Life in Elizabethan England Next

Philosophical Introduction

The past is not all the same place. This is important.

For that matter, the Renaissance is not the same thing from beginning to end. Our own world has changed substantially from the middle of the century to its last decade. Is it safe to suppose that because absolute monarchs still ruled Europe and the steam engine remained undiscovered that the world was static through out the period? Well, no. So it seems important to point out right now, up front, that this little bit of the Renaissance in Northern Europe under discussion here is not the Middle Ages and is not the Baroque. It is its own special thing. It is Elizabethan, with a little edge of Tudor.

As writers and particularly as actors (or re-enactors), we often speak of the past in the present tense. Not because we can't tell the difference between then and now, or even because we wish to have lived then, but because while we're doing it, we need this information to be real and immediate and everyday. For us, the past is very present indeed. And when we talk in persona, or write dialog, or develop a scene, it is useless to speak of what they did, when we need our audience to understand what they do. Which is why, you will notice, this little book is presented more or less entirely in the present tense.

So this is not a series of essays or articles, but rather bites of Elizabethan life that are, have been, or should be "common knowledge" for those of us who work and play in the 16th Century on a regular basis. It is primarily social history, not political or military. It is neither exhaustive nor comprehensive, but it is what the Elizabethans do, present tense. Links to other sites should fill in the blanks, although I can't account for anyone's authority but mine own.

In living history, we often say that we are playing a chapter, not a page of history. It's a very big chapter. Elizabeth reigns for 45 years, but there are only 10 years between the end of Henry VIII's reign and the beginning of Elizabeth's. We tend to think of Shakespeare and that lot as quintessentially Elizabethan, and central to our whole idea of what Elizabethan means. But Will was born in 1564, very near the beginning of the reign. His adult career (or our awareness of it) doesn't begin until 30 years later, way near the end. The Elizabethan experience was well under way by the time he entered it, and he outlived it, after all. But this is a chapter, not a page.

Throughout this chapter, lots of things change, but not the legal age for marriage. In '99 as in '58, pennies are made of silver, and an Angel is worth 10 shillings. Gentlemen still put their servants in livery, but the army (such as it is) does not. Peers cannot be arrested for anything except felony, treason, and breach of the peace. Turnips are still on the common man's menu while potatoes are not. The world is still composed of Air, Earth, Fire, and Water, and Judgment Day still awaits us all.

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26 March 2000 pkm