English life began by risking infantile mortality, which was high. Sir Thomas Browne was a leading physician, yet six of his ten children died in childhood.39 Then there were epidemics, like the “sweating sickness” of 1550 and the plague visitations of 1563, 1592–94, and 1603. Tenure of life must have been low; one calculation places it at eight and a half years.40 Men matured and grew old faster than today. Those who survived were the hardy, and their adventures with death toughened them for stratagems and spoils.
Sanitation was improving. Soap was graduating from a luxury to a necessity. About 1596 Sir John Harington invented a flush toilet. Private bathrooms were few; most families used a wooden tub placed before an open fire. Many towns had public baths, and Bath and Buxton provided fashionable bathing establishments for the upper classes. “Hot houses” offered sweat baths and facilities for meals and assignations. Only the well-to-do had their own domestic water supply; most families had to fetch water from public conduits opening at ornamental spouts.
Houses in villages and towns were built of plaster and brick, under roofs thatched with straw; Anne Hathaway’s cottage near Stratford-on-Avon is a well-restored example. In the cities dwellings usually adjoined each other, used more brick and stone, and had tiled roofs; mullioned bay windows and overhanging upper stories make them attractive to unfamiliar eyes. Interiors were decorated with carvings and pilasters; fire places gave the main room or “great hall” dignity and warmth; and ceilings—of timber or plaster—might be cut into symmetrical or fanciful designs. Chimneys took off the smoke that had formerly sought exit through a hole in the ceiling, and stoves were helping the hearth. Glass windows were now common, but night lighting was still by torch or candle power. Floors were covered with rushes and herbs, sweet-smelling when fresh, but soon malodorous and sheltering insects; carpets were forty-five years in the future. Walls were adorned with tapestries, which, under Charles I, would give way to paintings. Most people sat on benches or stools; a chair with a back was a luxury reserved for an honored guest or the master or mistress of the house; hence to “take the chair” came to mean to preside. Otherwise the furniture was strong and admirable: buffets, cabinets, tables, chests, four-posters were cut and mortised in walnut or oak to last for centuries; some beds, with thick mattresses of feather, embroidered coverings, and silk canopies, cost a thousand pounds and were the proudest heirloom of the home. Around or behind the house, in nearly all classes, a garden provided trees, shrubs, shade, and such flowers as women used to grace their homes and hair, and Shakespeare to scent his verse—primrose, hyacinth, honeysuckle, larkspur, sweet William, marigold, Cupid’s-flower, love-lies-bleeding, love-in-a-mist, lily of the valley, roses white or red, Lancaster or York. “God Almighty first planted a garden,” said Bacon, “without which buildings and palaces are but gross handiworks.”41
Ornamentation of the person was often more costly than decoration of the home. No age surpassed Elizabethan England in splendor of dress. “Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,” advised Polonius. In moneyed ranks all the fashions of France, Italy, and Spain were merged to redeem the human figure from the depredations of appetite and time. Portia laughed at young Falconbridge—”I think he bought his doublet in Italy, his round hose in France, his bonnet in Germany, and his behavior everywhere.”42 Elizabeth set an example and a vogue of finery, so that in her reign fashions changed repeatedly as common imitation blurred class distinction. “The fashion,” mourns a character in Much Ado about Nothing, “wears out more apparel than the man.”43 Sumptuary laws tried to end this sartorial chorea; so a statute of 1574, to heal “the wasting and undoing of a great number of young gentlemen” who were wearing their acres on their backs, decreed that none but the royal family, dukes, marquesses, and earls should wear purple, silk, cloth of gold, or sable furs; none but barons and their betters should sport furs, crimson or scarlet velvets, imported woolens, gold or silver or pearl embroidery.44 Such laws were soon evaded, for the ambitious bourgeoisie denounced them as not only invidious but restraining trade, and in 1604 they were repealed.
Hats were of any shape or color, of velvet, wool, silk or fine hair. Outside the home and the court men wore them nearly always, even in church, doffing them ceremoniously on meeting a lady, but at once covering again. Men wore their hair as long as the women, and grew fancy beards. Around the neck both sexes wore a ruff, a collar of linen and cambric built upon a frame of pasteboard and wire, and stiffened into broad sharp pleats by “a certain liquid matter which they call starch,”45 which was then making its debut in England. Catherine de Médicis had introduced this noose into France (1533) as a small frill, but fashion expanded it into a pillory reaching to the ears.
