Elizabethan Magpie Pickings


The Australian Magpie – better known for swooping in and pecking rather than picking.

I have something of a magpie brain—I like to collect shiny bits of information, not necessarily immediately useful but interesting, to me at least. Over the past few weeks I have been heavily revising my current work in progress, The Bridled Tongue, and checking that I have no glaring anachronisms. These are some of the interesting things I have discovered either in my notes or in more recent reading.

In many ways a man was not considered a full adult until he married. Men lower down the social scale were not entitled to use the form of address Goodman until they had married. Before that they were called by their given names.(1)

And a man could not take on apprentices unless he was married. Apprenticeship indentures listed the master’s wife as she was required to provide daily care and a well regulated home for the apprentice.(2)

Most people married in their 20s but 20 to 25% of women and 25-30% of men were 30 or older at time of first marriage. Nationally 3-4% of men and 11-13% of women were in their teens. Young marriages occurred more often in London than the rest of the country. 25% of people had not married by their 40s. The figures were similar for the 17th century.(3) Interestingly, it was not much different in Australia in the period from the late 19th century to the 1930s with around 30% of the population never marrying.


Norwich in 1581

In Norwich, men who had finished their apprenticeships were entitled to seek admission to Freedom of the City. 80% did so within ten years of completing their apprenticeship, but 5% didn’t apply until over 20 years later possibly because of cost involved. A master could not take on apprentices until he had Freedom of the City.(4)

Norwich Strangers—Dutch and Walloon refugees invited to England in 1565 to escape Spanish persecution—were not permitted Freedom of the City until 1598. As non-Freemen they had previously not been permitted to take on apprentices.(5)

As well as expensive imported cloth, mercers sold things like buttons, lace, French garters, gold and silk thread and pins.(6) By the end of the 16thcentury many also sold stationery and items of grocery. One Manchester mercer, Thomas Hardman, who died in 1583 left goods valued at £73 in one of his warehouses including ‘salterie and grocerie’, logwood (a type of wood used in dyeing), paper, gunpowder and over 300 hats.(7)

Do you have problems with sciatica? Why not apply a salve made of ashes of bean husks mixed with old (not new) hog’s grease.(8) Or else you could try a salve made of cresses beaten into hog’s grease. After that has done its work, bathe the area with wine and oil (vinaigrette?!) and wrap the affected area in wool.(9)


Citrus fruit or juice was carried on some ships to prevent scurvy from as early as the 16th century.(10) The reason it was not widely used was due mainly to well-guarded professional boundaries between physicians and barber surgeons. Barber surgeons may have known of is efficacy but why would the socially and professionaly superior physicians take any notice of them? Vasco Da Gama attempted to cure his men of scurvy by insisting that they wash their mouths with their own urine.(11) Neither pleasant nor effective!

Hair was not often washed but when it was it was simply rinsed in cold herb-scented water.(12)

Aliens, apothecaries, butchers, clergymen and infants were not permitted to serve on juries.(13)

Four out of five of those tried for witchcraft in England were either acquitted or sentenced to the pillory or prison.(14)

Miniatures were usually painted over three sittings with the miniaturist painting what  he saw without preparatory drawings. This makes Nicholas Hilliard’s skill all the more astounding.(15)


Pearls – natural or Venetian?

As pearls were expensive, most people could not afford to decorate their clothing with them. Fake pearls, known as Venetian pearls, were made of glass and were used in large quantities. The ornate embroidery on the garments of the wealthy was mostly done by professional embroiderers. (16)

Woollen cloth was often so heavily felted that it did not need hemming.

There was a superior grade of woollen cloth called puke. Puke was also a colour of woollen cloth, produced by galls and copperas and is thought to be a very deep bluish black or dark brown. The Linconshire will of 1545 that lists among other items ‘a new gowne of ffrenche puke lyned withe saten’ now makes a lot more sense. (17)


(1) Goodman, Ruth How to behave badly in Elizabethan England : A Guide for Knaves, Fools, harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, and Braggarts Liveright  2018 p.16
(2) Goodman, Ruth How to be a Tudor : A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Everyday Life Penguin 2016 p.114
(3) Reay, Barry Popular Cultures in England 1550-1750 Longman, 1998 p.7
(4) Pound, John Tudor and Stuart Norwich Phillimore, 1998 p.51-2
(5) ibid. p.60
(6) Willan, Thomas Stuart Elizabethan Manchester, vol.3 pp.73-4
(7) ibid. p.74
(8) Culpeper, Nicholas Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, and English Physician (facsimile) J Gleave and Son, 1826 p.16
(9) ibid p.40
(10) Burnby, J and Bierman, A ‘The incidence of scurvy at sea and its treatment.’ Revue d’Histoire de la Pharmacie 1996. no. 312,  pp. 339-346
(11) McDowell, Lee R Vitamin History, the Early Years University of Florida, 2013 Ch.9, Part IV
(12) Goodman, Ruth How to be a Tudor:A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Everyday Life Penguin 2016 p.39
(13) Durston, Gregory Witchcraft and Witch Trials: A History of English Witchcraft and its Legal Perspectives, 1842-1736 Barry Rose, 2000 p.382
(14) Rosen, Barbara(ed.) Witchcraft in England, 1558-1618 University of Massachusetts Press, 1991 p.51
(15) Strong, Roy The English Renaissance Miniature Thames and Hudson, c1983
(16) Mikhaila, Ninya and Malcolm-Davies, Jane The Tudor Tailor : Reconstructing 16th-century Dress B T Batsford, 2006 p.44
(17) The Oxford English Dictionary

Australian magpie – Image by Geraldine Rose from Pixabay
Norwich in 1581 – Nordovicum edited by Georg Braun and largely engraved by Franz Hogenberg [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Image by Youssef Jheir from Pixabay
Pearls – natural or Venetian? – Portrait of an Unknown Lady attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the younger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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