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Country Life and Character in Elizabethan Enlgand cont...

From The Elizabethan people by Henry Thew Stephenson: New York, Henry Holt and Company.

Rude endeavours were made to sweeten the tempers of scolding wives. A substantial 'cucking stool' with iron staples, lock, and hinges, was kept in good repair. The shrew was attached to it, and by means of ropes, planks, and wheels, was plunged two or three times into the Avon whenever the municipal council believed her to stand in need of correction. Three days and three nights were invariably spent in the open stocks by any inhabitant who spoke disrespectfully of any town officer, or who disobeyed any minor municipal decree. No one might receive a stranger into his house without the bailiff's permission. No journeyman, apprentice, or servant might "be forth of their or his master's house after nine o'clock at night. Bowling alleys and butts were provided by the council, but were only to be used at stated times. An alderman was fined on one occasion for going to bowls after a morning meeting of the council, and Henry Sydnall was fined twenty pence for keeping unlawful or unlicensed bowling in a back shed. Alehouse keepers, of whom there were thirty in Shakespeare's time, were kept strictly under the council's control. They were not allowed to brew their own ale, or to encourage tippling, or to serve poor artificers except at stated hours of the day, on pain of fine and imprisonment. Dogs were not to go about the street unmuzzled. Every inhabitant had to go to church at least once a month, and absentees were liable to penalties of twenty pounds, which in the late years of Elizabeth's reign commissioners came from London to see that the local authorities enforced. Early in the seventeenth century swearing was rigorously prohibited.

Laws as to dress were always rigorously enforced. In 1577 there were many fines exacted for failure to wear the plain statute woolen caps on Sundays, to which Rosaline makes reference in Love's Labour's Lost, and the regulation affected all inhabitants above six years of age. In 1604 'the greatest part' of the population were present at a great leet, or law-day, 'for wearing their apparel contrary to the statute.' Nor would it be difficult to present many other like proofs of the persistent strictness with which the new town council of Stratford, by the enforcement of its own orders and of the statutes of the realm, regulated the inhabitants' whole conduct of life."

Between the years 1557 and 1577, John Shakespeare, the poet's father, filled at one time or another, all the principal offices of the corporation from ale-taster to chief alderman. Stratford, during the period of his prosperity, was a thriving commercial town. The trading companies represented skinners, tailors, shoemakers, saddlers, glovers, tanners, collar-makers, chandlers, soap-makers, ironmongers, and bakers. Pewterers, butchers, brewers, drapers, grocers, carpenters, painters, were numerous in the town. Tradesmen's shops were usually the downstairs part of their dwellings. A man frequently carried on trade in a number of different wares at the same time. Adrien Quiney, for instance, dealt in ginger, red-lead, Southwich cloth, lime, salad oil, and deal boards.

"Trade was maintained," says Mr. Lee, "at a normal rate of briskness by the weekly markets and the half-yearly fairs, the chief of which fell in September. The town council strictly regulated the procedure of the fairs, and appointed to each trade a station in the streets. Thus, raw hides at markets and fairs were to be laid down at the cross in Rother Market. Sellers of butter, cheese, and all manner of white meat, wick yarn, and fruits, were to set up their stalls by the cross at the chapel. A site in the high street was assigned to country butchers, who repaired to the town with their flesh, hides, and tallow. Pewterers were ordained to 'pitch' their wares in Wood Street, and to pay for the ground they occupied fourpence a yard. Saltwains, whose owners did a thriving trade in days when salted meats formed the staple supply of food, were permitted to stand about the cross in Rother Market. At various points the victuallers were permitted to erect booths. These regulations were needful to prevent strife, and fines for breach of the rules often reached as large a sum as five pounds. The townsmen were anxious to secure for themselves all the advantages of these gatherings, and the council often employed men armed with cudgels to keep Coventry traders out of the town."

In 1547, 1500 people regularly took the sacrament at the Stratford church; and it may be inferred from the householders' reports in 1562 that the population at that time was about 2000.

The majority of the houses were constructed of timber, a heavy framework, of which the squares and triangles formed by the wooden braces were filled with lath and plaster. The roofs of the better houses were of tile; but thatch was the more common material. If the front did not rise in steep gables, the slope of the roof was sure to contain dormer windows peeping out of the thatch. Porches invariably sheltered the door; and, if the house were that of a trader, a penthouse formed a covering beneath which he set up his stall. The better houses of the main streets in the village were built of timber and brick instead of timber and lath and plaster. Shakespeare seems to have rebuilt New Place of stone, a material of which the College was wholly constructed. Often the timber framework in front of a house was elaborately carved. Barns and office buildings were constructed like the smaller dwelling houses, of timber, lath and plaster, and always thatched.

The gardens were usually separated by mud walls that were thatched on top as a protection against the rain. These walls were in constant need of repair, easily broken down, and, consequently, offered little or no real protection. The gardens about the houses were generally planted with fruit trees. Flowers, vegetables, and medicinable herbs were grown by almost every house-holder. Trees were a common feature of the smaller country towns. Stratford was especially noted for its elms.

