How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 108

What’s a knave? How about a varlet? Did people in Shakespeare’s time really throw the contents of their chamber pots out of their windows? And was that, like... encouraged? If you’ve ever wondered about the naughty bits of early modern history and culture, Ruth Goodman’s book is for you. How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, and Braggarts covers all the things we don’t talk about in polite company, including dirty words, bad manners, criminal conduct, and sex. We talked with Goodman about what bad behavior can tell us about Shakespeare’s world and about our society today.

Ruth Goodman is also the author of How to Be a Victorian and How to Be a Tudor. An historian of British social and domestic life, she has hosted a number of BBC TV series, including Tudor Monastery Farm. Goodman is an advisor to the Royal Shakespeare Company. She is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

From our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published October 30, 2018. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “My Speech Of Insultment Ended On His Dead Body,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California and Aidan Lyons at the Sound Company in London.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: Here’s a distinction that makes a lot more sense on the page that it does over the air. We’re leaving the first production of Henry V in 1599. Situation one: I turn to the woman with me and say, “I kiss your hand, and I call you my queen.” Reasonably, I might expect a smile. Situation two: I turn to the woman on the other side and say, “You are a quean.” Reasonably, I might expect… to get sued. Or at the very least, punched in the face.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. OK … Now I’ll explain that distinction. In 1599, the word “queen,”—Q-U-E-E-N—meant “monarch,” just like it does today. But there was another word back then: “Quean,” spelled Q-U-E-A-N. And that meant: a prostitute. The difference between “queen” and “quean” is just one of the dozens of examples of impertinent words and transgressive behaviors that you’ll find in a delightful new book by Ruth Goodman. The title of the American edition is How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, and Braggarts.

Ruth Goodman came into the studio recently to talk about the difference between cursing and not cursing, when not to blow your nose, and other ways to be polite—or to be exactly the opposite—in Shakespeare’s England. We call this podcast: My Speech Of Insultment Ended On His Dead Body. Ruth Goodman is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: Well, first off, you win Best Attention-Grabbing Book Title. Kudos on that [LAUGHS]. It is funny, though...

RUTH GOODMAN: All the best bits!

BOGAEV: They are! But it’s funny, by the time I got to the end of the book, I was a little surprised how much that was taboo then is still taboo today. In some ways, not—

GOODMAN: I know.

BOGAEV: Yeah. Not a lot has changed. Things like “don’t blow your nose in front of other people,” and “don’t mumble,” and “close the door when you go to the toilet,” or, I suppose we should say the privy, and “don’t let people know what you’re doing in there.” It’s pretty common sense.

GOODMAN: I think it’s remarkable, really, and it’s the history of our culture, isn’t it? That’s who we are. This is our tradition in the English-speaking world, that these ideas are the base that we learn at our mother’s knee.

BOGAEV: But some things are very different, and one of these towering transgressions in Elizabethan times that no longer apply at all, unless you’re meeting the Queen, I suppose, is bowing. And you say that bowing occupied a central role in peacekeeping and social cooperation. Tell us more about that, and how big a deal was it not to bow when you were supposed to?

GOODMAN: I think it’s enormous. Every social interaction carried this physical expression of the relationship between the two people involved in that relationship. This whole world of gesture, as well as words… that had to be gone through to establish what the nature of relationship was. Who stood where, where the social balance was, and how it could shift slightly, as well as expressing one’s feelings, one’s aspirations, or one’s disgust and loathing. They could all be spoken about without a word.

BOGAEV: Well, obviously, a lot of this is about maintaining class distinctions and maintaining and reinforcing this social hierarchy. Is that what’s driving the urgency of it?

GOODMAN: I think it is. It’s also about reinforcing gender positions and reinforcing age positioning. I mean there’s an awful lot of literature telling wealthy young boys, who you would expect to be in a position of great power, to show respect to poorer men and women, who would necessarily be of lower social status. But because they’re older, these elite boys are required to show deference and respect to older, poorer people. It’s not just about social class, it’s also about a worldview. God had made everybody for a particular purpose, to fit in a particular, perfect slot within society. God had made the system, and he chose what place you occupied within that system.

