This is one of the most engaging history books I’ve read in ages. Author Ruth Goodman is a social historian who takes a hands-on approach to Renaissance history. She has worked with museums, documentaries, and as an adviser to dramatic productions such as the BBC miniseries Wolf Hall. For several months she lived and worked on a reproduction Tudor farm. The result is a first person view of what it would be like to live in 16th century England.
Goodman’s focus is the everyday life of ordinary people. The book is organized from dawn to dusk, starting with the sort of beds you could expect to wake up in, how you would tend to personal grooming and what you’d wear. She digs down into the details, describing not just what people ate, but also how that food was produced and prepared. Every aspect of the day is described from the dual perspectives of research and experience. Goodman has roasted meat on an open fire, brewed ale, and made baked bread from heirloom grains. She has sewn clothing, made starched ruffs, and attempted to plough a field.
She’s not alone in this obsession: Living in the Renaissance is a Goodman family affair. Her daughter creates handmade silk ribbons for theatrical productions, and her husband, who is interested in the everyday art of the Tudor period, creates pigments and paints with period-authentic methods and ingredients.
As well as guiding you through a typical day, Goodman gives a sense of the seasonal work cycle, and on an even broader scale, how workers trained for various occupations. Along the way, she dispels some of the commonly held notions. Hygiene, for example, was a much bigger concern for Elizabethans that proponents of the “smelly history” theory would have us believe.
This book is a good resource for people who enjoy historical reenactments or write historical fiction, but anyone who’s interested in history is likely to enjoy author’s enthusiasm for her subject and her clear, engaging writing style. Highly recommended.