Once inside of a smaller Elizabethan house one found few of what we now call comforts. Chimneys were rare till towards the end of Elizabeth's reign. The fire was built upon the floor, often on the bare clay, and the smoke found its deliberate way out of a hole in the wall or roof. Frequently the lower story was not partitioned off, the single room, or "hall" serving as kitchen, dining-room, and general living-room. The second story contained the sleeping-rooms, or, perhaps, the sleeping-room, for it, like the floor below, was sometimes unpartitioned.

The furniture of such a house as that in which Shakespeare was born was indeed meagre. From an inventory made in 1592 of the effects of one of John Shakespeare's friends we learn what to expect in the way of furnishing. In the hall was "one table on a joined frame, five small joint stools, a wainscot bench, and painted cloths." There was evidently a fireplace and a chimney, since the list contains and-irons, fire shovel, tongs, pot-hooks, and pot-hangers. In another room was a small table on a frame, two joint stools, two chairs, a press, a joined bed, and a small plank. "Item, three painted cloths (a cheap imitation of tapestry), one feather bed, one flock bed, two bolsters, one pillow, one bed cover of yellow and green, four old blankets, and one old carpet." A chest contained coarse sheets, table cloths, dusters, and napkins. In another were three pairs of flaxen sheets, a pair of hempen sheets, a flaxen table cloth, half a dozen napkins of flax, one of hemp, two diaper napkins, and four pillow cases of flax. In the buttery a small assortment of dishes, platters, etc., among which were a few pewter vessels.

There were three brass pots, a pan, six skimmers, a basin, a chafing dish, a frying pan, and a dripping pan. In another room on the ground floor were a truckle bed, an old coverlet, an old bolster, an old blanket, a little round table, and two old chests. In the kitchen were six barrels of beer, five looms, four pails, four forms, three stools, one bolting hutch, two skips for taking up yeast, one vat, a table board, two pairs of trestles, and two strikes (bushel measures), an axe, shovels, and a spade. In an upper room were more beds and bedding, a cheese crate, malt, malt shovels, a beam with scales, two dozen trenchers, and one dozen pewter spoons. In the yard were bundles of laths, loads of wood, buckets, cord and windlass for the well, and a watchman's bill. This list of articles represents the whole possession of a man in well to do circumstances.1

Cleanliness was unknown in the Elizabethan house, whether great or small. The most pretentious palace boasted nothing better as a covering for the floor than a layer of rushes.2 In the smaller houses of such a town as Stratford even rushes were dispensed with. The floor of the hall was the bare earth, sometimes sprinkled with sand, but seldom swept or cleaned. Water was plentiful, but not in demand. Wood-work was hardly ever scrubbed, and water upon the person is seldom referred to in contemporary writings. We hear very little of baths, but much of dirty fingers, unkempt hair, and general neglect of personal cleanliness. It was customary to let refuse lie about. When it became too foul it was swept out of the front door into the gutter, or left in a pile against the house wall. Shakespeare's father was fined for such a nuisance. There were several public muck heaps near the edge of town, but far too near the habitations for safety. Pigs and other animals ran loose in the streets, notwithstanding the fact that there were laws against the custom. In 1611 the town council issued an order "that no swine be permitted to be in the open street of the town unless they have a keeper with them, and then only when they are in driving within this borough, upon pain for every strayer of fourpence." The town itself provided for cleaning the bridge, the market place, and the spaces in front of the Guildhall and of the Chapel. Cleaning the streets was left to the individual householder who, however, seldom performed the duty till, like the poet's father, he was compelled by law.

Such a town of filth and thatched roofs was particularly liable to the double danger of disease and of fire. The plague was a regular visitant at Stratford every ten or twenty years. In the summer of 1564 this dread sickness swept away one-seventh of the population. The town was frequently devastated by fire, and several times nearly ruined.

Stratford has been chosen to illustrate the Elizabethan small town. Its manners and customs, government, trade, etc., are typical. It was slightly off the beaten track, however, therefore lacking in that element of bustle, of men of all sorts and conditions passing through on their way to somewhere else, that was characteristic of such a town as Coventry. Stratford also lacked what Coventry had, and York and Chester still have, a city wall.

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Footnote 1: The word carpet, so often met in the old writings, usually refers to a table cloth.

Footnote 2: The substance of this inventory is given in Mr. Sidney Lee's Stratford on Avon, page 137, and in a similar description of the goods of a wooldriver on page 142. The appendix to Hall's Society in the Age of Elizabeth reprints a number of inventories of the goods of people in different social ranks of life. A number of Elizabethan inventories were privately printed by Halliwell-Phillipps. The volume contains the Kenilworth inventory.

How to cite this article:

Stephenson, Henry Thew. The Elizabethan People. New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1910. Shakespeare Online. 20 Feb. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < >.

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