Documentary Notes – ‘Hidden Killers of the Tudor Home’ with Suzannah Lipscomb


Suzannah Lipscomb, historian.
Suzannah Lipscomb, historian.
  • Tudor home is icon of Britishness
  • Quaint relics of the past – changed them and us
  • Age of discovery and anything is possible – change most evident in the home, domestic life transformed
  • As with anything new there were risks
  • Life threatening changes made their way into the heart of the Tudor home
  • Emergence of people with new wealth – aspirations for their homes
  • New homes introduced hidden killers to the home
  • Newly discovered lands brought killers home into the kitchen and dining room
  • Boom in trade, prospering in trade and new goods including food and furniture, home became more comfortable than ever home
  • Increase in material goods
  • Dining room – taste for the new and exotic
  • Until the 1540s the English didn’t have a word for orange
  • Sugar became more available with lower prices – slave trade
  • Medieval diet rather bland, enhanced with sugar in Tudor period
  • Sugar needs to be broken up – work hours as well as expense, desirable way of displaying status
  • Could play with sugar to shape and dye it
  • Huge release of energy when sugar introduced to a diet that had none before
  • Consumption more widespread but caused trouble – changes in disease patterns over time, impact of sugar on health
  • Dental health – marked change in dental health. Medieval teeth much healthier than Tudor skulls as sugar introduced
  • Methods of cleaning teeth in the Tudor period made things worse
  • Used solutions to clean their teeth containing sugar or alabaster
  • Kissing comfits were sweets which took away bad breath but damaged teeth
  • Sugar also affects chemicals in the body – serotonin, pleasure chemical

