People then, as now, were judged more by their manners than by their morals; the world forgave more readily the sins that were committed with the least vulgarity and the greatest grace. Here, as in everything put artillery and theology, Italy led the way. Compared with the Italians the people north of the Alps, except for a thin upper crust in France and England, were fairly uncouth; the Italians called them barbarians, and many Frenchmen, charmed with their Italian conquests in field and chamber, agreed with them. But the barbarians were eager to be civilized. French courtiers and courtesans, poets and poisoners, followed Italian models; and the English limped sedulously behind. Castiglione’s Courtier (1528) was translated into French in 1537, into English in 1561, and polite circles debated the definition of a gentleman. Manuals of manners were best sellers; Erasmus composed one. Conversation became an art in France, as later in the Mermaid Tavern in London; the duel of repartee crossed the Alps from Italy about the same time as the art of fencing. Conversation was more polished in France than in Germany; the Germans crushed a man with humor, the French punctured him with wit. Freedom in speech was the vital medium of the age.

Since the surface can be more easily made presentable than the soul, the rising classes in the rising civilizations of the North paid much attention to their clothing. Commoners dressed artlessly enough—as we see in Brueghel’s multitudes: cuplike hats, loose blouses with bulging sleeves, tight trousers reaching down to comfortable shoes, with the ungainly composition centering upon a codpiece—an insolent bag, sometimes brightly ornamented, dangling before the male crotch. Moneyed males in Germany enveloped their mighty frames in voluminous folds of cloth, topped with broad hats that lay on the head like terraced pancakes; but German women were apparently forbidden to dress otherwise than as Hausfrauen or cooks. In England, too, the men wore more finery than their ladies, until Elizabeth outshone them with her thousand dresses. Henry VIII set a pace in extravagance of costume, prettifying his pounds with color and ornaments and precious stuffs. The Duke of Buckingham, at the marriage of Prince Arthur to Catherine of Aragon, “ware a gowne wrought of needle worke,” says Holinshed, “furred with sables, and valued at £1,500” ($150,000?).71 Sumptuary laws forbade any man lower than a knight to ape the sartorial splendor of his betters. Englishwomen covered their forms tightly, with dresses reaching from neck to floor, and sleeves to the wrist, with a trimming of fur at edges, and broad girdles buckled with metal ornaments and carrying a pendant or a rosary; in general they wore less jewelry than the men.

Under the appreciative Francis I French women opened their bodices, displayed swelling bosoms, and cut their gowns in the back almost to the last vertebra.72 If the natural bust swelled inadequately, an artificial bust was inserted under the stays.73 Clothing was tightened under the breasts and pinched at the waist; sleeves billowed, hidden wires spread out the skirt at rear and hem, and high-heeled shoes compelled a prancing, airy step. Women of rank—no others—were allowed to wear a train, or tail, to their dresses, the nobler the longer; if nobility sufficed it might be seven yards long, and a maid or page would follow to hold it up. In another style the woman would cover her neck with a fraise or ruff, stiffly supported by wires; and men in a formal mood pilloried themselves in like contraptions. About 1535 Servetus noted that “the women of Spain have a custom that would be held barbarous in France, of piercing their ears and hanging gold rings in them, often set with precious stones”;74 but by 1550 earrings were worn by the ladies of France, and even by men.75 Jewelry continued its immemorial sway. Frenchmen clothed themselves in silk shirts and velvet doublets, padded their shoulders, cased their legs in tight colored breeches, and protected their manhood with a braguette or codpiece sometimes set off with ribbons or jewelry. Reversing the custom of the fifteenth century, they wore their hair short and their beards long. Feminine hair was worn in a variety of structures discouraging to describe; it was braided, curled, netted, filled out with switches, decked with flowers, brightened with gems, perfumed with unguents, dyed to match the fashion, and raised in towers or pyramids above the head. Hairdressers were now indispensable to women of fashion, for growing old seemed a fate worse than death.

How clean were the bodies behind the frills? A sixteenth-century Introduction pour les jeunes dames spoke of women “who have no care to keep themselves clean except in those parts that may be seen, remaining filthy .... under their linen”;76 and a cynical proverb held that courtesans were the only women who washed more than their face and hands.77 Perhaps cleanliness increased with immorality, for as women offered more of themselves to view or to many, cleanliness enlarged its area. Frequent bathing, preferably in perfumed water, became now, especially in France, part of good manners. Public bathhouses diminished in number as private bathrooms multiplied; these, however, were usually without running water, depending on bowls and tubs. Steam baths, which had come into Western Europe with returning crusaders in the thirteenth century, continued popular through the sixteenth.

