The Venetian ambassador, about 1500, reported to his government:
The English are for the most part—both men and women, of all ages—handsome and well proportioned.... They are great lovers of themselves, and of everything belonging to them; they think there are no other men than themselves, and no other world but England; and whenever they see a handsome foreigner they say that “he looks like an Englishman,” and that it is a great pity that he is not one.19
The English might have answered that most of this description, mutatis mutandis, would fit all peoples. Assuredly they were a vigorous stock, in body, character, and speech. They swore so heartily that even Joan of Arc regularly called them Goddams. The women too were plainspoken, talking of matters physiological and genetic with a freedom that might shock the sophisticates of today.20 Humor was as coarse and profane as speech. Manners were rough, even in the aristocracy, and had to be trained and tamed by a rigid code of ceremony. The lusty spirit that would agitate the Elizabethans was already formed, in the fifteenth century, out of a life of danger, violence, and insolence. Every man had to be his own policeman, ready to meet blow with blow and, at need, kill with a steady stomach. These same powerful animals could be generous, chivalrous, and, on occasion, even tender. Tough warriors wept when Sir John Chandos, the almost “parfit knight,” died; and Margaret Paston’s letter to her sick husband (1443) shows how timeless and raceless love can be. We should add, however, that this same lady almost broke the head of her daughter for refusing to marry the parental choice.21
Girls were brought up in protective demureness and modesty, for men were beasts of prey, and virginity was an economic asset in the marital mart. Marriage was an incident in the transfer of property. Girls could legally marry at twelve, boys at fourteen, even without their parents’ consent; but in the upper classes, to accelerate property transactions, betrothals were arranged by the parents soon after the children reached the age of seven. Since love marriages were exceptional, and divorce was forbidden, adultery was popular, especially in the aristocracy. “There reigned abundantly,” says Holinshed, “the filthie sin of lechery and fornication, with abominable adulteries, speciallie in the king.”22 Edward IV, after sampling many loves, chose Jane Shore as his favorite concubine. She served him with wanton fidelity, and proved a kind friend at court to many a petitioner. When Edward died, Richard III, possibly to parade his brother’s vices and disguise his own, forced her to march through London streets in the white robe of a public penitent. She lived to a destitute old age, despised and rejected by those whom she had helped.23
Never in known history had Englishmen (now so law-abiding) been so lawless. A hundred years of war had made men brutal and reckless; nobles returning from France continued to fight in England, and employed demobilized soldiers in their feuds. Aristocrats shared with tradesmen a greed for money that overrode all morality. Petty thefts were innumerable. Merchants sold shoddy goods and used false weights; at one time frauds in the quality and quantity of exports almost ruined England’s foreign trade.24 Commerce on the seas was spiced with piracy. Bribery was almost universal: judges could scarcely judge without “gifts”; juries were paid to be friendly to plaintiff or defendant or both; tax collectors were “greased” to let exemptions slip readily from their palms; recruiting officers, like Shakespeare’s Falstaff, could be induced to overlook a town;25 an English army invading France was bought off by the enemy.26 Men were as mad for money then as now, and poets like Chaucer, having denounced greed, practiced it. The moral structure of society might have collapsed had not its foundations been mortised in the simple life of common men and women, who, while their betters plotted the wars and mischief of the time, maintained the home and carried on the race.
All classes except merchants and prolétaires lived in the country for as much of the year as they might. Castles, being no longer defensible since the development of cannon, were slowly evolving into manor houses. Brick replaced stone, but modest houses were still built of wood and mud. The central hall, once used for all purposes, lost its old size and splendor, and shrank into a vestibule opening into a large living room, some small rooms, and a “drawte chamber” or (with) drawing room for intimate converse. Tapestries hung on rich men’s walls, and windows—sometimes of stained glass—brightened the once dark interior. The smoke of the hearth, which formerly had escaped through window, door, and roof, was now gathered into a chimney, and a massive fireplace dignified the living room. Ceilings might be timbered, floors might be tiled; carpets were still rare. If we may trust the literary rather than accurate Erasmus,
almost all the floors are of clay and rushes from the marshes, so carelessly renewed that the foundation sometimes remains for twenty years, harboring, there below, spittle and vomit and wine of dogs and men, beer... remnants of fishes, and other filth unnameable. Hence, with the change of weather, a vapor exhales which in my judgment is far from wholesome.27
Beds were sumptuous with carving, flowered coverlet, and canopy. The dining table, in comfortable homes, was a giant masterpiece of carved walnut or oak. Near it, or in the hall, stood a cupboard, sideboard, or dresser where table plate was “dressed”—i.e., arranged for display or ornament. The “parler”—a room for talking—was preferred for meals.
