Renaissance England

Everyday Life in Renaissance England
Author: Kathy Lynn Emerson
(Writer’s Digest Books)

The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Renaissance England from 1485-1649

This reference tool is a compilation of essential information for writers. Kathy Lynn Emerson researched and consolidated her material into three sections and twenty succinct chapters. Her work is a documented secondary source with extensive bibliographies. She provides a select list for every topic. Fiction writers, in particular, will find this book useful. She includes details historians may gloss over as unimportant, all necessary to create realism in a short story or a novel. For Elizabethan drama or Renaissance history students, this guide can be utilized like an encyclopedia. Published in 1996 by Writer’s Digest Books, the text is packed full of trivia.

Divided into three parts, the book starts with Everyday Life, a section that includes clothing, accessories, food, drink, architecture, furnishings, marriage, family, health, and physicians. “Physic and Physician” is Emerson’s most enlightening chapter, providing a down-to-earth perspective on English Renaissance medicine. She begins this chapter discussing the widespread notion that disease was caused by supernatural forces. Although people acknowledged natural causes, they didn’t know that malnutrition and poor sanitation led to illness. Emerson writes, “Epidemics were regarded as God’s punishment for man’s sins.”

The Barber-Surgeons was the first medical guild in England. They engaged in procedures such as blood-letting, minor surgery, pulling teeth, cutting hair, and shaving. The apothecaries (pharmacists) were affiliated with the grocers. Doctors received degrees after years of schooling. Alarming is their method of study. The use of cadavers was not prevalent, so interns did not gain hands-on experience.

“Medical students did not often come in direct contact with patients. They read old books, attended lectures and got their degree by ‘spoken disputation,’” Emerson explains. “A man’s humour (sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic or melancholic) played an important role in treating his ailment. Physicians relied heavily on water casting, the diagnosis of the balance of the humours by examination of the patient’s urine.”

The most lethal disease during the Renaissance was the plague. There were numerous outbreaks and smaller epidemics. Emerson states that outbreaks started in early summer and ended in November, with a fatality rate of sixty to eighty-five percent for the unfortunate people who contracted the Bubonic form. Among the most absurd preventive treatments: the practice of drinking mummy, which was dry, dead human flesh. Another strange procedure was wearing arsenic next to the skin. Burning old shoes? They were thought to have purifying fumes.

The treatment of common ailments could lead to a patient’s death, and if not fatal, these “cures” were enough to make a sick person even sicker. For example, asthma was treated with wine in which woodlice had been steeped. An infertile woman drank an elixir from mare’s milk, rabbit’s blood, and sheep’s urine. She probably wouldn’t have had much of an appetite for anything, including sex, after swallowing this cocktail. A patient with a toothache was thought to have worms or “unbalanced humours” and chewed horehound root.

Emerson’s second part, Government and War, is a compilation of chapters that constitute a historical overview: government, monarchs, nobles, commoners, crime, punishment, money, war, peace, and seafaring. “A Seafaring Nation” will appeal to those looking for adventure. In our age of high-speed air travel, the slow, dangerous contrast of living on a filthy ship for months makes a several hour flight with airport delays seem like heaven.

Emerson starts with a description of life at sea. The closer the ship was to shore, the better their diet. On prolonged voyages, the crew relied heavily on beef and pork cured in brine, along with rotten biscuits and fresh fish. Even porpoise was boiled or fried. Lack of vegetables and fruits led to scurvy, a disease characterized by fatigue, body aches, and loose teeth. A typical ration was one gallon of beer, one pound of biscuit, and two pounds of pork and peas, four days a week. Those who sailed were likely intoxicated.

Sanitary conditions were poor. The ship would have smelled like human excrement and urine with rats and roaches running wild. Most vessels leaked, so drippy areas were stuffed with clothes and animal hides and sailcloth. “Mariners were constantly wet,” Emerson explains. “Cold water not only sloshed in the bilges with the constant rolling of the ship, it also dripped down through leaking decks and topsides. After storms, there were always more leaks.”

To make the hellish environment worse, people onboard were superstitious. Sailors did not learn how to swim to inspire confidence, a ridiculous way to flaunt navigational skills. “Storm-driven ships were believed to be bewitched and anyone suspected of being a witch might be thrown overboard,” Emerson writes. “Evil could also be driven away by nailing two red-hot horseshoes to the main mast.”

After thirty days at sea with high waves and brutal winds, a drunk, sick officer could blame an unsuspecting individual on the ship for his woes and toss the person to the sharks. Part of this erratic behavior and psychotic paranoia could have been induced by nutritional imbalances and untreated illness. The longer the voyage, the longer the agony, so only the mentally stable could work at sea.

Emerson’s distinction between privateers and pirates is essential to understanding Elizabethan England. A simplistic definition might designate one good and one bad, or one legal and one illegal. Unfortunately, the definition is blurred and would depend on national loyalty. Often hired by the government, a privateer is employed to rob and pillage from specifically designated ships. A pirate is a criminal. Or, another way of stating that a pirate acted on his own behalf. Piracy was illegal, but few were tried or hung.

Emerson reveals the local gentry often financed their escapades. “The practice of privateering predates the creation of all national navies,” she says. “By the start of the sixteenth century, privateers were regularly used to augment the English navy.”

Romanticized today, marauders fill the pages of historical fiction. With questionable integrity, these bad guys (and a few gals) made history for leading lives out of the ordinary. Nothing films better and plays better on a stage or in the pages of a novel.

In Renaissance Society, the third and longest section, Emerson discusses education, employment, entertainment, language, urban and rural life, travel, and superstition. “Witches, Magic, Necromancy and Superstition” describes a world with crazy laws based on inner fears, church-induced phobias, and insufficient education. Fortunately, today we don’t turn on the news and hear about the execution of a woman with supernatural power.

Beginning with the English witch trials, Emerson writes of this strange phenomenon during the Elizabethan period. When people feel they cannot control life, they often blame a circumstance or another human being. Although passing the buck is common in our time as well, in Renaissance England this natural tendency escalated to lunacy. Most envision women tied to stakes and burned for indefinable crimes or curses.

In England, witches were not burned, but hung. Religious fanaticism was the basis for this insanity. By 1579, church officials looked for birthmarks on the body to determine whether a woman was possessed by the devil. Desperately needing an explanation for a death in a family or a scapegoat for a streak of bad luck that may have befallen a village, these men of God could give suspicious women, many of them widows, the death sentence.

According to Emerson, informational pamphlets about what witches did were distributed to the public. “They were some of the most popular reading matter of their day,” she remarks. “Essex held more witch trials than elsewhere in England. About 250 cases were tried between 1560 and 1600, but not all of these witches were executed. Many were punished by public penance or jail time. Throughout England, the percentage of trials ending in conviction varied but the high was 42 percent during the period from 1645 to 1647.”

In France, ninety-five percent of trials turned into convictions. Those executed were burned at the stake for heresy under the dictates of the Catholic Church.

Tragically, the same hysteria emerged in Colonial America during the Salem witch trials. Like the English and French, colonists looked for sinister behavior among women and accused innocent citizens of crimes they had never committed. Where no proof of witchcraft existed, ministers of established rank fabricated evidence.

Emerson writes, “Under Roman law, sorcery was only a crime if it was practiced with evil intent and caused damage. However, after 1541, prognostication and other kinds of sorcery, including using magic for treasure-seeking or to recover stolen goods or to provoke unlawful love, became felonies without benefit of clergy.”

This reference guide is fascinating as well as educational and every bit as riveting as an action novel. Without the bias typical of some scholars, Emerson presents facts in a straightforward manner.