The home almost replaced the church as the center of religious worship in Protestant lands. The father served as priest, leading the family in daily prayers, Bible reading, and psalms, and the mother taught her children the catechism. In the middle classes comfort went with piety. This was the age when the table evolved by joining trestles and boards into a sturdy-legged unity, benches and cushions evolved into the upholstered chair, and the four-poster bed, carved and canopied, became a symbol of moral stability and financial success. Furniture, plate, andirons, and kitchen utensils were made to endure, even sparkle, for generations. Pewter replaced wooden platters; spoons of tin or silver replaced those of wood.

Houses were big because families were large. Women bore almost annually, often in vain, for infantile mortality was high. John Colet was the eldest of twenty-two children; by the time he was thirty-two all the others were dead. Anton Koberger, the Nuremberg printer, had twenty-five children, and survived twelve of them. Dürer was one of eighteen children, of whom only three seem to have reached maturity.78 To round out the family there were household pets almost as numerous as the progeny. Parrots had come in from the West Indies, and monkeys from India were domestic favorites.79 A whole literature instructed women and children in the care of dogs and birds.

Meals were enormous. Vegetables were despised, and only slowly won acceptance; the cabbage, carrot, lettuce, rhubarb, potato, lima bean, and strawberry now came into common use. The main meal, or dinner, was taken at eleven in the morning; supper was deferred till seven—the higher the class, the later the hour. Beer and wine were the staple drinks at all meals, even breakfast; one of Thomas More’s claims to fame was that he drank water. About 1550 the Spaniards brought in chocolate from Mexico; coffee had not yet percolated from Arabia into Western Europe. In 1512 the household of the Duke of Northumberland allowed a quart of ale per person per meal, even to boys eight years old; the average consumption of ale in sixteenth-century Coventry was a quart per day for every man, woman, and child.80 The breweries of Munich were renowned as early as the fourteenth century.81 Drunkenness was in good repute in England till “Bloody Mary” frowned upon it; it remained popular in Germany. The French drank more stably, not being quite so cold.

Despite poverty and oppression, many of the graces of life continued. Even the poor had gardens. The tulip, first brought to Western Europe about 1550 by Busbecq, Imperial ambassador at Constantinople, became a national passion in Holland. Country houses were a pleasant fashion in England and France. Villagers still had their seasonal festivals—May Day, Harvest Home, All Saints, Christmas, and many more; kings themselves went Maying, and crowned themselves with flowers. The amusements of the rich sometimes provided exciting pageantry for the poor, as when Henry II entered Lyons in state in 1548; and commoners might, at a respectful distance, watch lords joust at tournaments—till that sport went out of style after the death of Diane’s King. Religious processions became more pagan as the age of Henry VIII moved toward the Elizabethan; and on the Continent an easy morality allowed nude women, in festival pageants, to impersonate historical or mythological characters; Dürer confessed himself fascinated by such a display at Antwerp in 1521.82

And there were games. Rabelais filled a chapter by merely listing them, real and imagined; and Brueghel showed almost a hundred of them in one painting. Bear-baiting, bullfighting, cockfighting, amused the populace; football, bowling, boxing, wrestling, exercised and exorcized young commoners; and Paris alone had 250 tennis courts for its blue bloods in the sixteenth century.83 All classes hunted and gambled; some ladies threw dice, some bishops played cards for money.84 Mummers, acrobats, and players roamed the countryside, and performed for lords and royalty. Within doors people played cards, chess, backgammon, and a score of other games.

Of all pastimes the best beloved was the dance. “After dinner,” says Rabelais, “they all went tag-rag together to the willowy grove, where, on the green grass, to the sound of merry flutes and pleasant bagpipes, they danced so gallantly that it was a sweet and heavenly sport to see.”85 So in England, on May Day, villagers gathered round a gaily decorated Maypole, danced their lusty rustic measures, and then, it appears, indulged in intimacies reminiscent of the Roman festival of Flora, goddess of flowers. Under Henry VIII the May games usually included the morris (i.e., Moorish) dance, which had come from the Spanish Moors via the Spanish fandango with castanets. Students danced so boisterously at Oxford and Cambridge that William of Wykeham had to forbid the ecstasy near chapel statuary. Luther approved of dancing, and relished especially the “square dance, with friendly bows, embracings, and hearty swinging of the partners.” 86 The grave Melanchthon danced; and at Leipzig, in the sixteenth century, the city fathers regularly held a ball to permit students to become acquainted with the “most honorable and elegant daughters of magnates, senators, and citizens.”87 Charles VI often led (balait) the ballet or dance at the French court; Catherine de Médicis brought Italian dancers to France, and there, in the later days of that unhappy queen mother, dancing developed new aristocratic forms. “Dancing,” said Jean Tabourot, in one of the oldest books on one of the oldest arts, “is practiced in order to see whether lovers are healthy and suitable for one another; at the end of a dance the gentleman is permitted to kiss his mistress, in order that he may ascertain if she has agreeable breath. In this manner... dancing becomes necessary for the good government of society.”88 It was through its accompaniment of the dance that music developed from its vocal and choral forms into the instrumental compositions that have made it the dominating art of our time.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.net. Thank you!