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Frugality and domestic economy were not, however, the constant attributes of the farmer's wife in the age of which we are treating; the luxury of dress, both in England and Scotland, had already corrupted the simplicity of country-habits. Stephen Perlet, who visited Scotland in 1553, and Fines Moryson, who made a similar tour in 1598,* agree in describing the dress of the common people of both countries as nearly if not altogether the same; the picture, therefore, which Dunbar has given us of the dress of a rich farmer's wife, in Scotland, during the middle of the sixteenth century, will apply, with little fear of exaggeration, to the still wealthier dames of England. He has drawn her in a robe of fine scarlet with a white hood; a gay purse and gingling keys pendant at her side from a silken belt of silver tissue; on each finger she wore two rings, and round her waste was bound a sash of grass-green silk, richly embroidered with silver. † To this rural extravagancy in dress, Warner will bear an equal testimony; for, describing two old gossips cowering over their cottage-fire, and chatting how the world was changed in their time,
"When we were maids (quoth one of them)
Was no such new found pride:
Then wore they shooes of ease, now of
An inch-broad, corked hye:
Black karsie stockings, worsted now,
Yea silke of youthful'st dye:
Garters of lystes, but now of silke,
Fring'd and ymbroidered petticoats
Supporters, posters, fardingales
That be she near so bombe-thin, yet
She crosse-like seems foure-squaire?
Some wives, grayheaded, shame not locks
Some, tyring arte, attyer their heads
With only tresses bare:
Some, (grosser pride than which, think I,
By arte, abusing nature, heads
Of antick't hayre doe frame.
Once starching lack't the tearme, because
Was lacking once the toy,
And lack't we all these toyes and tearmes,
that the wives disceve their husbandes in, and in like maner how husbandes disceve their wives. But yf I should do so, I shuld shew mo subtil pointes of disceite then other of them knew of before. And therfore me semeth best to holde my peace, leste I shuld do as the knight of the tower did the which had many faire doghters, and of fatherlie love that he oughte to them he made a boke unto a good intent that they mighte eschewe and flee from vices and folowe vertues, in the which boke he sheweth that yf they were woed. moved, or styrred by any man after such a maner as is there shewed that they shuld withstande it, in the which booke he shewed so manye wayes how a man shuld attaine to his purpose to bryng a woman to vice, the which waies were so naturall and the wayes to come to theyr purpose was so subtylly contrived and craftely shewed that hard it wolde be for any woman to resist or deny their desyre. And by the sayd boke hath made both the man and the woman to know mo vyces subtylty and crafte then ever they shoulde have knowen if the boke had not bene made, the which boke he named him selfe the knighte of the tower. And thus I leave the wyves to use theyr occupations at theyr owne discression.” Fol. 45, 46, 47.
*See Antiquarian Repertory, vol. i. p. 236; and Moryson's Itinerary, part iii. fol. 1617.
Now dwels ech drossell in her glas:
A tubb or paile of water cleere
Luxury and extravagance soon spread beyond the female circle, and the Farmer's Heir of forty pounds a year, is described by Hall, in 1598, as dissipating his property on the follies and fopperies of the day.
"Vilius, the wealthy farmer, left his heire
Twice twenty sterling pounds to spend by yeare:-
And's treble rated at the subsidies;
One end a kennel keeps of thriftlesse hounds;
To coffer up, or stocke his wasting store?" +
In contrast to this character, who keeps a pack of hounds, and sports a couple of liveries, it will be interesting to bring forward the picture of the poor copyholder, as drawn by the same masterly pencil; the description of the wretched hovel is given in all the strength of minute reality, and the avidity of the avaricious landlord is wrought up with several strokes of humour.
