How to be a Tudor by Ruth Goodman

Thanks to reader CW for turning me onto this book!

How to be a Tudor is a book written by a re-enactor about the nuts and bolts of everyday life for Tudor-period people. It is not an all-encompassing encyclopedia, but rather a personal tour through what I suspect are Goodman’s favorite parts of Tudor life.

There is a little something in here for any DIY geek. CW’s recommendation came in reference to homemade beds– Goodman covers them, and she has made them all and slept on all of them: straw, wool and feather, and has some good insights into the different materials. Turns out that maybe you don’t actually have to choose one, but you could use all three to make an ideal bed! This is a definite read for the bed-obsessed, and she conveniently covers beds right at the beginning, too.

But beyond that, there’s so much fun stuff in here. If you’re into brewing, baking, sewing, the practice of apprenticeship, archery, table manners, dance, sewing…whatever….there will be tidbits to please you.

My favorite might be her description of rush floors. You may have noticed that in historical and fantasy novels the floor of the great hall is always “strewn with rushes”– leaving the modern reader imaging a tangled cesspool of greenery underfoot. Apparently it was actually quite pleasant floor treatment. Reading her description, I realized it was deep bedding for people!!!! It all makes sense now!

Oh! And I almost forgot. Hygiene! Her thoughts on Tudor bathing/non-bathing and resultant stinkiness/non-stinkiness are worth the price of admission alone. Spoiler: no-pooers will feel vindicated.

Also, they cleaned their teeth with soot. And yes, I’m going to try it.

Sometimes she goes off in idiosyncratic directions, such as a lengthy section on how to sew, starch and form your own lace ruffs using heated rods and some judicious dabs of glue. Where else would you ever see that described? Yet somehow, I feel better for understanding the making and maintenance process of these things. Now the ruff seems less like the inexplicable product of an alien civilization.


Just think, someone (many someones) made that ruff and all those baubles and do-dads by hand

Did you know folks could change the color of their ruffs in and out by treating them different colored starches? Or that there were colored ruffs at all?  (And yes, she tells you how to make starch, too.) Prostitutes wore blue ruffs. Honestly, who knew?

To go off on an idiosyncratic tangent of my own, a short aside she made about her daughter is really sticking with me. As a child, the author’s daughter learned a craft called finger loop braiding, which produces decorative silken cord. Tudors used this stuff a lot as trim on their garments. She started doing it for fun, as some girls get into weaving friendship bracelets, but she really took to it and sold some to a costumer. Thus encouraged, kept doing it, and as an adult she produces this stuff for high end theater and film production.

Because she has been doing it since she was a child she has tremendous speed and dexterity with the weaving which allows her to not only produce cord much faster than any hobbyist, but also make weaving moves which would seem awkward if not impossible to someone not raised to the craft. Once she was filmed weaving and they had to ask her to slow it down because the eye could not follow what she was doing. (I believe those are her hands weaving in Wolf Hall Episode 4, 55:51)

This made me think about the value inherent in the kind of deep, traditional craft production that starts with the apprenticing of children. We look at old quilted silk waistcoat in a museum or an intricately carved wooden balustrade or a silver tea pot or any number of graceful surviving mementos of past ages and we shake our heads and say, “We don’t make things like that anymore.” It occurs to me that in some areas we don’t because we don’t employ children to these tasks as we used to.

I’m not saying we should set kids to fiddly work so they can end up stooped and half blind by age 15! I’m just thinking about the idea of mastery, and the kind of work and time that takes. As well as just raw hours spent at the task, there is the advantage of asking a body, muscle, nerve, bone and brain, to grow into the craft, to develop into that specialty. We’ve kept up the practice of early apprenticeship in just a few areas, like music, dance and sport–but in the world of craft, we generally adopt our crafts in adulthood, and bounce from one craft to another, because few of us make our living from them–so of course we will not become masters.

Master craftspeople are rarities now, but imagine the streets of London in Tudor times. Every other doorway must have held a master of some craft: blacksmith, brewer, rope maker, dyer, tanner, painter, tailor, bookbinder. And heck, every good housewife had to know how to do a whole lot of stuff, from sewing to cheese making to brewing, and was a master of those crafts as a matter of course. How wonderful it would be to walk those streets and watch it all going on! For those of us who like to engage in this kind of wishful thinking, Goodman’s book is a close second to a long visit.

Note: She’s also written How to be a Victorian. There’s another rabbit hole for you!




Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Sundials

Sundial Print: Umbra Solis 1975 Ian Hamilton Finlay 1925-2006 Bequeathed by David Brown in memory of Mrs Liza Brown 2003

Sundial Print: Umbra Solis 1975 Ian Hamilton Finlay 1925-2006.

On my long bucket list is the construction of a Root Simple sundial. Towards that end I’ve begun a short Sundial Pinterest board that, as of today, is entirely made up of Ian Hamilton Finlay sundials. Finlay’s poetry, art and gardening deserves greater recognition. The print of one of his sundials, above, is a clever meditation/pun on the distinction between the map and the territory.

