Book Review: How To Behave Badly In Elizabethan England

How To Behave Badly In Elizabethan England:  A Guide For Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, And Braggarts, by Ruth Goodman

It is a common saw that you cannot please everyone all of the time, but this book does a good job in showing that one cannot offend everyone all of the time either, at least in Elizabethan and Jacobean England.  To be sure, the author details many ways that one could behave badly, but things that would offend some people (then as now) do not offend others.  Differences in generations, the existence of a teen culture of footloose and overly aggressive young men surplus to requirements, and sharp cultural divides between Puritans and more cultured elites, between those who preferred Dutch straightforwardness or French or Italian ways or more traditional English ways meant that literally anything one did (or did not do) could be offensive to some, but would likely not be offensive to all.  I scarcely think that anyone would want to offend everyone, but all the same it is worthwhile to know how impossible a task this is even if one tries.  More to the point, this book is a reminder that divides and cultural and generational gaps are nothing new but have existed at least since the sixteenth century in anglophone culture.

After a short introduction, the author moves on to six chapters that define various areas in which one could cause offense based on the historiography of the period between 1550 and 1650, which conveniently includes both the Elizabethan period and the period up to the first part of the English Civil War.  The author begins by talking about offensive speech, some of which was intended to make it hard for an enemy to engage in business and to undermine the trust that people held in a particular person (1), and some of which could end in affairs of honor or civil or criminal penalties.  After this the author spends some time talking about insolent, rude, and threatening gestures, some of which resemble the ways in which contemporaries engage in such shows of disdain and contempt (2).  The author then talks about mockery, and the ways that one could cut others or show disrespect by failing to observe societal norms, some of which were quite common among various religious sects like the Quakers (3).  A substantial amount of time in spent in discussing outright violence, which the author rather helpfully notes is violence outside of the normal domestic violence and violence against servants and children that was considered normal for the period and thus not worthy of comment by contemporaries (4).  The author then looks at disgusting habits, some of which remain disgusting (5) and the similarities between the Elizabethan and our own conceptions of the need to hide or disguise the body and its fluids (6).  The author concludes with a discussion on the ways that being a complete scoundrel was impossible.

In reading a book like this one, an obvious question that comes to mind is why this book was created if the author did not believe that it was impossible then (or now) to offend everyone but very difficult to avoid offending anyone.  For one, the author has spent many decades as a Tudor reenactor and this has given her a great deal of insight into the ways and mores of the time, as well as a general familiarity with texts from the period that help someone reenact their life in the contemporary period.  For another, the author has chosen in this period a time of dynamic change where England was being influenced by diverse European cultures as well as facing various internal difficulties, including a civil war that pitted two very different cultural mindsets against each other, which means that whatever one did would likely be some kind of partisan decision.  Drink too much and you could be labeled a drunkard, do not drink at all and you were called a meacock or a Puritan.  If your manners were too brusque you could be viewed as a Dutchman or a Quaker, and if they were too refined and elegant you could be viewed as an effeminate Frenchman or Italian.  So long as one stuck to a consistent standard, one would likely offend someone and find support from others.  And so it is today.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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