The time of The Tudors, so popular with Historians and TV and Film viewers alike, was the great age of change and discovery. Amidst the Political and Religious upheaval, home life was also being transformed, innovations and discoveries in food, heating the home and in the radical new medical treatments were all wondrous and exciting, but also quite often lethal. Dr Susannah Lipscomb again takes us into the Historical domiciles of our ancestors to investigate.
By 1590, thanks to the ever changing social hierarchy that the Royal machinations created, a new level of wealthier folk had emerged with aspirations for their homes . Made up of what we might call middle professionals, these yeoman farmers, Artisans and Merchants were called The Middling Sort. Investing in furniture,textiles and more decadent treats in the kitchen.
Dangers were now being imported from distant lands in a time of great exploration, conquest and trade.
Foods from abroad that had never been available to the medieval homemaker such as Potatoes and tomatoes were now symbols of Standing and Grandeur. It is strange to think that until the 1540s no actual word existed for the colour of oranges, the fruit itself introduced the concept. For those used to bland diet of pulses,bread, tiny amounts of meat and a few vegetables, the explosion of flavour in the Tudor times was going to be nothing short of a revelation.
Due to extensive foreign travel, it was now easier to bring in exotic flavours and none more so than the the product as precious as metals and called White Gold. Mass production of Sugar was possible and so the Middling sort were able to show their prowess with this attainable Luxury. It came to the house in a cone shaped "loaf" whereupon servants would have at it with a hammer and then grind the crystalline lumps with a Pestle and Mortar, for the finest confections where icing sugar would be required, the dust would have to be forced through a silk sieve.
Sweet treats at the end of a meal would be a showy affair, showcasing the family's wealth and prosperity. Sugar would be formed into other things like nuts or even bacon by dyeing and shaping sugar pastes rather like the great cake decorators today. Similarly as today, the twin risks of Tooth decay and Diabetes were also rearing their heads.
Studies of skulls from the medieval period show a healthy full set of teeth, Tudors skulls show marked evidence of tooth decay and loss. The pain from the decay must have been immense and Tudor dentistry was brutal and painkiller free. Many of the remedies would contain sugar water or honey. Perfumed sweets were common to hide the smell of bad teeth, but only made the decay worse. Abrasive teeth polishes made from coral or shell would remove tooth enamel only compounding the issue.
A Tudor Skull
Chimneys had been unheard of in medieval times. A hole in the roof left smoke collecting in the room below. The idea of a tube drawing the smoke from the room was clever and began the idea we still see of the heat source being positioned on the side of rooms enabling more than one storey and fires to heat each room. To avoid a poor draw the aperture of the fireplace had to be no more than ten times the depth of the chimney or it would not draw high enough and smoke would gather, soot accumulated and the trapped smoke would be ignited .
Sometimes the the chimney was constructed of wood or wattle and daube which would catch light when flames blew out igniting the thatch.
The bricks and mortar of the time were also not equipped to deal with the intensity of wood and coal fires. And the the exploding bricks raining down would kill rescuers trying to save people from the initial flames. Great swathes of Tudor England burned due to chimney fires, records show that two fires in short interval of each other, destroyed almost all of Stratford upon Avon. Ordinances were written to record correct practice when chimney building, demanding quarterly chimney sweepings, but this was not enough to save the capital from the Great Fire of London a few decades later.
One of the other biggest killers in or around the home was drowning. Women would have to draw Water using a bucket from the nearest Water course, Literature reflected the regular incidence of the time. Accidental Drowning accounted for 2% of deaths in 2010, it was at 40% in 1590
Dr Lipscomb conducts an experiment on a fresh spring day. She wades out into a river wearing Tudor garb. Immediately she is gasping from the cold, entering the water in the winter could shock larynx into spasm causing suffocation. The clothes themselves made predominantly of wool were heavy and with the water absorption of the fibre very high before saturation, it would drag a person very easily. Also the beds of river were slippery and with a current might easily carry someone out of their depth. The Tudors started to recognise the risks, Covers to wells and fencing off water courses for safety were instituted in the latter parts of the Tudor century to combat this reason for premature death.
Common floor coverings of the time were straw and hay, called Rushes, they were meant to protect the home from floods and to insulate against the cold,but were so rarely changed and every spillage would fester carrying pathogens of every bodily fluid and organic matter dropped on it over a period of years and in some cases decades.