"Of one bay's breadth, God wot, a silly cote,
Whose thatched spars are furr'd with sluttish soote
A starved tenement, such as I guesse
Stands straggling on the wastes of Holdernesse :
Yet must he haunt his greedy landlord's hall
To make some way to win his weighty suite.-
We shall close these characters, illustrative of rural manners, as they existed in the reigns of Elizabeth and James 1st, with delineation of the plain Country Fellow or down-right Clown, from the accurate pen of Bishop Earle, who has touched this homely subject with singular point and spirit.
“A plain country fellow is one that manures his ground well, but lets himself lye fallow and untilled. He has reason enough to do his business, and not enough to be idle or melancholy. He seems to have the punishment of Nebuchadnezzar, for His conversation is among beasts, and his tallons none of the shortest, only he eats not grass, because he loves not sallets. His hand guides the plough, and the plough his thoughts, and his ditch and land-mark is the very mound of his meditations. He expostulates with his oxen very understandingly, and speaks gee, and ree, better than English. His mind is not much distracted with objects, but if a good fat cow come
* Warner's Albion's England, book ix. chap. xlvii.
Hall's Satires, book v. satire 1.
Hall's Satires, book v. satire 4.
in his way, he stands dumb and astonished, and though his haste be never so great, will fix here half an hour's contemplation. His habitation is some poor thatched roof, distinguished from his barn by the loop-holes that let out smoak, which the rain had long since washed through, but for the double ceiling of bacon on the inside, which has hung there from his grandsire's time, and is yet to make rashers for posterity. His dinner is his other work, for he sweats at it as much as at his labour; he is a terrible fastner on a piece of beef, and you may hope to stave the guard off sooner. His religion is a part of his copy-hold, which he takes from his land-lord, and refers it wholly to his discretion: yet if he give him leave he is a good Christian to his powors, (that is,) comes to church in his best cloaths, and sits there with his neighbours, where he is capable only of two prayers, for rain, and fair weather. He apprehends God's blessings only in a good year, or a fat pasture, and never praises him but on good ground. Sunday, he esteems a day to make merry in, and thinks a bag-pipe as essential to it as evening prayer, where he walks very solemnly after service with his hand coupled behind him, and censures the dancing of his parish. His compliment with his neighbour is a good thump on the back, and his salutation commonly some blunt curse. He thinks nothing to be vices, but pride and ill husbandry, from which he will gravely dissuade the youth, and has some thrifty hob-nail proverbs to clout his discourse. He is a niggard all the week, except only market-day, where, if his corn sell well, he thinks he may be drunk with a good conscience. He is sensible of no calamity but the burning a stack of corn or the overflowing of a meadow, and thinks Noah's flood the greatest plague that ever was, not because it drowned the world, but spoiled the grass. For death he is never troubled, and if he get in but his harvest before, let it come when it will, he cares not.
The nine characters which have now passed in brief review before us, namely, the Rural Squire; the Coxcomb; the Rural Clergyman; the Rural Pedagogue; the Farmer or substantial Yeoman; the Farmer's Wife; the Farmer's Heir; the Poor Copyholder, and the mere Ploughman or Country Boor, will, to a certain extent, point out the personal manners, condition, and mode of living of those whose inhabited the country, during the period in which Shakspeare flourished. They have been given from the experience, and, generally, in the very words of contemporary writers, and may, therefore, be considered as faithful portraits. To complete the picture, a further elucidation of the country, as drawn from its principal occurrences and events, will be the subject of the ensuing chapter, in which the references to the works of our immortal bard will be more frequent than could take place while collecting mere out-line draughts of rural character.
A View of Country Life during the Age of Shakspeare; its Manners and Customs.-Rural Holydays and Festivals.
THE record of rural festivity and amusement must, as far as it is unaccompanied by any detail of riot or intemperance, be a subject of pleasing contemplation to every good and cheerful mind. Labour, the destined portion of by far the greater part of human beings, requires frequent intervals of relaxation; and the encouragement of innocent diversion at stated periods may be considered, therefore, both in a moral and political point of view, as essentially useful. The sports and amusements of our ancestors on their holydays and festivals, while they had little tendency to promote either luxury or dissipation, contributed very powerfully to preserve some of the best and most striking features of our national manners and character, and were frequently mingled with that cheerful piety which forms the most heart-felt species of devotion, where religion, mixing with the social rite, offers up the homage of a happy and contented heart.
