The Elizabethan Era's Most Horrifying And Disgusting Realities
The Elizabethan era began on November 17, 1558, when Queen Elizabeth I ascended to the throne. The era is remembered as a time of beautiful clothing, luxurious homes, and great art, but it wasn't all frilly collars and gold accents. Poor and rich alike were constantly living in grime, ate loads of sugar and meat, and dropped dead if they so much as breathed wrong. Let's take a look at the Elizabethan customs that made the era one of the most metal periods of Western history.
Black teeth were all the rage
Sugar is delicious; no one's arguing that. But the Elizabethans were so obsessed with the sweet stuff that they ate it any chance that they got. As the Tudors imported more and more sugar from the West and East Indies, they used it for everything from salad dressing to preserving fruit and even some medical remedies. Sugar was so expensive that it was rarely eaten by anyone but the rich, but oral care not being what it is today, it caused their teeth to rot. Though this was likely an uncomfortable situation for the upper class, all peasants saw was a hot new look they just had to have. Poor people did whatever they could to make their teeth look they were falling out because fashion follows the rich, for better or worse.
Poor or wealthy, Elizabethans rarely ate vegetables
Such dietary practices were often dictated by one's budget, but regardless of wealth, the Elizabethans weren't getting any roughage. The poorer classes weren't likely to even have meat unless it was a special occasion, so they ate bread, eggs, and cheese for most of their meals. In lean times, they ate a meal called "pottage," which was really just vegetable soup thickened with oats. A lot of pottage presumably got eaten after Queen Elizabeth decreed in 1563, in one of her more out-of-touch moments, that everyone must eat fish on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. The poor either found a way to buy fish or spent up to three months in jail, so the average Tuesday night's supper was probably nothing to write home about.
The wealthier households that could actually afford meat, on the other hand, ate it every chance they had. Whether it was mutton, venison, or rabbit, they filled their gullets with meat. It was often paired with various fruits to bring out the sweet flavor, but there was rarely a carrot in sight.
No one drank water
Thanks to impurities in the local water supplies that promised anyone who drank from it anything from a long night on the chamber pot to death, Elizabethans were a dehydrated bunch. Instead of risking a life-threatening illness, Elizabethans of all classes drank alcohol whenever they wanted to quench their thirst. It was really just trading one headache for another, but at least they got to have some fun first.
There were plenty of options available to the Elizabethans. They could choose from wine, beer, brandy, and a German wine called Rhenish, but people from the lower classes stuck mostly to beer. Elizabethans probably weren't walking around blackout-drunk all day because their systems were used to the drinks, which weren’t nearly as strong as they are today, but they definitely had a constant buzz.
A popular "sport" involved chaining bears for dogs to attack
There weren’t a lot of ways to pass the time in the 1500s, so between work and the theater, people loved to take in pure animal violence. A favorite pastime of Elizabethans was bear-baiting, a "sport" where a bear was led into a pit and chained up. Spectators then watched and placed bets as the bear was attacked by large dogs. The "game" usually ended after either the bear succumbed to the dogs or they succumbed to it. Elizabethan court official Robert Laneham said that there was nothing better than a fun evening of bear-baiting:
To see the bear, with his pink eyes, tearing after his enemies' approach ... with biting, with clawing, with roaring, with tossing and tumbling, he would work and wind himself from them. And when he was loose, to shake his ears twice or thrice with the blood and the slather hanging about his physiognomy.
If watching a bear fight a pack of dogs wasn't someone's bag, the "carnival of cruelty" still had plenty to offer. Rat-battings, dog fights, and staged whippings of blind bears were all on the inhumane table.
Families had a lot of kids, but not many of them lived
Sex outside of marriage or even for any purpose but conception was forbidden during the Elizabethan era, so birth control wasn't exactly a high priority for most people. They were aware of the so-called "coitus interruptus," and there were genital ointments that could be used, but mostly, there were a lot of babies. There were not, however, a lot of children. Due to the high infant mortality rate, many couples had children with the knowledge that they wouldn't survive. Those who did make it through their childhood were viewed as the property of their fathers and subject to strict treatment by their parents.
People were bleeding out all over the place
Two terrible illnesses ravaged Europe during the Elizabethan era: the bubonic plague and typhoid fever. The era's lack of sanitation created perfect conditions for these two diseases, which killed nearly one-third of the people on the continent, to take hold. There was no running water, the streets were basically sewers, and vermin ran freely through the towns, infecting people wherever they went. Major cities like London and Paris became veritable breeding grounds for disease.
Physicians didn't have the necessary equipment to properly diagnose the infirm, so they based their decisions about how to treat someone on the person's diet. Those decisions were often even more draconian, involving arcane and unpleasant practices like bloodletting. More often than not, a patient was bled out until they were supposedly emptied of impurities.
To keep from getting sick themselves, doctors wore creepy outfits of long, dark robes with pointed hoods that covered a mask with a long beak filled with oils. This setup theoretically filtered the contaminated air exhaled by their patients but definitely made them look like avian Grim Reapers.
You had to work or else
The act of working itself is only debatably disgusting, but the laws on the books that oppressed the poorest classes certainly left a bad taste. Much of the population of Europe lived in poverty, and while the wealthy were supposed to either give money or food to the poor, those alms were a rarity in practice. Unemployment increased throughout the Elizabethan era, forcing the impoverished to move into any monastery that would take them. As terrible as this was, it also made it kind of hard to find a job, as anyone who left their parish in search of a job was branded a vagabond and whipped through the streets. If they were caught a second time, they had a piece of their ear removed. It was a real "mutilated if you do, starved if you don't" situation.
Elizabethan clothing was so stodgy because of the "little ice age"
The Elizabethan era occurred in the middle of what was known as the "little ice age," a period of erratic cooling that blasted through the northern hemisphere from the 14th to the 19th century. To stay warm, people dressed in thick, dark clothing made of heavy fabrics that took on a stiff, formal look. The poorer classes, of course, couldn't afford such opulent clothing, instead dressing themselves in plain wool outfits. They were nowhere near as fashionable, but at least they were probably a lot comfier.
Tags: alcohol | death | diseases | fashion | food | medicine | plague | poverty | queen elizabeth | sex | sports
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