Book Review: How to Be a Tudor

"How to Be a Tudor" by Ruth Goodman
By: 
Terri Schlichenmeyer
The Bookworm Sez, LLC

You’ve always wanted to live like royalty.
Your home shouldn’t be like a castle — it should be a castle, complete with servants, stone floors, and room-sized fireplaces. You should wear a jeweled crown, velvet clothes, and slippers all day. Yep, you could handle living like, say, Henry VIII, so read “How to Be a Tudor” by Ruth Goodman. There’s your chance.
Or maybe not. Old Henry usually comes to mind when we think of the Renaissance era, but Goodman says that everyday life during his time and that of his daughter, Elizabeth I, wasn’t about jewels and velvet. It was more straw and linen, strict social hierarchy, hard work, and surprisingly good food.
For average British citizens in the years 1485-1603, days began at sunrise. Almost no one rose and opened the windows because glass windows were “a luxury”; instead, morning started by opening the curtains around a four-poster bed, which offered warmth and privacy at a time when most families slept all in the same room. Beds, by the way, held mattresses made mostly of rush or straw.
After prayers were said, “alone and privately, though preferably aloud,” daily ablutions began. Contrary to popular depiction, cleanliness was important to people in Tudor times. Water baths were rare due to climate and the belief that opening skin pores led to illness, but Goodman says they devised ways to stay clean and “sweet-smelling.”
After donning gender-appropriate clothing (consisting of, among other things, gowns for both sexes), and working a couple hours doing gender-assigned tasks, breakfast was served: bread and ale, bacon, eggs, porridge, pancakes, and fruit might be on the menu. Dinner might consist of potatoes or pottage (“stew cooked in a pot”); supper was similar and eaten in late afternoon before work resumed, daylight permitting.
Life was hard, but not austere: Henry’s fellow countrymen enjoyed Sundays off to compete in archery or tennis. Afternoon plays were presented, evenings meant games or dancing, bedtime may’ve included a little Tudor tango. And, like all evenings, prayers at nightfall completed the day.
Same meals, same pastimes, OK, so you almost, kinda-sorta live like a Tudor — but here’s the thing: author Ruth Goodman actually did. She explains what happened in “How to Be a Tudor.”
As she did in a previous work about Victorian England, Goodman took on every aspect of Tudor life for this book. She went “just over three months” without bathing (“No one noticed!”), kept house without modern amenities (rushes, she discovered, make dandy flooring), slept in simple beds, and cooked Tudor-era meals. She wore period clothing and worked as women did some 500 years ago. Those satisfying first-person findings lend a lot of fun to this book — Goodman is a refreshing writer — but, because she’s also a historian, there’s serious business here, too.
And that peek into what’s possible, even comfortable, is easy-to-read, pure enjoyment. Readers might even find themselves thinking about the Renaissance Era in a whole new way, which makes “How to Be a Tudor” a book to bring home to your castle.

Terri Schlichenmeyer of The Bookworm Sez, LLC is based out of LaCrosse, Wis.

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