BOGAEV: That religious element, that’s what removes it so far from our times. But I’m also thinking that you could easily recognize the country bumpkin from the gentleman by niceties like manners, right?

GOODMAN: [LAUGH]  Absolutely.

BOGAEV: This is a time when London, in particular, was growing so fast, and you had so many different types of people slammed together in close quarters and coming into the city, and doesn’t a thing like a bow gain even more importance and significance in that climate?

GOODMAN: Exactly. It just shows, you know, are you somebody established within this, do you know the rules of this social situation in this social place? Or are you somebody who’s all awash and at sea and completely out of their depth? Absolutely. And they change so fast, that was the thing. It’s not like there’s one set of systems that you can learn as a child and they’ll stay the same all the way through your life. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. When you start looking, it’s changing as fast as the fashion in clothes.

BOGAEV: I know this is hard to do on the radio, but… [LAUGH] illustrate that for us, in terms of a bow. What was proper in a certain given point in time, what was a proper bow and what determined the movement?

GOODMAN: Okay. Well, the biggest change, which perhaps is easiest to describe when you can’t actually show someone, is the change from what might be called an English bow into what might be called a French bow. Now, this change happens at about the time that Elizabeth comes to the throne. In the time of her father, we used the traditional English bow. And it doesn’t fit almost any of the ideas we have about what involves a bow. For start, you didn’t bend forward, you stayed absolutely upright, your eyes looked down, and then you put one leg in front of the other and you bent both knees. It’s more like a genuflection that you might see within the Catholic Church than anything else.

Country bumpkins carried on using that, because that’s what they’d grown up with, whereas in court, and London, a much more French-ified thing was coming in that was much more about the diagonal. Instead of straight on, you were using your shoulders a bit more, and now you do start tipping the body forward. Not at the waist, never at the waist. Always at the hip, the pivot of the hip. Again, one foot in front of the other, but this time you’re not bending both knees. The front knee remains straight and the back knee bends. Your weight is sort of thrown to one side. Your hip slightly sticks out. It’s a much more diagonal, classical look, and that’s quite important. People were heavily inspired by the newly discovered Greek and Roman statues that were being uncovered in Italy and Greece.


BOGAEV: One thing that you point out, that I never really thought about at any detail, was that if you have such a strict definition of proper body movement, say, gestures, it’s powerful in that if you consciously subvert that and change those gestures, it carries a lot of weight. You have a lot of room to express yourself within that. It’s not only bowing, but it’s also whether you blow your nose or you pass gas or something at the wrong moment. Everyone knows that’s taboo.

GOODMAN: I think it’s just the most enormous fun. [LAUGHTER] There’s so much there to play with, and if you break the rules and you use insulting or insolent behavior, people understand it. They might not, I’ve gone and read all the books, but somehow they just know what they’re seeing.

BOGAEV: Well, sure, and we still do. You have a section about seating, where you’re seated. That carried an enormous significance. But at a wedding, it still does.

GOODMAN: That’s one of the things that intrigues me about this period, how many ghosts of the past modern life has. How many things can be brought back to this turmoil of a time when everything was changing and shifting at enormous speed and so many of the underpinnings of life get set at about that point in history.

BOGAEV: If you had to choose—if some annoying podcast host made you choose [LAUGHTER]—what was the biggest taboo that you found in researching the book?

GOODMAN: Well, of course, obviously, it’s all the modern ones, isn’t it? But the biggest, of course, is menstruation. There are, particularly when you look within popular literature, when you look within the scurrilous ballads that were sung in the streets and sold on ballad sheets, they cover almost every subject you can think of. They do not hold back. They talk about sex and farting and vomiting and pissing. Never menstruation, in any format whatsoever. And if you’re trying to find out what happened within that set of bodily rules, you just meet this wall of silence. And it’s quite deafening.

BOGAEV: Switching gears to language, that is one of the biggest sections of your book and of course we’re interested in that in terms of Shakespeare. So, let’s talk about some offensive speech. That is many people’s introduction to Shakespeare, is curses, but I was kind of surprised that your section on offensive speech didn’t contain anywhere near as many new words and insult phrases like you do find in the plays.