You can own an original Finlay print for a modest sum. The perfect gift for the gardener in your life!

Video Sundays: Slow TV

In the 1990s I had a job at a tiny low-power TV station operated by the University of California, San Diego. To fill the hours between our sparse programming, a fellow employee named Steve would play one of two things: a recording of bird sounds or, if the space shuttle was up, NASA’s feed. The funny thing about the NASA feed was that it was mostly a static shot of a bunch of engineers at Houston Mission Control staring at their computers.

Guess what? People loved the bird sounds and NASA feed way more than the boring lectures that were our main programming. The producers at Norway’s national television station discovered this same phenomena a few years ago with a surprise “Slow TV” hit that consists of over seven hours of footage shot from the cab of a train going from Bergen to Oslo. They followed up this show with an eighteen hours of salmon fishing, real time knitting, a fire and a five day ferry voyage. You can see producer Thomas Hellum discussing these shows in a Ted Talk.

Should you want something more pastoral, allow me to suggest three hours of bison grazing. It’s surprisingly relaxing:

And a winter train journey:

Hopefully this slow TV thing will replace the violent junk and reality shows that otherwise dominate our mediasphere.

You can find many of the Norwegian Slow TV experiments in both Netflix and on Youtube.

If you want a little more narrative with your Slow TV I suggest Andrea Tarkovsky’s movies which you can access for free.

Saturday Tweets: The Earth Laughs in Flowers

The Great Beekeeping Debate


Of all the subjects we cover on this blog none is as controversial as beekeeping. I think most outsiders would be surprised as just how testy things get when conventional and natural beekeepers bump into each other. It’s a debate every bit as heated as gun control or abortion.

The two sides are divided on a number of practices. Probably the most important is the issue of whether or not to treat bees for diseases and pests (most notably, varroa mites). Other issues include the use of foundation, keeping feral bees, re-queening and the type of bee housing. Even within each camp there’s a kind of spectrum between a hyper-interventionist stance and a hands-off approach. Some “natural” beekeepers treat their bees with essetial oils, for instance.

But I think the divide is more philosophical. It’s about systems thinking versus an overly reductionist stance. Reductionsim and systems thinking, in fact, can be complimentary. In science you take apart a problem to look at individual causes and effects. But you must, at some point, put those parts together to look at the whole. As the alchemical saying goes, “solve et coagula,” “dissolve and join together.” Reductionism is fine and useful. What’s not good is the arrogance that comes from thinking that since you understand part of the problem you understand the whole and can immediately start applying technological solutions. As Nassim Taleb has pointed out in his books The Black Swan and Anti-fragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, monkeying with complex systems from a point of ignorance leads to horrible, unintended consequences.

Take the issue of varroa mite treatments. Let’s say you test a miticide’s toxicity on bees. You expose the bees to the miticide. The mites die and the bees live. Success! But . . . the unforeseen. What if that treatment wreaks havoc on the microbiology of the hive? What about a chemical’s effect on the symbiotic relationships with those microorganisms and their bee hosts? What happens when the mites develop resistance to the miticide? What happens when propped-up weak bees swarm and establish themselves in the midst of a feral population? These are all difficult to understand long term questions that highlight the danger of moving quickly from an isolated study into an immediate application. Natural beekeeper Michael Bush has written and lectured extensively on these issues.

Natural and conventional beekeepers are also asking different questions. I’ll be frank. The California State Beekeeper’s Association meeting that I attended in 2015 left a very bad taste in my mouth. It really should have been called the Almond Pollinator’s Association meeting. It was all about facilitating the pollination of California’s unsustainable 1 million acres of almonds. Those million acres are pollinated by at least 1.7 million beehives that have to be trucked out of state every year once the almond pollination season is over. Speaker after speaker blamed natural beekeepers for their disease problems. Retired UC Davis bee expert Eric Mussen brought the ad hominem attacks to a fevered pitch by calling natural beekeepers, “hippies” and “bee-havers.” I haven’t heard “hippie” used this way since Spiro Agnew left this mortal coil. And Agnew would have been right at home with an organization that still has a ladies auxiliary in 2016 (in contrast to natural beekeeping organizations I’ve seen that are integrated and, in fact, made up of a solid majority of women).

The question of how we pollinate millions of acres of monocultured crops in different parts of the country is a different question than how to keep a few hives in a biodiverse urban area. To be fair, the first question is essential since it’s how we currently keep everyone fed. But much of the advice given to large scale beekeepers does not always apply to small scale backyard beekeepers.

The hubris can go both ways. Those of us on the natural beekeeping side can also think we understand the whole better than we do. We can fall into the same reductionist traps. Just because a mite treatment is “natural,” such as dousing a hive in essential oils, does not mean that it’s healthy for the bees. We also must not lose sight of the fact that we are in a relationship with honeybees that goes back many thousands of years. They aren’t exactly wild animals in most places and may depend, to varying degrees, on our support. Someday we might reach a kind of sweet spot between highly interventionist and low intervention beekeeping methods. My bet is that it’s on the low intervention side of the equation, but only time will tell.

What do you think? Leave a comment.