  • 1592 Tudors began recording deaths – 113 people cause of death bad teeth, tooth disease can be a killer
  • Bacteria from the teeth can get into other parts of the body and create serious health problems, there was little to be done except remove the teeth
  • Sugar was a slow killer – centuries for its true impact to be felt
  • Biggest danger was the construction of the home itself – the chimney
  • Before the chimney was adopted houses could easily fill with smoke
  • Had a great hall with a fire in the centre and a hole in the roof, allowed fumes to build up in the home
  • Anyone who could afford to would have had a chimney installed, made the home more comfortable
  • First chimneys were experimental – push the chimney to the end of the room and then divide into several rooms
  • For the first time homes could have an upstairs level with separate rooms
  • Fireplace and chimneys revolutionised domestic life
  • Regular reports of fires sweeping through whole towns
  • Stratford-upon-Avon two major fires in 1594 and 1595 which destroyed the town
  • Tudors examined the construction of the chimney – work not necessarily done to the highest specification
  • Chimneys at first made from wood and earth – not sensible materials
  • Tudor builders struggled to make the chimney function
  • Need to make the chimney draw the smoke away from the fire, without that the smoke would get stuck and then ignites – the smoke catches fire
  • Houses had thatched roofs, easy to ignite from a chimney
  • Tudors didn’t know that they needed to clean the chimney regularly
  • Pamphlets chart the impact of fires – could be lethal and lose property
  • 1/3 of towns were destroyed were some fires, traced back to not looking after their chimney
  • Biggest cause of death wasn’t the fire itself
  • 9,000 coroner’s inquest records from the Tudor period – new insights into death in the Tudor home
  • More house collapses killing people than fires, chimneys collapse during fires
  • Brick was new, but early bricks had a hidden weakness and could handle the heat, and explode
  • Kent 1518 fire breaks out, several men tried to put the fire out, but in the course of the fire the brick chimney collapsed on top of them
  • Drew up health and safety laws for chimneys – Oxford 1582 makes it the responsibility of the house owner to build their chimney from right materials
  • Great fire of London 1666
  • House still largely Medieval
  • No such thing as a bathroom or a shower for the Tudors
  • The woman had to bring the water to the house, heavy to carry
  • Many chores were forced to be done outside in all weathers i.e. laundry and washing
  • Spent much time at the nearest water source i.e. rivers or lakes
  • Many people drowned, 2010 2% of accidental deaths were drowning, in the 16th century it was about 40%
  • Largest cause just fetching water
  • Often drowned in quite shallow water, temperature cold and first response is to gasp – if you’re underwater you swallow water
  • Difficult to keep balance due to heavy skirts made from wool which absorbs water
  • Wool can absorb up to 1 ½ times its own dry weight
  • Combination of heavy clothing, shock of cold water, and the slippery ground
  • Tudors began to take precautions – began to cover wells and fence off rivers, adding water pumps
  • Drowning declined as these measures were put in place
  • Domestic life just encompassing the home itself is a modern notion
  • Straw and hay on the floor – the top layer would be changed but the bottom layer might be there for 20 years
  • The hay and straw could absorb ale, vomit, wee, fish guts, etc
  • Cut on your leg and went out, could get dysentery or gangrene
  • Childbirth was dangerous – 20 out of 1000 died in Tudor period, 8 out of 10000 die in childbirth today
  • Easier to get infected without antibiotics, little hygiene
  • Infection was a hidden killer
  • Cut themselves or break a limb, wouldn’t die from that now, but could get infected and then die
  • If you were ill in the 15th or 16th century you wouldn’t call a doctor but treat yourself with recipes passed down through the generations
  • Recipes contained herbs to cure ailments
  • Physic garden in a big Tudor house
  • People knew where to go in their local area to pick herbs
  • Tansy used for intestinal worms, rue and penny royal used for abortion, lungwort used for lung infections
  • 150 plants were considered to have useful medicinal qualities and were prepared in the home
  • Medical remedies today are based on the plants, used in a different way
  • Herbal cures were dangerous – wrong doses could kill you
  • Something that looks like the thing you’re trying to treat was supposed to help i.e. pilewort for piles
  • Tudor medicine could always go disastrously wrong
  • Radical German invention Guttenberg printing press – easier to pass on knowledge to others
  • Mid-16th century home manuals became more popular
  • Bestsellers were reprinted to meet demand – also included recipes, supposedly written by a medical expert
  • Medical books were pivotal in the Tudor home, supposed to help people in the absence of a doctor
  • Something which has been alive can be used to heal someone dying but could be fatal if applied to an open wound
  • Basic problem with all cures – based on fundamental misunderstanding
  • Tudors didn’t know about causes of diseases
  • Based on 4 humours, disease thought of as an imbalance of humours
  • Knowledge in books would have thought to be on the cutting edge, real cures still hundreds of years away
  • Human dissection was banned until the 1540s under Henry VIII – they were allowed to use bodies hanged at the gallows
  • The Tudors were promiscuous, frowned upon but people still did
  • 1497 disease was recorded for the first time via sex – the pox
  • “Pestilent infection of filthy lust”, wrath of god, bacterial infection called syphilis
  • The Tudors knew enough to link syphilis to sex
  • Society very linked to signs and symptoms, marks on sexual organs as a result of sin and promiscuity
  • Brothels aided spread of disease
  • Association with sex meant that a sufferer was bound to be a social outcast
  • Signs of syphilis disguised – made false noses to cover up the damage
  • A lot of effort went in to finding a remedy with so many people suffering, but the cure could kill you faster than the disease
  • One suggested cure was mercury – thought to benefit those with skin complaints
  • May have had an effect locally on the area affected
  • Made cream containing mercury, which could be rubbed onto the skin – main hazards due to inhalation of mercury fumes
  • Mercury affects the nervous system causing pins and needles and numbness, losing sense of balance, convulsions and memory loss
  • Bedroom full of harmful mercury vapours
  • Can’t agree on where syphilis came from even today
  • No cure for syphilis until centuries later until the advent of antibiotics
  • First microscopes invented 1590s – need machinery to develop cures
  • Tudor century witnessed a revolution in how people lived their lives
  • New technologies transformed the nature of domestic life and began to usher in the modern age
  • Some dangers took centuries to expose

Author: Helene Harrison

I have an MA in History, with a thesis entitled 'The Many Faces of Anne Boleyn: Perceptions in History, Literature and Film'. I have an interest in the Tudors and the Wars of the Roses along with my love of reading and literature.

One thought on “Documentary Notes – ‘Hidden Killers of the Tudor Home’ with Suzannah Lipscomb”

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