Traditionally, the past is something we look at from afar. But imagine how your ideas about the past would be different if you could get close up and personal with your forebears. What would you notice if you could see through their eyes, hear with their ears, and smell through their nostrils? What were the tastes and feelings of the past? Can we make any headway in trying to recover them?


Adopting this approach is a particularly interesting exercise when it comes to Elizabethan England, and much more revealing than simply looking at ourselves in a 450-year-old mirror. Not only do we see the similarities, we see the differences too: the cruelty of a society that enthusiastically supports baiting games, regularly sentences people to horrific executions, and approves of torture in the interests of the state. We see the hierarchy, violence and misogyny of society, and how young people are (half are under 22).

Then, as we peel away the layers of tradition that make us feel that we are fundamentally the same as William Shakespeare’s contemporaries, we realise how they inhabit a sensory world that is considerably different from our own. Here are what six of the senses can tell us about life in Elizabethan England...



Darkness reigns in a world where only the rich can afford glass

Six months of every year, there is less than 12 hours of daylight, and street lighting is almost unheard of in Elizabethan England. Time outdoors in autumn and winter is characterised by darkness.

Dimness is always an aspect of seeing indoors too, even in summer. Domestic glass is rare, due to the paucity of glassmakers in 16th-century England. Although the aristocracy have used glass since the late Middle Ages, and the Countess of Shrewsbury famously has “more glass than wall” at Hardwick Hall, in Derbyshire, most houses have to have small windows to prevent heat loss in winter.

Wooden shutters or small opaque screens of horn are used to cover the windows, so there is never much light inside. In winter, you will walk around a farmhouse or cottage in near-darkness.

Candles are expensive and, if unprotected by a lantern casing, they constitute a serious fire hazard, so most people make do with just one or two, and carry them between rooms. If they cannot afford wax candles, then they use tallow candles and rushlights, or just the light of the hearth.

Foreign dyes

When you do have light, you will notice that Elizabethans see colour differently from you, due to the restricted range of dyes in nature. The only natural red in England is madder (taken from the plant of that name); most women have their petticoats dyed this colour. If you want a brighter red you will need to obtain it from abroad.

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Scarlet is made from kermes, a parasitic larva from the Mediterranean. Cochineal is hardly known in England, being made from an insect in Latin America, and brazilwood has to be imported from the Middle East or from Portuguese traders coming from the New World. These sources are not easily available to English merchants, being under the control of Catholic states – especially the Spanish, who are at war with the English from 1585.

As for purple, very few Elizabethans will have ever seen it. The nearest they will have seen is a sort of violet made from madder, and the only natural blue dye commonly available in England is woad. If you were to appear in a purple shirt, you would leave Elizabethans reeling.

Status is not the only significance of colour. True black (again, very rare) is a sign of death and mourning. It also symbolises eternity. White symbolises virginity, so the queen’s use of black and white clothing in her early years is a bold statement of her intention to remain unwed.

Visiting Elizabethan England would require learning a whole visual vocabulary to understand these modes of expression among those who can afford them.



Bells and bagpipes shatter the silence

In modern times, there have been various brave attempts to recreate the ‘authentic’ sounds of the past by playing the music on instruments constructed to contemporary designs. As you will soon realise from experiencing sensations in Elizabethan England, even if you can recreate the sound you cannot recreate the experience of hearing it, for listening to music takes place in a different context in Elizabethan times.

There is no backdrop of motor, train and air traffic, no blaring sirens, no background of recorded music or radio, and no hum of electrical appliances. In fact, there are few loud noises. There is thunder; occasionally there is the report of a gun or cannon; and certain instruments, such as large bells, trumpets and shawms can create a striking impression, as can the galloping of many horses together.

But all these things are occasional or only heard in specific situations. The general range of aural experience is therefore much narrower and more sensitive to sounds, which are normally heard in isolation.

Elizabethans notice when a church bell rings the hour – they sometimes refer to a time as ‘ten of the bell’ rather than ‘ten of the clock’ – because they are used to listening out for the time. People also listen to music more intently because it stands out from their normal day-to-day silence.

The sound of music

A large number of people play an instrument of some sort. At the bottom end of society it is the bagpipes and fiddle that you will most often encounter. Walk into an alehouse in London at the end of the day and you will frequently be encouraged to dance by a smiling musician or two.

Most large towns employ their own small bands of musicians, called ‘waits’, who regularly play in public. The wealthy employ their own bands to perform the airs and madrigals that are the most popular musical entertainment of the day.

For most ordinary Elizabethans, however, it is a rare privilege to hear a five-part air by Anthony Holborne, John Dowland or Thomas Morley, played on a selection of viols and violins, citterns, recorders, flutes and keyboard instruments (harpsichord, spinet and virginals). That is why they stand and gape while you, with your far greater aural experience, might consider the music quite ordinary.



The wealthy wash themselves daily; the masses go filthy

Popular culture would have you believe that all Elizabethans are smelly (like everyone else living before Jane Austen, except the Romans). In reality, the personal and public olfactory landscape is far more complex.

