REVIEW: How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, and Braggarts by Ruth Goodman
Offensive language, insolent behavior, slights, brawls, and scandals come alive in Ruth Goodman’s uproarious history.
Every age and social strata has its bad eggs, rule-breakers, and nose-thumbers. As acclaimed popular historian and author of How to Be a Victorian Ruth Goodman shows in her madcap chronicle, Elizabethan England was particularly rank with troublemakers, from snooty needlers who took aim with a cutting “thee,” to lowbrow drunkards with revolting table manners. Goodman draws on advice manuals, court cases, and sermons to offer this colorfully crude portrait of offenses most foul. Mischievous readers will delight in learning how to time your impressions for the biggest laugh, why quoting Shakespeare was poor form, and why curses hurled at women were almost always about sex (and why we shouldn’t be surprised). Bringing her signature “exhilarating and contagious” enthusiasm (Boston Globe), this is a celebration of one of history’s naughtiest periods, when derision was an art form.
Dear Ms. Goodman,
Yes, I’ll fess up to requesting this book for review based on the title and the expectation of chuckling and looking down my nose (now, I know why I don’t want to do that) at old fashioned behavior. Having finished it, I can honestly say I learned a thing or three. This is packed with all kinds of knowledge and the reasons why our ancestors behaved as they did. Those interested in Tudor or Stuart eras ought to give it a go and be enlightened.
The phraseology does lead the reader to initially think that all the book will have is “step-by-step instructions that lay out exactly how to be that annoying and irritating person.” Want to aggravate your parents, friends, neighbors, clergy, family, subordinates, dinner guests, superiors and members of the opposite gender? By the time I finished, I had a thorough grounding. But not just in a “do this and disgust/intimidate/insult/offend people” way. Now I know why this behavior would accomplish these goals.
As always, there were different standards applied to men and women with men being thought merely annoying while the same behavior in women would cause screeching outrage. Men could then fairly easily regain what social prestige they’d lost while women might have a long slog back to respectability – if they could regain it at all. Those who annoyed those socially below them might also get away with more as insubordination was seen as flaunting the social order which God had ordained. Words, terms and behaviors shifted in meaning and degree of offensiveness as time progressed. What might have been acceptable could change to mildly irritating 50 years later and then worthy of cudgels and outrage 50 years beyond that. We see that today with curse words that once were unthinkable now being uttered every other sentence.
These were times when people held their honor and social standing dearly and fought – legally as well as physically – to be sure they were accorded the respect they felt their due. Dueling men weren’t always just hot bloods who were bored. Before banks. limited liability companies, insurance and the internet, trust in a person’s honor and judgement of their character were the safeguards that affected business opportunities, marriage prospects and that others used to decide whether or not to have anything to do with you – or your family. I knew Quakers used thee and thou and thus set themselves apart from most English speaking people of their day but am now aware of why non-Quakers found this so offensive.
The way in which you flaunted your badness could be both reviled as well as admired. The fact that so much of the verbal exchanges between adversaries were recorded from eye witnesses in court documents attests to some degree of admiration for doing a bang up job with your insults. Woe to those who also got their gestures wrong – either in making them or withholding them, or making them incorrectly. Once the English Civil War arrived this reached a whole new level of anxiety inducing decisions to make as Parliamentarians had to decide how far to deviate from the older practices which might now cause them to be labeled as Royalists. This was also an area where social standing influenced how you acted and whether your actions might be interpreted as sufficiently subservient – for a maid or ploughman,or cheeky or (horrors) aping your betters and thus undermining class barriers.
Buttons! Who knew that women wearing them was once viewed as a mockery of God’s law. Or that maids wearing starched ruffs sent up a crescendo of outrage at this subversion of the social order. Yet it seems that youth choosing their clothes with an eye and purpose of separating themselves from and upsetting their parents is nothing new under the sun.
One thing guarantied to irritate people then and now is smoking. Spitting has gone in and out of fashion, views on sex have changed but in interesting ways since this time (as in the medieval age) still viewed a healthy sexual relationship between married people as something to be desired – but sex outside marriage was sinful. Bathing was not often done but not because people didn’t want to be clean but because they did. And healthy too as with all those miasmas drifting about, one could catch almost anything if the skin were washed! Much better to keep it covered up with well washed linen that whisked all foulness away. Start talking about menstruation though and you’ll still stop all conversation and be thought crude and shocking.
Amusing, entertaining and informative, I have learned a lot from this book and will probably view historicals with a slightly different eye from now on. B+