Clothing made women a temporarily impenetrable mystery. Half their day must have been taken up with taking on and taking off; “a ship is sooner rigged than a woman.”46 Even hair could be put off or on, for Elizabeth gave the example of wearing a wig, dyed to resemble the golden curls of her youth. False hair was common; poor women, said Shakespeare, sold their locks “by the weight.”47 Instead of hats most women preferred a tiny cap or a transparent net, which let their hair display its allure. Cosmetics colored the face and penciled the eyebrows; ears were pierced for pendants or rings; jewelry sparkled everywhere. The female ruff was as in men, but the bosom was sometimes bare to a point.48 Elizabeth, narrow-chested and long-bellied, set a fashion of prolonging the bodice or jacket triangularly to a sharp apex below the corseted waist. The skirt was spread out from the hips by a “farthingale” or hoop. Gowns of delicate material and elaborate design covered the legs. Silk stockings were introduced by the Queen. Skirts trailed, sleeves bulged, gloves were embroidered and perfumed. In summer a lady could speak with a jeweled fan, and utter thoughts too kind for words.
But life in the home was seldom in full dress. Breakfast at seven, dinner at eleven or twelve, supper at five or six redeemed the day. The main meal was near noon and plentiful. “The English,” said a Frenchman, “stuff their sacks.”49 Fingers still served in place of forks, which came into their present use in the reign of James I. Silver plate adorned prosperous homes; the hoarding of it was already a hedge against inflation. The lower middle classes had vessels of pewter; the poor got along with dishes of wood and spoons of horn. Meat, fish, and bread were the staple foods, and nearly everybody who could afford it suffered from gout. Dairy products were popular only in the countryside, for means of refrigeration were still scant in the towns. Vegetables were widely used only by the poor, who grew them in their garden plots. Potatoes, introduced from America by Raleigh’s expeditions, were a garden product, not yet a crop in the fields. Puddings were an English specialty, relished beyond dessert. Sweets were as favored as now; hence Elizabeth’s black teeth.
These hearty meals required liquid lubricants—ale, cider, beer, and wine. Tea and coffee were not yet Anglicized. WhiskeyIII came into general use throughout Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, being distilled from grain in the north, from wine in the south. Drunkenness was a protest against the damp climate; the phrase “drunk as a lord” suggests that this remedy rose in favor along the social scale. Tobacco was brought into England by Sir John Hawkins (1565), by Drake, and by Sir Ralph Lane; Raleigh made smoking of it fashionable at court, and took a puff or two before he went to the scaffold. In Elizabeth’s time it was too costly for its use to be widespread; at social gatherings a pipe might be passed around to let each guest get his quota. In 1604 King James sent forth a mighty Counterblast to Tobacco, lamenting its introduction into England and warning against “a certain venomous quality” in it.
Is it not both great vanity and uncleanness that at the table, a place of respect, of cleanliness, of modesty, men should not be ashamed to sit tossing of Tobacco pipes, and puffing the smoke one to another, making the filthy smoke and stink thereof to exhale athwart the dishes and infect the air? … The public use whereof, at all times and in all places, hath now so far prevailed as divers men … have been at least forced to take it also, without desire … ashamed to seem singular … Moreover, which is a great iniquity … the husband shall not be ashamed to reduce thereby his delicate, wholesome, and clean complexioned wife to that extremity, that either she must also corrupt her sweet breath therewith, or else resolute to live in a perpetual stinking torment … A custom loathesome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and, in the black stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.50
Despite this and heavy taxes, there were seven thousand tobacco shops in London. Lighting and puffing did not take the place of conversation. Both sexes spoke freely of matters now confined to smoking rooms, street corners, and scientists; and women vied with men in oaths that verged on blasphemy. In the Elizabethan drama whores rub elbows with heroes, and doubles-entendres sprinkle high tragedy. Manners were ceremonious rather than polite; words often graduated into blows. Manners, like morals, came from Italy and France, and also manuals of courtesy that strove to make gentlemen of aristocrats and ladies of queens. Modes of salutation were effusive, often osculatory. Homes were more cheerful with light and jollity than before under medieval terror or afterward under Puritan gloom. Festivals were frequent; any excuse served for a procession or parade; weddings, lyings-in, even funerals, gave occasion for festivities, at least for meals. Games of all sorts were played in homes and fields and on the Thames. Shakespeare mentions billiards, and Florio speaks of cricket. Blue laws and blue Sundays were laughed at; if the Queen set the merry pace, why should not her people keep step with her? Nearly everybody danced, including, said Burton, “old men and women that have more toes than teeth.” And all England sang.