London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London
Elizabethan England is endlessly fascinating. It was, after all, the age of Sidney, Marlowe and Shakespeare; of Walter Ralegh and the colonisation of North America, of Sir Francis Drake and the Spanish Armada; of Mary Queen of Scots, sundry royal lovers and the Elizabethan settlement. Readers seeking more information on these ever-popular topics will find little reference to them in Liza Picard's Elizabeth's London. They will, however, find plenty of lesser-known players who more than compensate for the absence of the period's habitual celebrities.
Take London Bridge, for example. It was the only bridge across the river at that point, and thus the only way to get into the capital from Dover unless a boat was used. The bridge familiar to Elizabethans had actually been built in 1176, and lasted until 1830; it had twenty arches which generated such a powerful current that water-powered corn mills were built at either end. Most people know that the bridge was built up with houses and shops, but here we learn that they were up to four storeys high, and enjoyed the inestimable advantage of draining their privies directly into the river. It is also well-known that the heads of traitors were spiked onto the entrance of the Southwark side, supposedly as a warning to others. Perhaps less well-known is the pride shown by the deceased's families who "boast of this, themselves even pointing out one of their ancestors' heads" [p. 22]. They sound like those present-day Australians who so pride themselves on their convict origins.
Food meant more in Elizabethan times than now, and not just because starvation might be around the corner. Artichokes provoke lust in women, though sadly they suppress it in men. It is not clear whether globe or Jerusalem artichokes are referred to, the latter may not have made the trip over from America by then. Leeks and onions are generally aphrodisiacal too, perhaps in suggestive combination—the text is again not entirely clear—while saffron boiled in wine is useful for keeping moths out, men from drunkenness, and guarantees performance in bed. Not being drunk might have something to do with it. Coriander seeds in sweet wine, if taken in excess, apparently provoke frenzy in men and should be handled with caution, while Lad's Love may be useful in encouraging coy young women. Subsequent chapters provide information about pornography, prostitution, the dangers of being inveigled into marriage without realizing it and the surprisingly low fertility of Elizabethan couples.
There was some immigration into Elizabethan London, though not, it would appear, to compensate for the birthrate. The slave trade had begun, and some Africans found themselves in London, rather than the Americas, where we are told they became "employees, not slaves, which they would have been in the West Indies" [p. 110]. No doubt they were duly grateful. It became fashionable to have black servants; even Elizabeth had one, although this did not prevent her from issuing a proclamation ordering them out. Despite their unwanted presence, except as novelty servants, there was not, apparently, "any specific antipathy to a dark African skin" [p. 111] and the author cites Othello as an example of Shakespeare's, and by extension the Elizabethans', delightful freedom from prejudice. I seem to be familiar with a different version of the play. "Desdemona's father," Liza Picard says, was "shocked by the news of his daughter's elopement [and] refers to Othello's 'sooty bosom', but that was in the heat of the moment before he realizes that they are properly married" [p. 111]. But doesn't Iago taunt Brabantio with the words "Even now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe"? Doesn't Rodrigo refer to "the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor"? If there was no "popular prejudice to be exploited" [p. 111] why do Iago and Rodrigo, villains though they are, try to incite Desdemona's father with clearly racist language? Surely it would be meaningless to him? Meanwhile, other foreigners were employed to perform "the most toilsome, difficult and skilful works" [p. 115]. Such immigrants were likely to be religious and economic refugees fleeing persecution abroad, and often brought their families with them. Elizabethan London, at least according to this book, seems to be remarkably similar to Elizabeth II's London. One wonders whether Liza Picard has revived the now discredited practice of earlier historians—Arthur Bryant springs to mind—who so delighted in observing the cyclical nature of history and the unchanging and dauntless character of the Englishman in adversity.
One of the most useful chapters about Elizabethan London life is concerned with the livery companies, which were the backbone of the city. There were twelve great companies, out of a total of nearly a hundred companies and trade associations. Two thirds of all men in their early thirties had been apprentices at some time to one of them, such as the mercers, grocers, drapers, fishmongers or goldsmiths, although up to 50 percent may have dropped out before completing their time. Perhaps if there is a fault to be found in the mass of engrossing detail about the livery companies, it is in the absence of information about those people who were not part of the system. We learn little of the everyday lives of women, and although a chapter is devoted to the poor we are not told how many of them there were, nor how, indeed, poverty was defined. There were plenty of homeless people, begging laws were regularly enacted, and hospitals provided for the sick, but without having a clear idea of the numbers involved beyond the shocked generalizations of contemporary witnesses, it is difficult to obtain an understanding of the extent of the problem. Indeed, the greater part of the book, with its descriptions of the livery companies' regular feasting, the solidity of Elizabethan housing and the splendor of people's clothes (they danced by the light of the fire and candles, in their brilliantly colored, gem-studded costumes [p. 215]) seems to suggest a golden age of plenty. Only the figures on life expectation offer a different story: "for men it has been estimated at 20-25 years in the poorer parishes, and 30-35 in the wealthier parts of London, with many prosperous men surviving into their fifties" [p. 89]. One wonders whether the 50 percent drop-out rate of apprentices was the result of death rather than any deliberate breach of indenture.
In the foreword to her first book on the capital, Restoration London, Liza Picard argues that, as a lawyer rather than a historian, she has "a liking for primary evidence—not what someone wrote long afterwards, or what someone has concluded from a selection of documents that I have not seen, but what someone said who was there at the time." This approach is not without its difficulties, as the author herself acknowledges: "one never knows," she confesses, "whether an event was reported because it was extraordinary and abnormal, or because it was just one more example of modern life." Another problem when dealing exclusively with primary evidence is that it will almost all come from the pens of educated men who tend to share a rather similar world picture (to echo E.M.W. Tillyard). Women and poor people are far less likely to leave a record of their lives; the diaries used as source material for Elizabeth's London were "kept by moderately prosperous men—none was kept by a poor man or by a woman" [p. xiv] as she acknowledges in the preface. At least Elizabeth's London relies on a fairly substantial number of sources, unlike Restoration London which seems at times to be little more than a reorganization of Pepys's Diary (though none the less interesting for that). To be fair to Liza Picard, she warns us of these shortcomings, but it is easy to forget them in the fascinating feast of detail set out before us. Elizabeth's London does not provide a comprehensive treatment of its period, as I am sure its author would agree. It does offer, however, an absorbing and entertaining account of the minutiæ of London life in the second half of the sixteenth century.