The Scent of History

Ruth Goodman’s immersive, engrossing How to Be a Tudor.

Henry VII.
He smelled OK, actually.

Yorck Project

Mention the word re-enactor to the average American, and chances are you will conjure up images of weekend warriors, dressed in blue and gray, staging a famous battle from the Civil War with perhaps the occasional would-be belle in a hoop skirt on the sidelines. But we’re amateurs at the game compared to our former colonial rulers. Beginning in 1999, with 1900 House, British television has been a hotbed of reality shows in which modern folk attempt to recreate the past—not for an afternoon or a couple of days but for weeks on end. Yes, the U.S. has at least one sanctimoniously wacky couple who claim to be happy as clams restricting themselves to 19th-century technology in their home lives. But the Brits will always outdo us in this department: They’ve even got a guy who decided that to understand badgers better, he’d move into a burrow and eat worms.

Historian Ruth Goodman is a specialist in British social and domestic life who has appeared in such series as Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm, Tudor Monastery Farm, Wartime Farm, and — a bit of an outlier—Victorian Pharmacy. Her first book, How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life, was enthusiastically received in 2014; books about how the characters in, say, Jane Austen’s or Charles Dickens’ novels really lived—think of it as the “chamber-pots behind the scenes at the Netherfield Park ball” school of popular history—have always found a keen audience. But typically such histories are based entirely on archival research, using information gleaned from offhand remarks in letters or contemporary advice manuals. Goodman, by contrast, lives this stuff.

“I have had the privilege,” Goodman writes at one point in her new book, How to Be a Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Tudor Life, of enjoying an “up close” examination of 500-year-old stalks of wheat buried deep in the interior of ancient-but-still-functional thatched roofs. (Just reading that is enough to make me grimace and sneeze.) But climbing a ladder was merely Goodman’s prelude to growing, tending, and harvesting these archaic varieties of wheat, using exclusively 16th-century methods, then grinding it into flour and baking it in a period oven of the type most commonly used by middle-class folk of Shakespeare’s time. Then, of course, she eats it. “Even the lightest, whitest of manchet breads [the fanciest variety],” she reports, “is heavier, nuttier, denser and more filling than most of us are used to, and the commoner maslin and dredge breads are solid indeed by modern standards.”

Goodman and her colleagues have worn the clothes, plowed the fields, slept in the beds, cooked the meals, sung the songs, and danced the jigs of whichever era they’ve decided to immerse themselves in. That includes adopting the grooming of the 16th century. How to Be a Tudor opens with the first thing everyone wants to know about the people of that time (how did they smell?) and closes with the second (how did they have sex?). Curiosity about the latter is understandable; most human beings wonder how people in other cultures do it. But why this persistent fixation on the hygiene of medieval and early modern Europe? It’s a subject that comes up with far greater frequency than more serious drawbacks like the lack of modern medical science or sewage treatment. Nevertheless, whenever one faction of the reading and film-going public goes swoony over the silk and velvet splendor of Henry VIII’s court or the angelic gowns of the Regency era, naysayers inevitably pop up to jeer about how filthy and stinky everyone was back then.

Not so fast, says Goodman. Yes, it’s true that Tudor hygiene looks appallingly negligent to modern eyes. Decent society did demand that everyone wash their hands and faces in the morning and before every meal, but they used only cold water; hot water would open the pores, the main avenue by which disease was thought to enter the body. Wetting your entire body was considered incredibly reckless. Instead, people encased themselves virtually from neck to toe in linen undergarments: “shirts, smocks, under-breeches, hose, ruffs, cuffs, bands, coifs (skull caps) and caps,” which would, they believed, absorb all the sweat and oils the body produced, purifying it without subjecting it to the dangers of water. Your linen would be laundered frequently, on the principle that, as Goodman writes, “the more regularly you changed your underwear, the healthier and cleaner you would be.” Some people took this philosophy further by rubbing themselves down with linen towels.

“I have twice followed this regime,” Goodman reports. “The first time was for a period of just over three months, while living in modern society. No one noticed!” The second period was during the filming of Tudor Monastery Farm, when she “engaged in heavy labor and also lurking around an open fire.” This extra exertion produced a “slight smell, but it was mostly masked by the much stronger smell of woodsmoke.” The film crew, she maintains, found her aroma “acceptable.” In both cases, she observed, not only did her skin remain in “good condition” but it actually seemed to improve. As a sort of control, a colleague of Goodman’s experimented with showering every day while wearing the same clothes, unwashed, for several months, and “the smell was overpowering.” Therefore, Goodman concludes, “the 16th-century belief in the cleansing power of linen turns out in practice to have some truth to it.”

This matter of Tudor B.O. (or the lack thereof) is one of the minor correctives accomplished by Goodman’s brand of immersive history—a reminder that while we believe we see the past from a detached, enlightened perspective, our view is often blinkered, and so is our notion of what constitutes human needs and nature. It’s one thing to pay lip service to how much the Western family has changed over the past several centuries and another to witness someone recreating the way it once worked. In addition to raising children and keeping house, the 16th-century country wife, among other tasks, ran the household’s dairy operation, brewed the ale that everyone drank in lieu of the often dodgy water supply, and spun the wool that made up the family’s outer garments. Goodman describes two of these jobs—cheesemaking and brewing—in great detail; she’s done both often. They’re elaborate, fiddly tasks that require hard-earned skills and consume huge amounts of time. No one could do them himself on top of tending the fields that occupied nearly every waking hour of the Tudor husband’s day. The urban wives of shopkeepers and artisans were just as essential to their spouses in other ways.

Before industrialization, married couples, not individuals, formed the basic economic unit of society. Unless they were unusually wealthy, men and women simply couldn’t get by without pairing up. Although they certainly weren’t the equals of their husbands in status and power, Tudor wives were indispensable, and single people of both genders were considered incomplete. “The unmarried man of 50 was as much a spare part and slight embarrassment as the unmarried woman of the same age,” Goodman writes. People hoped for love, but they stuck together to survive. Small wonder, then, that the institution of marriage has buckled in a post-industrial capitalist economy where everyone’s a viable free agent. And yet that reality continues to surprise and perplex us.

Any historian can explain all this to you, but it’s far more persuasive to witness someone actually performing the role of 16th-century wife or farmer in print or on screen. (You can see a wildly gesticulating Goodman in action, wearing the hair-covering headgear of the period and looking like an exceptionally vivacious nun, on YouTube.) The revelatory truth behind the sumptuous gowns and palaces of Wolf Hall isn’t how badly those kings and princesses smelled but just how hard everyone else was working in the rest of their world.