* Earle's Microcosmography, p. 64. et seq. edit. of 1811, by Philip Bliss.
It may be necessary here to mention, that in enumerating the various ceremonial and feast days of rural life, we have purposely omitted those which are peculiarly occupied by superstitious observances, as they will with more propriety be included under a subsequent chapter, appropriated to the consideration of popular superstitions.
The ushering in of the New Year, or New Years tide, with rejoicings, presents, and good wishes, was a custom observed, during the sixteenth century, with great regularity and parade, and was as cordially celebrated in the court of the prince as in the cottage of the peasant.
To end the old year merrily and begin the new one well, and in friendship with their neighbours, were the objects which the common people had in view in the celebration of this tide or festival. New Years Eve, therefore, was spent in festivity and frolic by the men; and the young women of the village carried about, from door to door, a bowl of spiced ale, which they offered to the inhabitants of every house where they stopped, singing at the same time some rude congratulatory verses, and expecting some small present in return. This practice, however, which originated in pure kindness and benevolence, soon degenerated into a mere pecuniary traffic, for Selden, in his Table Talk, thus alludes to the subject, while drawing the following curious comparison: "The pope in sending relicks to princes, does as wenches do by their wassails at New Years tide.-They present you with a cup, and you must drink of a slabby stuff; but the meaning is, you must give them money ten times more than it is worth."*
It was customary also, on this eve, for the young men and women to exchange their clothes, which was termed Mumming or Disguising; and when thus dressed in each other's garments, they would go from one neighbour's cottage to another, singing, dancing, and partaking of their good cheer; a species of masquerading which, as may be imagined, was often productive of the most licentious free
On the succeeding morning, the first of the New Year, presents, called New Year's gifts, were given and received, with the mutual expression of good wishes, and particularly that of a "happy New Year." The compliment was sometimes paid at each other's doors in the form of a song; but more generally, especially in the north of England and in Scotland, the house was entered very early in the morning, by some young men and maidens selected for the purpose, who presented the spiced bowl, and hailed you with the gratulations of the season.
The custom of interchanging gifts on this day, though now nearly obsolete, was, in the days of Shakspeare, observed most scrupulously; and not merely in the country, but, as hath been just before hinted, even in the palace of the monarch. In fact the wardrobe and jewellery of Elizabeth appear to have been supported principally by these annual contributions.
As a brief summary of these presents, though given not in the country, but at court, will yet, as including almost every rank in life, from the peer to the dustman, place in a strong light the prevalence of this custom, and point out of what these gifts usually consisted in a town, and therefore, by inference, of what they must have included in the country, its introduction will not, we should hope, be considered as altogether digressive from the nature of our subject.
To Mr. Nichols, who, in his work entitled "Queen Elizabeth's Progresses," has printed, from the original rolls in vellum, some very copious lists of New Year's gifts annually presented to this popular monarch, are we indebted for the following curious enumeration.
"From all these rolls," says he, " and more of them perhaps are still existing, it appears that the greatest part, if not all the peers and peeresses of the realm, all the bishops, the chief officers of state, and several of the Queen's houshold servants, even down to her apothecaries, master
Selden, under the article Pope. The Table Talk, though not printed until A. D. 1689, is a work illustrative of the era under our consideration.
