Thursday, 16 June 2005

Childhood, Manners & Bodily Functions in Elizabethan London




It has been estimated that out of every one-hundered babies born alive, seventy would only live until their 1st birthday, while less than half lived past their 5th year. The mortality rate was extremely high and childhood was therefore very brief. As soon as a child was able to walk and mutter a few words, it was taught 'good manners'. The ideal child was seen and not heard, rising from their seats whenever their parents entered the room and addressing them as 'Sir' and 'Madam'. They would have to ask their parents for their blessing upon awaking in the morning as well as before bedtime.

From the very begining, children were taught the importance of behaving in a humble and passive fashion towards their elders or betters (people higher up on the social scale, but not necessarily 'better' than them in modern terms). Men wore their hats almost all the time, even indoors, so special rules had to be invented to tell them when they should take them off. For example, Erasmus advises young men of the time to "take off your hat and see that your hair is well combed...[if you are ] seated with people of rank".

Foreigners were amazed at a particular habit the English had at the time, of kissing any visitors to the house, heartily and on the lips. Apparently, if you did not do so you were considered very ill mannered indeed...
The following instruction from our friend Erasmus is extremely amusing and one would think unnecessary: "...it is impolite to greet someone who is urinating or defecating. A well-bred person should always avoid exposing without necessity the parts to which nature has attached modesty. If necessity compels this, it should be done with decency and reserve, even if no witness is present" (the idea being I suppose, that one must not offend God's sensitivities...or maybe the angels?)
Apparently public pissing (yes, this is the actual word the Elizabethans used) was widespread (one assumes amongst men), to such an extent that when the Mercers' livery company let one of their properties, they included a clause that the tenant must prevent "naughty persons annoying our cellar by way of pissing in at the windows".
Passing wind or farting, was to be done when alone. If it was not possible for the flatulence-riddled pesron to hold it in, they would have to "cough over the sound". There is an amusing story of the Earl of Oxford, who apparently farted as he bowed to Queen Elizabeth on one occasion. he was so embarassed that he did not appear at Court for seven years. When he eventually met the Queen at Court again, she told him: "My Lord, I have forgotten the fart", which obviously proved she hadn't...
Belching was totally out of the question and there is no mention of one being able to do this in private even.

9 comments:

HCaldwell said...

Poor Earl of Oxford and we complain about the price of gas.

ResoluteReader said...

Not only did he not appear at court for 7 years, but he went abroad in self imposed exile. He is of course, also known as the alleged "real" author of Shakespeares works. Wikipedia has some interesting further info on him here

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_de_Vere%2C_17th_Earl_of_Oxford

Aginoth said...

I love Elizaethan history and the manners of the time are fascinating...

Did you know for instance, the modern practice of clapping ones hands together was considering insulting as it inferred the perso you were directing it towards had the "clap" (STD), to show your appreciation it was instead customary to bang on the nearest wooden surface with one hand or to tap one foot.

Alterior said...

Many thanks. I will check that out. :-)))

Lola said...

I've always wondered, ahem, how did the women, especially upper-class, handled going to the bathroom.

Alterior said...

Presumably they pretended such things did not exist. Have a look at my 'Washing and Waking Up' post, May 3d, 2005 in my archived posts. In that I talk about Queen Elizabeth I's portable lavatories, which were very much in use with the upper classes in those days.

Daldianus said...

Great, and funny, post again.

Is there an explanation as to why the English kissed all their visitors on the mouth!? (especially since they were rather prude the rest of the time)

Could have been fun with some though :) And gross with others .........

ResoluteReader said...

"pissing (yes, this is the actual word the Elizabethans used)"

Everytime I see the words "Piss" written, I am reminded of Byron's Epitaph for Lord Castlereagh,

"Posterity will ne'er survey
A nobler scene than this.
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh.
Stop traveller, and piss."


Not strictly relevant, but always amusing. Nasty man that Castlereagh.

Alterior said...

Daldianus,

No explanation on the kissing custom but have been reading recently that this was reserved for greeting female visitors only...

Obviously what is taboo now was considered everyday stuff in those days. For example, in the 1780s there was a trend for ladies to expose their nipples with a very low decolte, and this was not thought as being very outrageous and therefore not frowned upon. Even nowadays I think, if a woman stuck her nipples out people would look twice...