You know something, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to call myself a woman of the 21st century or even the 20th for that matter. I’m such a romanticist and I have such a passion for history. I would love to have been Jane Austin or Elizabeth Fry or even a lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette but I have to say that as much as I find the period totally absorbing I really wouldn’t have wanted to live during the time of Queen Elizabeth I.
1. Career Prospects
Today, women may suffer from the glass ceiling but in Elizabethan England (and the rest of the known world) there wasn’t even a ceiling. No jobs existed for women and they weren’t allowed to go to school. They might have been highly educated by being tutored at home but their primary function was to be a baby-making machine. Even that wasn’t a very good job - childbirth was painful and dangerous and many deaths occurred during childbirth and if you survived the birth you often had to deal with the heartache caused by high infant mortality rates. Even the previous height of female career ambition – becoming Mother Superior – had been taken away because the convents closed during the dissolution of the monasteries. Still, I guess not having a job meant there was no confusion about when to wear a power suit and your man’s doublet, hose and codpiece were safe from your borrowing.
2. Hocus Pocus
Belief in witchcraft was still rife in the 16th Century and it was mainly single women with pets (familiars) that were accused of practising the dark arts. So you had to get married, couldn’t get a job and might die having babies. The alternative? Being burnt at the stake because you talked to a goat or the custard had curdled.
3. Fashion Dilemma
When you get up in the morning and open your wardrobe you might agonise over what to wear that day but Elizabethans had to follow a set of statutes known as The Sumptuary Laws. These rules were applicable to both men and women and were used to control behaviour and ensure that a specific class structure was maintained. Penalties for violating Sumptuary Laws could be pretty harsh including fines, property and title confiscation and in extreme cases, death. Hell, the most we get now is being castigated as a fashion victim or being hauled off to the mall by the fashion police.
4. All the World’s a Stage
Even going to the theatre was a confusing experience. In an age that gave us Shakespeare and Marlowe, theatre became entertainment for the masses and all classes enjoyed a trip to a nice play. But women weren’t allowed to act and all female roles were played by men. So imagine this: Portia in The Merchant of Venice is a woman but she’s played by a man. In the play she has to dress up as a man so at this point you’re watching a woman playing a boy acted out by a boy playing a woman. Hmm, and was Romeo and Juliet really Romeo and Julian? Now, I love a good puzzle, but really!
5. Modern Dentistry
Crowns, caps, bridge work, braces, whitening. As much as we might hate going to the dentist, at least they make our teeth look nice. Without even rudimentary toothpaste and with a poor diet, many Elizabethans lost their teeth. They were ingenious enough to use dentures but they were made of wood. I wonder if they ate food with a nice side order of splinters.
6. Physician Heal Thyself
Well, they certainly didn’t stand much chance of healing anybody else but what could be expected when the prevalent diseases were the plague and typhoid. Much of the disease came from the poor sanitation. There were open sewers in the streets which were also filled with garbage. When this effluence was removed it was emptied into the rivers such as The Thames. Water was pumped from the river and the disease cycle began again. Just imagine walking down an Elizabethan street and having a chamber pot emptied on your head. Talk about a crap day.
7. Elizabethan Arden
Everyday makeup for high born Elizabethan women was heavy white make up and red cheeks and lips. The image of beauty was pale skin and light hair so, elaborate wigs were often the order of the day. The make up was great for hiding smallpox scars and wrinkles. If you had a suntan you were immediately identifiable as a person of lower class. Trouble was, the makeup was a poisonous mix of lead and vinegar. Sometimes women were even bled to achieve the pale look. All I can say is thank heavens for Oil of Olay!
I hope this has been an evocative tableau of what it may have been like for an Elizabethan woman and please bear in mind our lot was considered to be much better than it had ever been. I will leave you with a quote from the Virgin Queen herself “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king. “ You go, girl!
Anyone got any periods of history they feel strongly about?
Top Photo Credit: vittorioveneto