You can learn a lot about a society by its taboos. Surprisingly, Britain and her former colonies still have a lot of the same social mores as the English during the Elizabethan period. From the disgust at open-mouthed chewing, to many people’s horror at frank discussions of menstruation, there’s a lot in our shared cultural history that still holds true.

But it’s the differences that are fun to read about. For example: while the Elizabethans were as obsessed with hygiene as modern folk, they went about it in a very different way: cleanliness was achieved through frequent changes of one’s linen underthings (not underwear, but long shirts or shifts), because being naked was unhealthy on top of being sinful. Medical theory at the time held that illnesses could enter the body through the pores, so the skin had to stay covered. In addition, body oils helped keep infection from penetrating the skin. They probably didn’t smell much worse than we do on a hot day, given how well linen absorbs sweat and oil.

Sex was seen differently, of course, although we still have a lingering double standard when it comes to gender and promiscuity. There is one way (and only one way, in my opinion) in which married women had it better than a lot of modern wives: doctors thought perhaps women produced an internal ejaculate the same way men produced an external one (pardon the cissexism; it was the norm then), so just to be on the safe side it was important for both partners to orgasm during sex if the couple wanted children.

(Interestingly, there is some scientific evidence that pregnancy is more likely if the uterus-owning partner orgasms during or just after penile ejaculation. The cervix basically moves in such a way as to draw the sperm in a little more.)

But back to the Elizabethans. There was a lot more casual violence back then. It was the beginning of dueling culture, for one thing. For another, there were no organized police force or military; citizens had to defend themselves, and often carried weapons with them. Staves, mostly, or swords. Personal firearms were a fairly new invention.

Duels were fought to preserve one’s reputation. And at the time, a person’s reputation was everything. Someone who had a bad rep might not even be able to buy food, if the town was small enough for word to travel widely. So people defended their honor, sometimes to the death.

The Elizabethans had their equivalent of frat boys, much to my amusement. They were the sons of well-off gentlemen who had nothing better to do than drink, pick fights, and waste their money on stupid shit. Many came to London, which is how the first teenage gangs like the Damned Crew came about. Like I said: frat boys. (Also, if there isn’t a punk band by the name, there ought to be.)

So there’s a lot we’d still recognize of ourselves in looking at this bit of the past, even if we no longer agonize over how to best bow or curtsy to random people on the street, or worry that our spittoons will overflow if we throw a party. Thank fuck for that. Elizabethan England was an interesting place, but I really wouldn’t want to live there.

My thanks to my friend M., who recommended the book How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, and Braggarts by Ruth Goodman. It was a fun, fluffy read that happened to be fairly informative. I knew some of the facts already, but that made the rest of the book more credible to me. I’ll be reading more of her work, and soon.

The bit about the cervix comes from Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach. If you haven’t read any of her fantastic books, get thee to a library and fix that. She’s amazing.

Next up, I want to read a book I got on the history of immortality — or, rather, on people’s search for it and the possible future of it. Stay tuned!


Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.