GOODMAN: No, that’s a really interesting thing, that real life examples are much more like modern cursing and swearing. They are short, repetitive, punchy, they’re not inventive and clever. Something witty is funny, and that takes the sting out of it, doesn’t it? If you really are half-drunk and very angry, standing outside a pub and screaming at somebody in the street, you’re not in a mental state to think of something clever or witty, nor is the person on the receiving end. And we see a lot of accounts in church, court records particularly, of the words being spoken by people angrily in the street, and it’s completely different, I should say, from the Shakespearean.

BOGAEV: Well, let’s get specific and maybe compare some Shakespeare to what people will really say. Because you have someone like Falstaff saying, in Henry IV, Part 1, something like, he calls his friend Bardolph “a perpetual triumph, an everlasting bonfire light,” because he has this red nose. And then he riffs on that theme for, like, ten minutes. You write that what people commonly got in trouble for saying was something as short as, maybe, it looks like five words, “a turd in your teeth.” [LAUGH]

GOODMAN: Yeah. It’s a good one, isn’t it?

BOGAEV: “A turd in your—" Was that a phrase, like, “he’s so ugly?” Like, “he has a turd in his teeth?” Or was it a curse?

GOODMAN: No, it means absolutely what is meant by the modern phrase, “Eat [expletive].”

BOGAEV: Oh, there you go. Straight, to the point.

GOODMAN: It’s pretty bad. Straight, to the point. There’s no finesse, no elegance to it, it’s just, bang! It turns up a lot. It’s a very common phrase.

BOGAEV: It wouldn’t fill pages of a play.

GOODMAN: No, and of course, one of the other things is that Shakespeare, and indeed his compatriots, they had to get their plays to pass the censor. So, if they did use street language, that could well have ended up with the red line through it, because there’s no actual…  Saying that somebody’s nose is like a lighthouse is funny, but none of those words are in themselves offensive. There’s no blasphemy involved, there’s no mentions of sex or fecal matter. It’s actually quite a clean and innocent phrase.

BOGAEV: This word “knave” comes up a lot in Shakespeare and I didn’t know, from what you write it seems that word evolved in meaning so much from the 15th to the 17th century. What did it originally mean, and how did it change?

GOODMAN: I think it’s a particularly interesting word, and it is one of the words that you do find in common insult and in Shakespeare, and it’s a word that starts off as nothing more than a simple description of a social status. We still have a remembrance of it when we deal back a pack of cards. You get the king and the queen and, nowadays people tend to call it a “jack,” but the older word is the “knave.” The knave was somebody who was at the top end of the commoners. He wasn’t a lord, but he wasn’t a laborer in the fields. He was a “knave.”

But gradually, that word comes to start meaning “country bumpkin”—as opposed to a polished, educated gentleman. And then, it starts to mean somebody who is stupid, as well as uneducated. Then it starts to slide further in time, and it becomes somebody who is not only stupid and ill-educated, but perhaps a little immoral and dishonest, and it’s that set of meanings that we hit the Elizabethan era and Shakespeare, at a moment in which the word knave has slid down the social scale and has come to mean someone untrustworthy, someone who might turn into a thief, somebody who is worthless.

BOGAEV: I love that illustration you just gave us, of sliding down the social scale and accruing meaning as it goes, the word. But we also hear “varlet” and “sirrah” and “saucy fellow,” so who’s a knave and who’s a varlet?

GOODMAN: Well, all of those words sort of describe the same sort of thing, but “knave” was undoubtedly the one that hurt most. And there is a sort of shade of meanings. So, “sirrah” suggests that somebody is very servile. That they’re dishonest, but they’re sort of oiling their way into people’s favors. “Varlet” is, it would have less of that behavior, would be more somebody who was more likely to be perhaps drunken and thieving, rather than cunning. A “saucy fellow” is somebody who’s going to talk back all the time, who doesn’t accept his place, who’s always pushing against boundaries and being disrespectful.

BOGAEV: Now, a lot of this information, you looked up, or you found it in court cases, because people did sue over slander, and that was very, very, very serious. And you mention that a phrase like “you are an ass” was an actionable term. So, in Much Ado About Nothing, when Shakespeare writes about Dogberry’s sense of outrage, everyone knew what that phrase meant. It really resonated with many men in the audience, because everyone knew how important reputation was.