At one end of the scale, if you are circumnavigating the world with Francis Drake in the years 1577–80, it is true that you will not bathe. Your hair and clothes will have lice and you will stink to high heaven, and so will everyone else on the ship (as will the ship itself). Your breath will reek. But in the context of the psychological pressures of such a voyage, including the awareness that most of the crew will die along the way, your shipmates’ aroma is the least of your worries.

At the other end of the spectrum, wealthy people wash themselves daily by rubbing themselves in clean linen and washing their hands and faces in clean water. They immerse themselves occasionally in hot water carefully selected for its purity. They wash their hands before, after and during every meal. They wash their hair in lye, clean their teeth with tooth powder, and sweeten their breath with mouthwashes and liquorice.

In the presence of a refined lady you will not smell her body, but the perfume she is wearing and the orris root with which her clothes were powdered while in storage.

Water pressure

Water availability is the key. If you live in a rented room on the fourth or fifth floor of an old timber-framed townhouse then it will simply be too much effort to go to the public conduit to fetch enough water for a bath and to carry it up the stairs and heat it up.

In any case, you probably won’t be able to afford the firewood to heat the water if you are staying in such a tenement. Nor will you be able to afford fresh linen every day to rub yourself clean. So you will go filthy.

Those of a comparable wealth to you will understand. People of a similar social standing accept similar conditions. They smell each other and know that they themselves smell too; but they know how much it costs to smell like a perfumed lady or gentleman. Living in close proximity to one another, and recognising that the alternatives are unaffordable, they get used to their own smells and the smells of those they know.

Much the same can be said for sanitation. If you don’t have a private water supply, you won’t be able to build a water closet, even if you can afford to build a copy of Sir John Harington’s flushing loo. Moreover, if you and 20 other family members and neighbours are sharing a single cesspit, it will need emptying regularly.

The cost of removing a few tonnes of excrement, kitchen waste and menstrual cloths can be heavy: £2 4s in 1575, the equivalent of 132 days’ work for a labourer. So the poor don’t have their own cesspits, but use common sewers and public latrines.

If you’re too poor to eat, the last thing you want is the added cost of getting rid of detritus and faeces.



Visiting the surgeon could prove a real pain

The aforementioned darkness of Elizabethan England explains why people rely on their sense of touch far more than we do in the modern world. In short, they often cannot see where they are going, so finding objects, going from room to room or making a visit to the outhouse is much more a matter of touch than sight.

Another variation in feeling relates to the things with which people surround themselves. Clothes vary hugely in texture, from fine linen to coarse canvas.

At the top end of society, the finest fabrics, such as silk, lawn and velvet, allow a much greater range of soft tactile sensations than are available to those at the bottom, who have to make do with canvas, buckram, worsted, serge, bays and linsey-wolsey.

The same can be said for bed linen and bedding. Fine holland sheets and two or three ‘feather beds’ (ie feather mattresses) on a slung bed with down-filled pillows are a luxury far beyond the reach of most labourers’ families. They have to get by with straw mattresses on boards with canvas sheets and a wooden headrest.

The cleanliness of the bedding will be something you can feel: vermin such as body lice, bed bugs and fleas get everywhere and you can only be sure of not feeling the biting and itching if you have new bedding on a new mattress.

Comfort and pain

There is also the perennial problem of how to keep warm. This is not to be underestimated, especially during a harsh Elizabethan winter (such as that of 1564–65). Firewood is scarce and expensive, and coal used only for industrial work, so fires are not left burning in every room.

Many bed chambers have no fireplaces at all, and most windows are without glass. Even when shuttered, cold draughts get in and out. Gentlemen’s houses normally have just one or two fires burning through the day.

The only way to be sure of keeping warm is to wear lots of layers and keep active. It is no wonder that the elderly do not last long. For the old, and especially the aged poor, winters are deadly.

As for the feeling of pain, opiates are available to Elizabethan surgeons, but they are expensive. If you have to have part of a limb removed, the operation will normally be done without any better pain-killer than copious amounts of alcohol (wine if you can afford it, beer if you cannot). Cutting the flesh is done with a sharp knife. After that, the surgeon saws through the bone – you have to hope he has cut through the nerve quickly to prevent it being shredded in the teeth of the saw.

As for toothache, you could go to a tooth-drawer. He will use an iron ‘pelican’ to solve the problem. This has a hook, which goes under the tooth on the tongue side; the supporting side goes on the outside of the mouth. By means of a long handle he yanks the tooth out.

If that doesn’t appeal, you could always ask for help from your local blacksmith, who will do the same thing with his pliers.



Hunger turns everyone into a foodie

It is said that there is no sauce quite like hunger. For this reason you may safely assume that poor Elizabethans enjoy their plain meals just as much as the rich enjoy their feasts and banquets. Food is not as scarce as in the late medieval and early Tudor periods, and nowhere near as scarce as it was in early medieval times; but nonetheless, you will be shocked at proportionately how expensive it is.