cook, serjeant of the pastry, etc. gave New Year's gifts to Her Majesty; consisting, in general, either of a sum of money, or jewels, trinkets, wearing apparel, etc. The largest sum given by any of the temporal lords was 207.; but the Archbishop of Canterbury gave 401., the Archbishop of York 304., and the other spiritual lords 201. and 107.; many of the temporal lords and great officers, and most of the peeresses, gave rich gowns, petticoats, smocks, kirtles, silk stockings, cypres garters, sweet-bags, doblets, mantles, some embroidered with pearles, garnets, etc. lookingglasses, fans, bracelets, caskets studded with precious stones, jewels ornamented with sparks of diamonds in various devices, and other costly trinkets. Sir Gilbert Dethick, Garter King of Arms, gave a book of the states in King William the Conqueror's time, and a book of the arms of the noblemen in Henry the Fifth's time; Absolon, the master of the Savoy, a Bible covered with cloth of gold, garnished with silver, and gilt, and two plates with the royal arms; "Petruchio Ubaldino," a book covered with vellum of Italian; Lambarde, the antiquary, his Pandecta of all the Rolls, etc. in the Tower of London. The Queen's physician presented her with a box of foreign sweetmeats; another physician with two pots, one of green ginger, the other of orange flowers; two other physicians gave each a pot of green ginger, and a pot of the rinds of lemons; her apothecaries a box of lozenges, a box of ginger candy, a box of grene ginger, a box of orange candit, a pot of conserves, a pot of wardyns condite, a box of wood with prunolyn, and two boxes of manus Christi; Mrs. Blanch a Parry, a little box of gold to put in cumphetts, and a little spoon of gold; Mrs. Morgan a box of cherryes, and one of aberycocks; her master cook a fayre marchepayne; her serjeant of the pastry a fayre pie of quinces oringed; a box of peaches of Jenneway (Genoa); a great pie of quynses and wardyns guilte; Patrino, an Italian, presented her with two pictures; Innocent Corry with a box of lutestrings; Ambrose Lupo with another box of lutestrings, and a glass of sweet water; Petro Lupo, Josepho Lupo, and Cæsar Caliardo, each, with a pair of sweet gloves; a cutler with a meat knyfe with a fan haft of bone, a conceit m it; Jaromy with twenty-four drinking-glasses; Jeromy Bassano two drinking-glasses; Smyth, dustman, two boltes of cambrick."
The Queen, though she made returns in plate and other articles, took sufficient care that the balance should be in her own favour; hence, as the custom was found to be lucrative, and had indeed been practised with success by her predecessors on the throne, it was encouraged and rendered fashionable to an extent hitherto unprecedented in this kingdom. In the country, however, with the exception of the extensive households of the nobility, this interchange was conducted on the pure basis of reciprocal kindness and good will, and without any view of securing patronage or support; it was, indeed, frequently the channel through which charity delighted to exert her holy influence, and though originating in the heathen world, became sanctified by the Christian virtues.
To the rejoicings on New Year's tide succeeded, after a short interval, the observance of the Twelfth day, so called from its being the twelfth after the Nativity of our Saviour, and the day on which the Eastern Magi, guided by the star, arrived at Bethlehem to worship the infant Jesus.
This festive day, the most celebrated of the twelve for the peculiar conviviality of its rites, has been observed in this kingdom ever since the reign of Alfred, in whose days, says Collier, a Law was made with relation to Holidays, by virtue of which the twelve days after the Nativity of our Saviour were made Festivals."† In consequence of an idea, which seems generally to have prevailed, that the Eastern Magi were kings, this day has been frequently termed the Feast of the Three Kings; and many of the rites with which it is attended, are founded on this conception; for it was customary to elect, from the company assembled on this occasion, a king or queen, who was usually elevated to this rank by the fortuitous division of a cake containing a bean or piece of coin, and he or she to whom this symbol of distinction fell, in dividing the cake, was immediately chosen king or queen, and then forming their ministers and court from the company around, maintained their state and character until midnight.
The Twelfth Cake was almost always accompanied by the Wassail Bowl, a composition of spiced wine or ale, or mead, or metheglin, into which was thrown
⚫ Nichols's Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth, vol. i. preface, p. 25–28. + Collier's Ecclesiastical History, vol. i. p. 163.