Living in the 15th Century
Imagine you wake up and its the 15th century. Everything you knew as home is gone- your family, your home- your technology. Gone in a flash. From a world where we are spoiled by light, you instead wake to shadows and dust- and worst of all, you wake to an England left split by an impulsive King.
For my project, my group and I decided to focus our work around objects we found within the Ashmolean museum in oxford- although these related often to the 12th and 13th century, we found that the fog which surrounds these eras is difficult to get around- civil war, a constantly evolving throne- to put a fine point on it, England was in a terrible state, and so the evidence surrounding this era is difficult to piece together, simply because people had too little time to record what was happening in an extremely tumultous world. Due to this, we cast our gaze instead into the 15th century- and although finding a world as equally messy, came upon also evidence of a burgeoning society, with systems and laws and recorded events. It was here we then began to pick up speed on the module.
As I looked further into this time within England, its incredibly bloodthirsty, and although having founded certain laws, was still close to its medieval predecessors. Whilst the elite were allowed to live in the splendor in palaces around the river, for people like you and me, an entirely darker and more sinister world awaited.
With little or no access to heat, your main source of warmth would be your fireplace- and although it would keep you relatively warm for the night, its smoke would be the first thing to hit you upon entering the small homes which the majority of britain had come to call their own. Built out of stone, the thatched rooves thankfully kept the majority of the rain out, but also, kept the smoke from the fire in. A cloud of damp, burning fog would surround you, blinding you as you stumbled towards a corner. The windows (if you had any) were small holes in the wall, and your one glance at daylight would be the gap in the roof which tried to allieviate the amount of smoke you were inhaling. Furniture would be scarce- a few pots and ladles, maybe a bench if you were lucky- you slept on the ground and didn't complain because you were lucky enough to have a roof over your head. This is the world people were forced to live within everyday.
Outside, life wasn't much better- if you lived on the outskirts of the city, or even in the countryside you could at least gain access to fresh air and even a clean river to bathe within. If not, you were stuck in the heat and sweat of cities such as London- a growling beast of a capital- if its king didn't get you, the dieseases that festered there would. With open sewers and little to no access to a place where you can dispose of rubbish, you were extremely likely to be made ill by things including dystentry, small pox, cholera, tuberculosis or (after soldiers had returned home from france) sweating sickness. The doctors also would be no help to you- all they could offer was a chance to balance 'humours' a system believed to explain why people got sick. Based on the four elements- fire, water, earth and air, it attatched these to four bad body fluids- phlegm, yellow bile, black bile and blood. If you were spewing up or forcing out any of these things out your body it was considered as an unbalancing of the elements- so they might bleed you with leeches to see if that would sort things out. Or swaddle you in a goats skin and shove you in a cold bath. As mad as it may seem, this was people had to go on- it wasn't like they had an A and E down the road.
If you were a woman, your chances of dying are almost certain. The one thing that is bound to kill you is childbirth. With no pain relief or understanding of basic female anatomy, your main source of comfort was in God and in the belief of your midwives surrounding you- it was only in them you could hope upon to survive. Clutching your prayers beads or placing a scroll of prayers over your convulsing stomach, from the very moment the labour began, hours of agony awaited- and worst of all you couldn't even guarentee your child would make the week with the increasingly high rates of infant mortality. Screaming to get that child out of you, this was a time in a womans life where faith would truly come into play- having been told from the nursery that the pain of birth was a punishment for the first womans eating of the forbidden fruit, you were told to endure it, and that, if you had been faithful to your lord, you would get through the birthing. Sadly many women and their children didn't, and it didn't just end with the poor- anyone could be killed by childbirth. In 1537 Queen Jane Seymour went into labour- after an agonosing 2 days spent birthing what would become Henry the 8ths first legitimate heir, within days of his birth she died- most historians now believe it may have been sepsis which caused this.
Finally, if you were a man working within politics, the chances of you surviving King Henry the 8th are also as small. A wildly passionate and incredibly hot tempered young man, the rise and fall of favour within court kept politicians, barons, noblemen and governors in a spin as they fought for his confidence. Impulsive, hot headed and easy to influence, the King was a dangerous man to know as your friend. Executing two of his own wives and his most trusted advisor Thomas Cromwell, you were never quite safe within his prescence. Often, you could go to sleep and find your fortunes thriving, and then wake up in the morning peniless and with a death warrant upon your head.
'Trust not in the vanities of this world, nor the flatterings of the court. If I had not I may still be alive amongst you all today' George Boleyn, Execution speech
This make it or break it enviroment is something I feel sums up life in the sixteenth century- you never knew what you were going to wake up to. Fortunes could be made and broken in a matter of seconds during this time- all it took was one little cut in your skin to kill you, or vice versa, one whisper in the right persons ear to make you rich. People lived such small lifespans (the average age of death was around 40 at this time) that they had to live fast and literally die young- there wasn't a choice in this. Within such a heady age of war and famine, diesease and dispair the emotions these people must've felt in a week alone would leave any 21st century civilian like us in absoloute state of nervous collapse. Victories were truly a time to celebrate- even making it another day was something to be thankful for- and loss was truly of the most harrowing sort- death was your constant companion, and the loss of fortune a costant threat on the horizon- security was a far off dream and heaven was your escape- it was only in death you would at last find peace.
I think we could learn alot from these people- although there are the issues of patriarchal societies, civil wars and class divisions, in truth, I don't think we are that different. We still experience these issues- all thats changed is that the noise around them is buried by twitter pages and facebook notifications. We still experience joy and loss, we still struggle with the rent and taxes coming out our paychecks- in looking at these people's lives, its fascinating to recognise in a 16th century home worries my own parents have- how are they going to pay the bills? In these people, I see ourselves. There is alot to be learned from the past, and honestly, if we looked back before stretching ahead, we may be a lot better off than we are now.