GOODMAN: Absolutely, and I think there might have been quite a sympathy for Dogberry, almost, at that point. Because if you think about his position—although he’s laughed at consistently throughout the play—his position is of a very common man who’s got official position. Naturally, he’s going to be protective about that position. Probably makes too much of it, he’s probably deeply officious and I think that comes through, doesn’t it, his officiousness? But many men in the audience would have seen his point. You know, yeah, he’s representing the law. To call him an “ass” is not just to call him personally an ass, but it’s to call his office an ass, and it’s to call that sort of position, not just the person… But on the other hand he is an officious idiot.

BOGAEV: And there were many words for stupidity. You had a “fool,” and a “gull,” and “clown,” and “blockhouse”…

GOODMAN: There were many words for stupidity.

BOGAEV: It’s funny, though, when you look at insulting women in this period. There were so many ways to insult a man, but basically the only insult, you’re right, the only insult ever aimed at women were almost always about sex. I suppose because women were just considered worthless anyway, so you’d never insult their intelligence.

GOODMAN: No, they’re supposed to be stupid, as far as people in the period considered.

BOGAEV: It was redundant.

GOODMAN: Yeah, exactly. And this comes down to the basic point, a woman’s worth was in her chastity within marriage, and anything that stepped outside of that was bad. And you could make her seem bad by suggesting that she had stepped outside of it. And that’s what all the words come down to: is she honest within marriage? You do find examples of women accused of thieving being described in court cases as “an honest woman,” because she’s chaste. The word “honesty” really only referred to this central core that people were interested in about women, which is, “Do I know where the baby’s come from?” That’s really what it comes down to, isn’t it?

BOGAEV: Well, that makes sense, then, why there’s so many words for prostitute.

GOODMAN: Doesn’t it just? And they cover such a range of behaviors, and they move from the merely suggestive. A “waggletail” is merely a flirt, isn’t she? She’s walking out in the street, trying to attract attention. Surely, that’s a very different thing from somebody who’s being called a “whore.”

BOGAEV: It seems like you can hardly pick up a play in Shakespeare and avoid the word prostitute in some form or other.

GOODMAN: I know. Yeah, it’s everywhere, isn’t it? I first became aware of this when I was a child, we were studying Romeo and Juliet in class in school for O-levels, which, if you’re not British, means the exams you take when you’re 16—or it used to, they’ve changed the names about a dozen times since then. I was studying Romeo and Juliet and there weren’t enough books to go around in the class, so the teachers had had to hunt in some ancient cupboard and they’d come up with a couple of really old copies, which had been expurgated, and all the rude words removed. Which was utterly marvelous, because— [LAUGHS]

BOGAEV: What was left? [LAUGHS]

GOODMAN: Exactly. There was one lad in the class who, every three seconds, it’s, “Miss! I haven’t got that bit. Miss! I haven’t got that,” and then of course the teacher would have to explain what this word actually meant. Most of us would have passed most of it by, you know? We wouldn’t have noticed. But no, we got every single sexual innuendo in the whole of Romeo and Juliet, and it’s every third word. Fabulous. It’s sort of an experience that makes you a fan of Shakespeare right from the start.

BOGAEV: Exactly. Exactly. We have all these words, though, for prostitute or sex worker, but when you look at the range of sex, there were surprisingly so few words or phrases to describe it, especially aberrant sexual practices. You just have a handful of words that covered a lot of acts. It would seem, from your book.

GOODMAN: No, I think that’s very much the case, that there was good sex, and then there’s bad sex, which is everything else, regardless. It’s quite clear that people thought that if you stepped over the line, that was it. Everything was…everything… People, when they’re talking about bad sex, are often very confused about what exactly that means, and they use the same word for one thing or another that we would think of as two different things, that they just sort of see it all as one. You get the same word. If somebody talks about “bestiality,” for example, they might mean sex with animals, but they might also mean incest, or they might mean homosexuality, or they might mean what we’d call S&M.