Diseases like cholera, dysentery and typhoid were frequent killers and the simplest and most natural thing like childbirth resulted in twenty out of every thousand deliveries ending in the death of the Mother. This is compared with eight out of every hundred thousand today. Infection would be easy with open wounds caused in labour. People would die from simple wounds that would be no trouble today. People with broken legs or cuts might dies days later from infections contracted after the initial injury. Coroners reported a number of unusual demises.
The normal person would devote at least some of their garden plot to their physic garden, where the medicinal herbs and plants designed to combat these afflictions would have grown. All people would have had some knowledge of what plants would have a beneficial effect. Tansy as a digestive cure, Rue and Pennyroyal were often used to initiate abortions. Lungwort was thought to help respiratory illness.
Up to one hundred and fifty plants were thought to be grown and processed into medicines and tinctures in the Tudor kitchen. All of our modern medicines are sourced from plants even today, we just distill the active ingredients better. Dosages were not precise and home remedies often ended in death.
Tansy is a good example. It was thought that Tansy could cure intestinal worms, the thinking being that Lenten diets of fish were the cause so the springtime fresh shoots were used as a mild irritant to kill the worms, but as the plants matured and the active ingredient's toxicity grew it could become toxic. When a plant looked like an ailment, it was used to cure it, pile wort roots looked like haemorrhoids for instance. What seemed like a saving grace were the printing presses. Medical home guides had mass popular appeal. Some ran to almost 1700 pages, filled with illustrations to make identifying plants easier. Many Reprints runs were made and it is estimated that 400,000 medical books were printed in the period. All written by supposed experts, some seemed well written like the advice of John Gerard not to plant Nightshade and the cautionary tale of three boys who had eaten the attractive berries and died three days later.
Self treatment was a pivotal part in life, a popular treatises for the time "Everyman his own physician" summed it up very well.
Remedies seem outlandish to modern eyes. To cure a palsy it was suggested to use the quartered carcass of a fox and it's entrails in, water with caraway and other herbs and bathe the patient in the resulting infusion.
This strange idea fed into the premise of the animus, that every living creature has in turn a living spirit . To restore a failing part of the body to health you topped it up with the animus of another healthy (until killed in the name of medicine) creature with a whole animus. Nicholas Culpepper favoured this remedy
for sexually transmitted disease The Clap, dipping one's private parts in a he still warm blood of afreshly slaughtered chicken.
As long as you kept the Four humours (life fluids) in balance you would be healthy.
The Tudors were at a scientific disadvantage,all medical dissection had been banned as signs of heresy it was not until 1540 when Henry VIII allowed cadavers from the gallows to be dissected that they were to better learn anatomy.
In 1497 a hospital in London was deluged with sufferers of a new affliction, every other patient admitted by Dr Coves at St Bartholomew's had "The Pox" Strangely out of nowhere Syphilis had arrived on UK shores. Symptoms listed as aches and pains, ulcers ,nodes , scabs, corruption of the bones, and pustules on the privates were listed .The infection ate tissue overtime, the cause? Sexual Promiscuity. Infection was rapid, from Bawdy house to family house, syphilitic sores soon became the affliction attributed to prostitutes and those of loose morals, but often it was as simple as unfaithful husbands infecting their unsuspecting wives in the marital bed.
Syphilis was the cause of the tragic death of Fantine in Victor Hugo's classic "Les Miserables". Until modern antibiotics really had a footing in the medicine chest there was very little could be done for the afflicted.
Tudor skulls again reveal the horrific the ravages of the disease, with bone literally eaten away from the cranium by infection. The delirium caused by this damage is common in patients with the disease.
The "cure" was soon widely administered. Thought to soothe and clear the initial sores, not realising that they were the first signs of varied symptoms of infection,quicksilver or Mercury, solution was turned into a salve . No mean feat. Modern chemists were sceptical when asked to reproduce the recipe under laboratory conditions. Mercury does not easy to absorb through skin, but in gaseous form is deadly and the salve used amounts of Quicksilver 1000 times more concentrated than what is deemed safe today. The whole house where treatment was administered would be at risk from confusion, derangement and eventual death.
The Tudor home, the quaint and picturesque beams and whitewash hid the danger and deadliness within.