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!




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  1. I started sewing at age 4, but I was not required to do so and progressed in learning skills as I wanted to learn. There was a need in me to learn ever more complicated sewing skills. I think the finger looping was what Daddy did when he made fishing nets. the whole thing was remarkable construction.

    In the past I have worried about the apprentices, forced so young into a life of work.

    Where exactly is the video with her hands? I could find nothing. Thanks.

    • I’m sorry, but you have to have access to Wolf Hall (the BBC mini series) It’s on Netflix and Amazon Video, and maybe at your local library? If you find it, then go to the end of episode 4.

  2. I look forward to reading this.

    If you liked her book, you’d also enjoy this BBC series on YouTube, Tudor Monastery Farm, in which Ruth Goodman is one of the re-enactors. I found it fascinating to discover the clever ways they had to fulfill their needs in low-tech ways.

    PS: The only part I cannot imagine doing (as a woman) is wearing those long skirts and head coverings all day!

  3. Thanks you for the info on this book. I read the Victorian one, I shall have to get my hands on this one. Ruth certainly can make history come alive….and have some of us wondering if we were born in the wrong century.
    I do a lot of handcrafts, sewing,knitting and the like. I always loved doing even as a child, when we had to make socks in school I loved the classes.
    I wonder though,about the children who are into sports. To me it sounds almost as bad as the Tudor children doing the fiddley work.

  4. BBC has a whole historical series: Tales from the Green Valley, Edwardian Farm.
    A bit too fast and skipping from scene to scene to learn much, but they do give a glimpse of what the times looked like.

  5. I started crafting with my Gramma at a very young age–I remember top-stitching a “school bag” for my doll sometime around 1st grade and crocheting a skirt for another doll at about 8. And while I’m still not a master of any craft (it’s not in my nature…), I have noticed that I learn new crafting skills much faster and more easily than people who haven’t trained their hands as much.
    By which I only mean to encourage people who have kids and want to teach handicrafts, but maybe not with the intensity of an apprenticeship. Even general and occasional crafting will help train the hands and eyes, so that they can come closer to mastering a craft later when–and if–they so choose.

  6. I’m reading it too! I’m not done yet but I got good ideas from the bed section-though I’ll need to translate them to a hot climate.

    And Cal Newport’s book ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’ is about how to get skilled at what you want. It’s been a while since I read it but there was something interesting about working on the edges of what you know to expand into new territory. I need to read it again- but after I finish ‘Tudor’ and ‘Victorian’.

    • Funny enough, Erik is a Newport fanboy. And one of the things Newport says which hooks with the idea of apprenticeship is that job satisfaction, life satisfaction, comes through skill and competence in whatever it is you’re doing, not so much from seeking and identifying your heart’s one true calling.

    • Another book on this subject is Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, also published as The Case for Working with Your Hands outside the US.
      Crawford focuses especially on manual work, and the satisfaction derived from actually making/fixing something, and seeing a tangible result, vs. the current “knowledge workers” who mostly only have vague objectives, targets and such to measure their performance.

      And I agree, the BBC historical reenactment series are wonderful and fascinating, if somewhat frustrating to those of us who are curious about methods etc. Maybe the books fill the gap?

  7. She’s also involved in a whole series of BBC documentaries about farming and other activities in historical times. Tudor Monastery Farm, Victorian Farm, Victorian Pharmacy, Edwardian Farm, Wartime Farm. They’re all findable on Youtube in one form or another.

  8. I loved ‘How to be a Tudor’ even more than ‘How to be a Victorian’, but I think I probably just prefer the era.

    Only my youngest daughter (12) and I were at home the other evening and she asked if we could rewatch some of the Historic farm series together as the others don’t appreciate it. We spent a lovely couple of hours watching ‘Wartime Farm’ 🙂

    When Ruth makes a feather duster she references a WI book. It’s here,-edited-by-m.-somerville-1943-oxford-university-press.pdf if anybody’s interested.

  9. Thanks for the recommendation!

    I’ve read Ms. Goodman’s “How to Be a Victorian” and heard her interview on “On Point with Tom Ashbrook” as well. Anglophiles that we are, we purchased all of the “Farm” series DVDs from England and a universal DVD player to watch them with, because we prefer watching via the TV screen to a computer screen. The “Edwardian Farm” series was of particular interest as my husband’s maternal grandfather was in charge of the horse stable on an actual Edwardian estate farm in the south of England a hundred or so years ago.

    I think, however, that you give Ruth Goodman short shrift by describing her simply as a reenactor. I believe that she is a bona fide historian, and a fine, engaging one at that.

    My great-grandma, the mother of 9, would teach unruly neighborhood children – both boys and girls – to embroider if they misbehaved at her house. Not a bad idea. I actually taught my sons to do counted cross stitch when they were elementary school-age; they really enjoyed it and it made understanding graphs just a little easier in middle school. Last weekend, I demonstrated bobbin lace making at our tiny local summer fair. Several women, not too much older than I, who had grown up and been educated in Sweden said they’d had to learn to make bobbin lace at school. I’m sure that these traditional crafts have much value besides the obvious production of fine goods.

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