BOGAEV: Well, it’s really not changed all that much, I’m thinking, because you point out that there’s, if you want to develop your theme, whether you’re talking about any of these things, and just add an additional word or two, there were just three main topics to choose from. There was those bestial behaviors you’re talking about, sexually transmitted diseases, personal hygiene. That is the unholy trinity that you draw from. I’m thinking, what, dirty whore, filthy whore…

GOODMAN: I know. Even now, isn’t it? These are the standard of stock phrases. The ones that perhaps we don’t use quite so much now, the ones about having body lice and venereal diseases…

BOGAEV: What, no one’s ever called you a “poxy whore?” [LAUGHS]

GOODMAN: Not in modern Britain. Maybe America’s different. [LAUGHTER]

BOGAEV: Well, here, there’s all of this language to delineate and really accuse women of bad behavior. But as you touched on a little bit, earlier, reputation was so important at the time that these words had tremendous power. And I find it really fascinating that a lot of your research is done on these court documents, and especially in the church courts, that men weren’t necessarily believed no matter what. And you write that when you openly accused a woman of whoredom, you faced a very real possibility of prosecution for defamation.

GOODMAN: Yes, you did. And that comes through again and again and again, that people who sprayed accusations could find themselves in serious trouble. That was basically destroying the peace, isn’t it? It’s inciting bad behavior within a community. And personal reputation and community harmony were two almost-holy goals. Personal reputation was how you judged yourself and how people around you judged you. And in a world where there is no banking, no insurance companies, every single business dealing was about making a personal judgement on somebody’s trustworthiness. Your reputation was essential if you were going to do any sort of business at all, even the simplest sort of business. I found an example of a woman who was accused of being a witch, and the only evidence we have of this is a court case that she herself brought to try and clear her name. People had started calling her a witch, and as a result, the bakers within the town were refusing to serve her. She couldn’t buy bread because somebody had attacked her reputation. And her only way to sort this out was to say right, well, I’m taking this to court. Look, I’m going to prove in an open court that I am not a witch and then you all have to shut up and stop this silliness. So, basically, people are looking for a public apology.

BOGAEV: There’s a whole other category of nasty speech that we haven’t talked about and that’s the language of conmen and thieves. And Shakespeare and other playwrights of the time, they borrowed so much from the lingo of criminals. I mean, playwrights still do.

GOODMAN: Oh, they loved it.

BOGAEV: Yeah, I mean, what could be more colorful, right? I’m thinking of The Winter’s Tale, and Simpcox in Henry VI and “priggers of prancers” and…

GOODMAN: Priggers of prancers, yes. They would sell you a dodgy horse. Setting down horse salesmen [LAUGH] who would rub in colored waxes and all sorts of fake things to make it look like a decent horse, when actually they’re selling you a broken-down nag. I think almost everything we know about this sort of speech, this underworld set of words and jargon, actually comes from playwrights themselves. Naturally such texts moved around between playwrights who all drew on it. I mean, it was a gift, wasn’t it? A special secret language for conmen?! Yes! Daft words for things, you know?

BOGAEV: Money in the bank. And I’m glad you mention that because you say, there’s one question of, how did people acquire a gentlemanly style of speech? How did people learn to speak correctly? Apparently, according to your book, you could get a long list of sources that one could read that just epitomize good English—but Shakespeare wasn’t on it. In fact, Shakespeare was on the list of…

GOODMAN: What not—

BOGAEV: Right, of bad role models.

GOODMAN: Yeah, absolutely. There were several tracks that were written for young gentlemen, for the education of young gentlemen that were laying out how to learn what you should be reading, how to educate yourself that… they’re manuals of self-education. And they say, go and listen to a case heard in the Star Chamber, you’ll hear excellent-quality English spoken there. Go and listen to some of the better sermons in these particular churches, there are very well-spoken divines giving sermons here. Read this book, this is beautifully written. Adopt this style. Try and sound like you’re busily translating it straight from Latin. And they’re then saying, don’t, for goodness’ sakes, start copying any of them flipping playwright people. [LAUGH] Dreadful, dreadful behavior. And you can sort of see their point, in a sense. We look back and it seems like very archaic and flowery language to us, but at the time there’s an awful lot of slang, there’s an awful lot of dialect words in there. There’s a heck of a lot of Warwickshire scattered through Shakespeare, rather than good London words, which were always considered to be better.