Consider the price of meat: on average an Elizabethan sheep costs 3s – nine times as much as a worker’s daily wage in southern England – even though the largest sheep weigh about 60lbs, much less than half the weight of their modern descendants. If meat had the same value to us today, a small sheep would cost about £900 and a modern 180lb animal about three times that.

Another way of gauging how special food is to Elizabethans is to reflect that in the famine of 1594–97, thousands died of starvation. When you can’t take meals for granted, the taste of food is going to occupy a more important position in your life.

Godly chicken

The diet eaten by the poor will probably not strike you as particularly exciting. For them, chicken boiled for an hour with garlic and cabbage is an absolute godsend. Although you may turn your nose up at plain over-boiled meat, it is just as well it is over-boiled when it is several days old. Both the water and the meat might poison you. This explains the tradition of boiling everything and serving it with butter. You will be surprised at how much butter is consumed by all classes.

Without doubt you will prefer to dine on the food of the rich. This especially applies if you enjoy roast meats. In order to entertain the queen for just two days at Kirtling in 1577, Lord North lays in store 11½ cows, 17½ veal calves, 67 sheep, 7 lambs, 34 pigs, 96 conies, 8 stags, 16 bucks, 8 gammons of bacon, 32 geese, 363 capons, 6 turkeys, 32 swans, 273 ducks, 1 crane, 38 heronsews, 110 bitterns, 12 shovellers, 1,194 chickens, 2,604 pigeons, 106 pewits, 68 godwits, 18 gulls, 99 dotterels, 8 snipe, 29 knots, 28 plovers, 5 stints, 18 redshanks, 2 yerwhelps, 22 partridges, 344 quail, 2 curlews and a pheasant. And that is just the meat.

Three days a week, you are not allowed to eat red meat (by law), so the wealthy eat an equally wide range of fish. Most of this is baked or stewed and served in sauces made of spices, mustard, salt, sugar and vinegar. Beware: the strong flavours will not be to everyone’s taste.

At a banquet (a selection of sweets following a feast), you might be startled to see marzipan sculptures dyed blue and green with azurite and spinach. And it might take you a little while to get used to sweetmeats that really are meat mixed with sugar and spices. You’ll even be able to tuck into mince pies made of mutton.



Terror stalks an age of plague and paranoia

People in the UK have obvious reasons to be less fearful than in the past. They’re not starving in their thousands or living with the continual daily threat of plague, which kills approximately 250,000 Elizabethans, or influenza (the outbreak of 1557–59 kills about five per cent of England’s population – more than twice the proportion killed by the First World War and the influenza pandemic of 1918–19 combined).

Most Elizabethan people who have children will see half of them die before they reach adulthood, if they themselves live long enough. Smallpox, malaria, tuberculosis and innumerable other diseases are rife and uncontrollable. Every family clutches at its Bible in fear of God’s fatal judgement. All too often there is nothing else to cling to.

As if fear of death from disease were not enough, people live with fear of incrimination. At first, the break from the Catholic church leads to moderate restrictions on Catholics; but rebellions and plots against the queen mean things rapidly deteriorate.

After the pope’s excommunication and ‘deposition’ of Elizabeth I in 1570, it behoves every Catholic in England to try to overthrow her rule. A wave of state persecution ensues, followed by a second more bloody wave after the coming of the Jesuits in 1580 and further anti-Catholic legislation after the Spanish Armada (1588).

By the end of Elizabeth’s reign, hearing Mass is a sufficient crime to warrant you being fined £133, and not attending church for a month will lead to a period of imprisonment. All the time people are watching you. You have to be careful what you say and do in public, even when among the servants in your own home.

Dark shadows

This ever-present, deep-seated unease with your fellow men and women might trouble you just as much as the lack of food and the prospect of dying from a fatal disease. If they see someone of the opposite sex enter your house after dark, people might report you to the authorities on suspicion of committing adultery. Then it is down to you to provide compurgators to prove your innocence. If you do not, you will lose your good reputation, be humiliated in front of the community, and may find yourself shunned thereafter.

People might report you simply out of envy or malice. This is especially the case with witchcraft: if someone’s child dies and that person has a grudge against you, he or she might blame the death on your necromancy, especially if you are a woman. Such accusations can end up with you on the gallows, swinging with a rope round your neck.

It does not matter that witchcraft is mere superstition; people are still terrified of it as they are terrified of death, invasion and harvest failure. What is more, the law is on their side. After 1563, witchcraft is officially recognised as a means of killing people.

All in all, the late 16th century might be a golden age of literature, exploration, scientific discovery and architecture, but when you consider the sensations that Elizabethan people experience every day, dark shadows appear in the golden glow.

You might say that that makes the great achievements all the more remarkable. But you might conclude that when we look at ourselves in the mirror of the past, we see many different aspects of humanity, and have a different insight into what we really are.

Dr Ian Mortimer is a historian, historical novelist and author, best known for his series of The Time Traveller's Guide To... books


This article was first published in the March 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine