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Review: How to Be a Tudor, by Ruth Goodman
Liveright/Norton, 2015. 320 pp. $30

To paraphrase an old maxim, writing social history is like trying to nail jelly to a wall. But, as Goodman proves in her remarkable book, it helps if you’re using a hammer authentic to the period–better yet, if you’ve forged that tool yourself.

And that’s essentially what she’s done for the years from 1485, when Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, assumed the throne as Henry VII, until 1603, when Elizabeth I died. Doublets, kirtles, ruffs, and gowns? Goodman has sewn them, by the hundreds. Want to know why Tudor folk dumped rushes on castle floors and slept on them? She can tell you, and what’s more, she’s done it. Think it would be a challenge to prepare a feast in a sixteenth-century wood-fired oven? To understand exactly how challenging, she’s built them–and, by the way, if you do likewise, remember to soak the wooden door in water so that (a) it doesn’t burn, and (b) imparts steam to the heat.

A young Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, by an unknown French artist, painted between 1470 and 1480 (Courtesy Musee Calvert, Avignon, via Wikimedia Commons).

A young Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, by an unknown French artist, a portrait believed to have been painted between 1470 and 1480 (courtesy Musée Calvert, Avignon, via Wikimedia Commons).


I’ve never read a book like this, informed both by devoted scholarship and meticulous, hands-on experience. Even more amazing, Goodman has set her focus precisely where the written sources are thinnest, on how the common folk lived. Since few commoners could read, and even fewer could write (the skills, when taught at all, were learned separately), these people created no chronicles of themselves, and upper-class or noble commentators wouldn’t have deigned to. However, by using court records, parish registries, wills, paintings, and books of advice and commentary (a literary genre just then becoming popular), Goodman has pieced together a startling amount of information about daily life among commoners. It’s not surprising that she’s a recognized expert, a consultant for costume dramas, as with the televised version of Wolf Hall.

Among other things, I learned how details of posture and dress that we would call subtle or even meaningless spoke loudly to fifteenth-century Englishmen and -women about social class and breeding. Woe betide any who failed to observe these strictures, and who thus became suspect of trying to get above his or her station, for humiliation and punishment would soon follow. Naturally, the higher up you were, the more latitude you had. Certain young gentlemen, a classification with a specific social meaning, liked to swagger with their hips thrust forward, which caused purses, daggers, swords, or bucklers to swing about and make a clattering noise. Such was a swashbuckler, who announced his presence well before he came into view. The word is one of thousands the Tudors bequeathed to modern English; and of course, nobody coined more than Shakespeare, who left us some seventeen hundred.

Goodman has subtitled her work A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Tudor Life, and the way she goes about this makes sense, though it also has its drawbacks. She begins with cock crow, when people got out of bed, and describes their rituals of prayer, dress, and hygiene, and ends with nighttime, return to bed, and what went on there. In between, she recounts what people ate; how they cooked it; what they had to learn so they could function, stay out of trouble, and maybe rise in the world; what kinds of work they did; and how they amused themselves when they had the chance. You easily understand the rhythm of everyday life, and how busy people were, especially those who had no servants to tend them–indeed, Goodman accounts for every waking minute.

The downside to this approach is the lack of narrative or individual characters. Occasionally, a person emerges from the crowd, provides an example, and quickly recedes. I lay this charge gently, because more than one critic has said the same about my work, and the dearth of first-person source material dictates how this type of social history must be written. In this book, however, I found myself pouncing on these brief stories, only to feel disappointed that they melted away so soon. I suspect that I yearned ever more for them because the wealth of detail Goodman offers can be overwhelming. I confess that I skipped over parts of How to Be a Tudor; the section on dress, for instance, goes on too long for my taste. However, I devoured the rest, such as the fine points of a bow or curtsy or the manner of baking bread.

In short, there’s something for everyone in How to Be a Tudor.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.