BOGAEV: Right. Certainly, it was cheap, accessible entertainment. This was the pop culture, Shakespeare. And also, he made up a lot of words, and you say that that was considered very bad form, to ever repeat one of those made-up words.

GOODMAN: Oh, very bad form. Very low. Really, really low behavior, to be using all that new language. People say the same these days, don’t they? Every time the Oxford English Dictionary gets updated and a whole load of new words go in, there’s a flurry in the newspapers about, “Oh, it’s dreadful, dreadful it is. They’re putting in this word now. That’s not a proper word” [LAUGHS]. I think that feeling has been going on for a long, long time.

BOGAEV: Well, we can’t leave the topic of bad behavior without talking about hygiene. And some things have not changed, that is true. But there were some wacky conventions—at least to modern day, to my ears. Apparently, you were supposed to wash your hands after you use the privy, but you were supposed to make sure that no one knew you had washed your hands. You made it sound like drying your… not wash your hands, but you shouldn’t make it known that you were even there, that you had even done that unspeakable thing of, that bodily function, right?

GOODMAN: Exactly. Exactly.

BOGAEV: And it sounded like drying your hands in the presence of other diners or anyone else was almost as taboo as dropping trou.

GOODMAN: It’s not nice. It’s just not done, you know? You don’t make any movement, any sound, any reference whatsoever to these necessary bodily things. We all know you have to do it, but there’s just no need to make a fuss about it. In a sense, it almost sounds Victorian, doesn’t it? It sounds quite prudish.

BOGAEV: This is a really important point, though. We should make this clear that we’re talking about what goes on in upper crust society. Maybe a court, and elite people, right, what was proper for them, because not everybody acted this way, and I’m thinking, and again, not always the best to go to playwrights, but Shakespeare showed men pretending to pee by turning their backs, and it was a very lucky convention, too. You could have someone “looking on the hedge,” I think, is the phrase, or “plucking a rose,” that was a euphemism for taking a leak, and if someone didn’t want to be seen, they could turn away. When you’re talking about just guys being guys among the hoi polloi, people weren’t observing these niceties.

GOODMAN: I think, rather like modern society, there are always people who want to live by the rules, and there are always people who don’t. I suspect, people being people, it was much the same. In some of these sort of rules, you think to yourself, well, if you were a ploughman, you couldn’t follow that. It just would not be possible, it wouldn’t be practical, it’s ridiculous. You’ve got to traipse all the way back to your… it’s just nuts, of course you’re going to.

But that same ploughman might, on a Sunday, behave quite differently, mightn’t he, in church. We all have differing behaviors that we exhibit at different times, and of course the manners books tend to concentrate, not just upon elite people, but also upon elite situations, so that we get references scattered across quite a lot of literature, actually, of gentlemen who could probably be very controlled when they need to be, very, very precise and positively prudish, about not wiping their hands in public, et cetera, et cetera, but may have behaved in a rather laxer way in other spaces. There’s quite a lot of literature to say that there were some gentlemen that would push that, really push it, you know? They would turn up in an ordinary tavern and behave like louts. Obnoxious, arrogant, flouting at the rules. And hey, that still happens too, doesn’t it?

BOGAEV: Right, a way to express your power. And there were a lot of ways to be disgusting at the table. It sounds like there were so many rules about how to eat. I guess there still are. But things, like, don’t mix up your food?

GOODMAN: Exactly, well, I would say most…  I don’t know. Because obviously I wasn’t brought up in America, but being brought up here, most parents would tell you to stop playing with your food. But the difference is, of course, that people in the late 16th and early 17th century were rarely eating off their own plate. So, we sit with a plate of food in front of us and that plate of food is just for us. People in the 16th and 17th century were not eating off their own plate. They were using shared communal dishes. So clearly, stirring around a dish that you’re sharing with half a dozen people is not nice, is it?

BOGAEV: Oh, that puts it in a whole other light.

GOODMAN: Who wants their dinner? Yeah.

BOGAEV: This is maintaining social order again.

