How to Be a Tudor

While exploring the Folger Shakespeare Library’s latest online endeavor in a blog last month, I cited the Bard’s will where he bequeaths his ‘second best bed’ to his wife, Anne.  Though that passage was not considered a slight on Shakespeare’s part, I admit I didn’t understand why. After reading Ruth Goodman’s How to Be a Tudor (Liveright Publishing, $29.95, 336 pages), the reason is clear: Beds in the 16th century were precious commodities, and often the first items mentioned in wills. Shakespeare was simply ensuring that his wife would have a warm place to lay her head when he was gone. This, and other details fill Goodman’s follow-up to her 2014 volume, How to Be a Victorian.


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Fans of the BBC’s Wolf Hall will be happy to learn that Goodman, who was the historical advisor for the series, wanted the producers to portray the times accurately. In doing so, she wholeheartedly embodies the phrase “living history.” She slept in a one-room, timber framed house on an earthen floor covered by six inches of rushes, did not bathe for three months, only changing her Tudor-style undergarments daily (and surprisingly passed a modern smell test of her peers), fashioned her own writing quill, and washed her teeth with linen rags and soot.

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Portrait of Sir Thomas Knyvett, de jure 4th Baron Berners, later Lord High

Sheriff of Norfolk. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Taking the reader from dawn (or in some cases, pre-dawn) to dusk for Tudor aristocrats, farmers, and women, Goodman draws on fascinating firsthand accounts such as wills, contracts, pamphlets and even coroner’s reports to flesh out a detailed portrait of life in England 400 years ago, and her clear explanations of these texts bring fresh meaning to the paper legacy the Tudors left behind. Whether sleeping on a floor, distilling essential oils, or dancing the volta, Goodman’s enthusiasm and enjoyment are a revelation and pour from every page. The Tudor era was a time of great change, and the author makes no claim that hers is the definitive guide to the period, though the book is thoroughly researched. It is, as she puts it, “a broad gallop through a typical day...a taste of the ordinary that seems to us so extraordinary.”

How to Be a Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Tudor Life, by Ruth Goodman; Liveright Publishing Corporation, $29.95, 336 pages. Pub Date: February 15, 2016

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