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19 Facts About Shakespearean England That Will Blow Your Damn Mind

People drank beer all day long, and makeup could kill you.

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1. A lot of Elizabethan food was tooth-rottingly sweet.

BBC / Giphy

Ordinary people sweetened food with honey, while wealthy families spent a fortune on sugar, a recent discovery from the Caribbean. Alarming-sounding sweet dishes included "Carp with a Pudding in its Belly" (pictured) and rabbit in sugar sauce. Unsurprisingly, tooth decay was rife: Even Queen Elizabeth's teeth turned black.

2. Sex workers would entice people with stewed prunes.

Stewed prunes were a sweet dish that was sold for an extortionate price in brothels (equivalent to ordering champagne in a club today) as they were thought to be an aphrodisiac. And a dish of prunes in a window was a sign for a "bawdy house", because there’s clearly nothing sexier than regular bowel movements.

3. Makeup could kill you.

Universal / Giphy

Women whitened their face with a lead-based cosmetic called ceruse, which covered smallpox scars. Unfortunately it was poisonous and could kill you. An alternative was “barrows’ grease”, aka stinky pig lard, which was dried in the sun until it was white then slathered on until you looked like a mime. Lovely.

4. Men wore overly stuffed codpieces, as it was all the rage to look like you had a massive erection.

en.wikipedia.org / Creative Commons

In the first months of Elizabeth's reign, overly large codpieces stuffed with wool made to look like "alert and erect" penises were all the rage. Funnily enough, the "virgin queen" wasn't thrilled, so a new fashion for polite codpieces took over.

5. And women would proudly display their bosoms.

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Nipples and all. In 1593 the French ambassador André Hurault described a meeting with Elizabeth where she “kept the front of her dress open, (so) one could see the whole of her bosom". Another time, she wore a petticoat that was so low-cut he "could see all her belly ... to her navel." Well, if you've got it, flaunt it.

6. Most villages had insane sanitation problems.

Villages tended to have open sewers running through the streets, and people would build their privies over the top and poo directly into them. But they would often get blocked by build-ups of dead animals and other unpleasant things, then overflow. Ack.

7. But life at sea was far more unhygenic and unpleasant.

Disney / Giphy

It was the age of exploration, but sailors faced horrible conditions. They had no fresh fruit, just preserved meat (it was preserved with grains of salt called corns, hence "corned beef"), their teeth would decay, their hair would writhe with insect larvae, and clothing became infested with fleas and lice. Also, to add insult to injury, the ship's cats would shit everywhere.

8. Neck ruffs grew so large they needed a frame.

etsy.com

At the height of the "ruff craze" in the 1580s and '90s, ruffs could include up to six yards of material, starched until stiff, with up to 600 pleats supported by a wire, a wooden frame, or a board. Writer Philip Stubbes said that in bad weather, “people's ruffs strike sail and down they fall like dishcloths fluttering in the wind."

9. It was impossible to wash some types of clothes.

BBC

There was no washing process for gold, silk, satin, and similar materials. Small stains were sponged off, and people would brush down their used clothes, perfume them with orris root, rose powder, or ambergris, then pack them away.

10. A boiled lamb's head with "purtenance" (offal) was considered a very nice meal indeed.

BBC

Elizabethans didn't tend to waste any part of an animal, which is why you got dishes like this on the menu: a whole boiled sheep's head surrounded by its various internal organs. Oh, and some dried fruit to add a bit of pizazz.

11. People thought tomatoes were poisonous.

BBC / Getty

And they were suspicious of other fruit and vegetables too. In Sir Thomas Elyot’s influential book The Castel of Helth (they hadn’t invented spelling in Elizabethan times), he says that spices and vegetables are bad for people, and that fresh fruit is “noyful (harmful) to man and do engender ill humours".

12. Elizabeth had her own personal conjurer.

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People struggled to separate newly discovered scientific principles from superstition, and belief in spirits and witches remained strong. One person who sums up this strange time was Dr John Dee, who was both a prominent and gifted mathematician and an occultist magician who prepared Elizabeth's horoscopes.

13. She also banned begging and idleness.

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There were few safety nets for the poor, and no welfare state. To make matters worse, it was illegal to be unemployed if you were over 12. Under a rule known as "setting the poor to work", able-bodied idlers were forced to take on menial work in return for a low wage. If they refused, they'd be classed as "idle poor", and could be imprisoned or "bored through the ear".

14. There were shitloads of sheep everywhere.

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Around 30% of all English land was made up of pasture, parks, and commons used for grazing sheep. The wool trade was the country's main source of income at the time. In 1564–5, cloth and woollens made up 81.6% of England's exports.

15. And they were tiny compared to modern sheep.

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In 1600, an average ewe weighed 46 pounds; these days, the average is about 120 pounds, and modern rams can weigh up to 350 pounds. They were basically the size of woolly, medium-sized dogs, which explains why so many were needed to make a coat.

16. Executions were ten a penny, if not more.

BBC / Giphy

It was a violent time. A lack of options for the poor made people desperate, bar fights were common, and thieves roamed the countryside. Theft carried a penalty of death by hanging, as did buggery, stealing hawks, and (weirdly) the emptying of ponds. Murderers were often hung up alive, in chains, to publicly starve.

17. There were only 200,000 people in London.

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Compared to nearly 9 million today. Nevertheless, it was considered a truly huge city. The second-largest town at the time was Norwich, with only 15,000 inhabitants. York was third with 12,000. England was quite an empty country. Apart from all the sheep.

18. People drank beer all day long.

BBC

Water wasn't safe to drink, so everyone – including children – drank "small beer" (weak ale) instead, or wine. Thirsty people could easily get through more than a gallon a day, which really adds up. Households brewed their own to save money.

19. They also loved to quaff "cock ale".

Twitter: @DaintyBallerina

Have you ever wished that chicken soup got you drunk? If so, you should definitely brew some cock ale. To make it, you "take a skinned Cock and boil him well; then take four pounds of Raisins, three nutmegs, mace, half a pound of dates and two quarts of the best Sack [wine]". It was great for colds, probably.

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