GOODMAN: Consideration for your fellow diners, so you’re supposed to take from the bit that’s nearest you, you’re not supposed to reach across and grab a bit from the other side. You’re not supposed to cherry-pick. “I’m just having that bit, and that bit, and leave you with the rubbish.” You’re supposed to offer the good bits to your fellows. You’re supposed to be very clean in your hands and your mouth, because your hands and your mouth are involved in other people’s food as well as yours. If you’re breaking bread, you need to have clean hands. If you’re taking a piece of food out of a shared bowl, you need to make sure you’ve got clean hands.

BOGAEV: Well, pulling back and getting to the big picture on all of this, you have the overarching theme that bad behavior can be much more revealing of a time and a culture than the exercise of good behavior, and what that said to me—you said, largely because history has reckoned with it far more eagerly, and by that I took your meaning to be, it’s always the bad stuff that we find out when we look back as a historian, right? Because of these court records, because of the ballads you looked at, because there’s a paper trail.

GOODMAN: Yeah, exactly. If everybody’s beautifully behaved, nobody bothers to write it down, do they? How boring would it be to write somebody, “And we went to the banquet, and everybody behaved beautifully, and their manners were lovely and everybody wiped their hands, and…”  No. What you get is, “Do you know what so-and-so did, that disgusting person?” And people rant. And there’s nothing more lovely than a good rant. [LAUGH]

BOGAEV: That’s true, but it could mean that we make as historians, I’m not including myself in that, but one can make too much of the bad behavior, because it’s all you’re reading about.

GOODMAN: Yes, you can. I think that happens quite a lot. I mean, for me, I think the whole chamber pots out the windows is a perfect example of that. Most people have this image that everybody used a chamber pot and chucked the contents out of the window, and there are court cases of people being prosecuted for chucking the contents of chamber pots out of the window.

BOGAEV: I’m so relieved to hear that. I didn’t know how humanity survived. [LAUGH] It was always a big question of mine.

GOODMAN: But, of course, there are court cases. Somebody’s in trouble for doing it. Clearly, there were badly behaved people at every point. Some people’s standards of housekeeping were high, and some people’s standards of housekeeping were abysmal, and that sort of spread of people-will-be-people was there in the past, just as it is in the present. We know that there was some really dreadful behavior by some people, or by people who were living in such slum conditions, that they had very little option. But of course, the proper thing to do was for the maid or the housewife—almost always women, women had to deal with all these. The men could use these facilities and walk away—would then supposed to take it down to the privy, empty it in the privy, and clean the pot.

BOGAEV: Just to bring this up to today, I’m thinking that there’s so much talk now and evidence of, in the current political climate, of the erosion of norms, of courteous behavior and of appropriate behavior. So I’m wondering what thoughts you might have on that, given that you have looked into the far past, and watched just how quickly these norms change from one generation to the next one.

GOODMAN: Yeah, it’s funny, isn’t it? I mean it’s as if there’s a set of things that change every five minutes and another set of things that remain solid for centuries. You know? The exact nature of a bow, or whether you say “thee” and “thou,” or whether you say “you” and “yours,” these change repeatedly, and they change when the more puritanical forms of religion came to the fore and took political power. That changed the way everybody behaved, it changed the nature of language, it changed the nature of bowing, it changed the nature of dressing and moving in the streets, it changed all sorts of basic social rules.

GOODMAN: And then when that fell away and the Restoration came, you get a switch back to a completely different set of behaviors and social rules. And yet, everybody, right through that, thinks you shouldn’t pick your nose in public and flick it at people. You know, so, there’s a sort of two tier thing going on. Some things are just accepted as the basics, and they don’t change. And some things are more likely on the top, and they flow and change and change back. And I think perhaps that’s what my historical perspective is, that we can get very cross sometimes about the things that float on the surface, and we forget that there’s this base layer of agreed behavior that sits at the bottom that everybody does still buy into.

BOGAEV: Well, this has been such a lovely conversation about a lot of naughty bits. I want to thank you [LAUGH] very much for it.

GOODMAN: Thank you for letting me talk. It’s been fun.


WITMORE: Ruth Goodman is an author, historian of British social and domestic life, host of a BBC TV series, and an advisor to the Royal Shakespeare Company. The title of the American edition of her latest book is How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, and Braggarts. She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

“My Speech Of Insultment Ended On His Dead Body” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California and Aidan Lyons at the Sound Company in London.

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