To save oil, the main meals were taken in daylight: “dinner” at ten in the morning, “supper” at five in the afternoon. Men wore their hats at table, to keep their long hair from getting into the food. Forks were reserved for special purposes, like serving salad or toasting cheese; their English use in the modern manner first appears in 1463.28 The knife was supplied by the guest, who carried it in a short sheath attached to his girdle. Etiquette required that food should be brought to the mouth with the fingers. As hand kerchiefs were not in use till the middle of the sixteenth century, men wer requested to blow their noses with the hand that held the knife rather than with that which conveyed the food.29 Napkins were unknown, and diners were warned not to clean their teeth on the tablecloth.30 Meals were heavy; the ordinary dinner of a man of rank included fifteen or twenty dishes. Great lords kept great tables, feeding a hundred retainers, visitors, and servants daily; Warwick the Kingmaker used six oxen a day for his table, and sometimes fed 500 guests. Meat was the national food; vegetables were scarce or shunned. Beer and ale were the national drinks; wine was not as plentiful or popular as in France or Italy, but a gallon of beer per day was the usual allowance per person, even for nuns. The English, said Sir John Fortescue (c. 1470), “drink no water, unless at certain times upon religious score, or by way of doing penance.” 31
Dress was splendid in the aristocracy. Simple men wore a plain gown or hood, or a short tunic convenient for work; moneyed men liked furred and feathered hats, flowered robes, or fancy jackets bulging at the sleeves, and tight high hose which, Chaucer’s parson complained, “shewen... the horrible swollen members, that seemeth .... hernia, and eke the buttocks... as it were the hindre part of a she-ape in the fulle of the moon.” Chaucer himself when a page, had a flaming costume with one hose red and the other black The long pointed shoes of the fourteenth century disappeared in the fifteenth, and shoes became rounded or broad at the toe. As for “the outrageous array of wommen, God wot that though the visages of somme of them seem ful chaste and debonaire, yet notifie they,” by “the horrible disordinate scantinesse” of their dress, their “likerousnesse” (lecherousness) “and pride.”32 However, the pictures that have come down to us show the alluring sex tightly encased in a plethora of garments from ears to feet.
Amusements ranged from checkers and chess, backgammon and dice, to fishing and hunting, archery and jousts. Playing cards reached England toward the end of the fifteenth century; today they still dress their kings and queens in the fashion of that time. Dancing and music were as popular as gambling; nearly every Englishman took part in choral song; Henry V rivaled John Dunstable among the outstanding composers of the day; and English singers were acclaimed on the Continent. Men played tennis, handball, football, bowls, quoits; they wrestled and boxed, set cocks to fighting, baited bears and bulls. Crowds gathered to see acrobats and ropewalkers perform the feats that amused antiquity and amaze modernity. Kings and nobles kept jugglers, jesters, and buffoons; and a Lord of Misrule, appointed by the king or queen, superintended the sports and revels of Christmastide. Women moved freely among men everywhere: drank in taverns, rode to the hounds, hunted with falcons, and distracted the spectators from the combatants at tournaments; it was they who, led by the queen, judged the jousters and awarded the golden crown.
Travel was still travail, but nobody seemed to stay home—a bad mark for monogamy. Roads were mud or dust, and robbers made no distinction of race, sex, class, or creed. Inns were picturesque and dirty, stocked with roaches, rats, and fleas. Nearly every one of them had a Doll Tearsheet for sale, and virtue could hardly find a bed. The poor went on foot, the well-to-do on horseback, usually in armed companies; the very rich used newfangled horse-drawn coaches—reputedly invented by a fifteenth-century Hungarian in the village of Kocz. Lordly carriages were carved and painted and gilded, cushioned and curtained and carpeted; even so they were less comfortable than camels, and as undulant as a fishing smack. Ships were no better than in antiquity, or worse; that which brought King John from Bordeaux to London in 1357 took twelve days.
Crime flourished. Towns were too poor to have any but unpaid volunteer police; but all males were required to join in the “hue and cry” after a fleeing criminal. Deterrents were sought in severe penalties for the few who were caught; burglary, larceny, arson, and sacrilege, as well as murder and treason, were punished with hanging on any convenient tree, and the corpse was left as a warning to others and a feast for crows. The practice of torture-both on the accused and on witnesses—developed under Edward IV, and continued for 200 years.33 Lawyers abounded.
Perhaps we judge the age too harshly, forgetting the barbarities of our enlightened century. Sir John Fortescue, Chief Justice under Henry VI, thought more highly of his time, and wrote in its honor two works once renowned. In a dialogue, De laudibus legum Angliae, he praised the laws of England, gloried in the right of trial by jury, mourned the use of torture, and, like a thousand philosophers, warned princes to make themselves the law-abiding servants of the people. In Monarchia, or Governance of England, he compared France and England patriotically: in France men could be condemned without public trial, the States-General was rarely called, the King levied taxes on necessities like salt and wine. After so exalting his country, Sir John concluded that all governments should be subject to the pope, usque ad pedum oscula—“even to kissing his feet.” 34