At home with the Tudors

25th November 1994 at 00:00
Tudors and Stuarts Food. By Peter Chrisp, 0 7502 1111 3 Homes, By Richard Wood, 0 7502 1152 0. Clothes By Peter Chrisp, 0 7502 1151 2. Life at Sea, By Margaret Rule, 0 7502 1110 5, Wayland Pounds 7.99 each.

No Shakespeare, no Drake, no Charles I, no Cromwell. It's a measure of the comitment of this series to social rather than political history that the key names in the index are of indefatigable travellers and diarists like Fynes Morison, Thomas Coryate and Samuel Pepys. The books aim to give a broad picture of changing life over two critical centuries. They use direct explanation, excerpts from many contemporary sources, the evidence of artefacts. They supplement these with timelines using royal reigns, decades, public events and happenings to provide an overlapping set of matrices within which junior readers can begin to develop a sense of chronology.

The books also use a wealth of pictures, details from paintings, engravings, miniatures and occasional photographs. The effect is very colourful, often informative but sometimes more plausible than reliable. Food, for instance, uses many examples from Brueghel. They are a delight to the eye, instantly appealing to most children and truly enlightening about the culinary facts they illustrate. But they are very specifically Flemish. Elizabethan England and the Low Countries were not the same in costume or custom (as travellers were eager to point out) and these powerful images could be unintentionally misleading.

But we are given a generous measure of fact, combined regularly with clear explanations about how evidence is promoted from the merely incidental to the acceptably historical. Food covers such matters as the influence of the church on fasts and feasts, the effects of harvest and local climate on agriculture and prosperity, and the contrast between the meat diets of the hunting rich and the vegetable pottages of the poor. Later on we take in something of the influence of the voyages on eating and drinking, with an account of the growing fashions of tea, coffee and chocolate and the clubs and houses built to drink them in.

Homes covers a similar range. Again there is an emphasis on the local quality of life, with the availability of materials influencing design. There are some helpful and enjoyable details about building techniques such as the shaping of timbers or the methods of wattle and daub. Evidence here focuses on wills and inventories and the pride of home-owners in their chattels, their pewter, tableware and furnishings. (Shakespeare and the second-best bed might have been adduced here.) The latter pages again indicate change, with more light and space, less smoke and smell, as seventeenth century architecture develops.

Clothes tends to deal more with the rich than the poor (because there's more pictorial evidence of those who could pay for portraits) but makes some interesting contrasts between work clothes and those worn for social display. Like the other books, it gives serious space to Ireland and Scotland as separate countries, the object of curiosity and contempt from English visitors ill-at-ease with wetter, colder climates. Stubbes is quoted sneering at quilted doublets, but it's not made clear he was a puritan who disapproved of most things; even first-hand testimony needs to be sifted for bias.

Life at Sea is more confusing than the other books, with rather too much evidence from the Mary Rose and not enough about 17th century naval developments. It cites what seems to be an imaginary diary of 1590 which is linguistically unconvincing. However, there are fascinating insights into how shipwreck finds can help elucidate diet, clothing and furnishings on board; and the command structures linking Admiral, Captain and Master are clearly set out.

The series as a whole is both bright and instructive - a small but genuine contribution to what Camden's Annales of 1615 (not cited here) called "the dignity of history".

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