Puritan Living Conditions: Would You Like to Live Here?

Submitted by Prof. Renihan from CH 610 Puritanism in Context lecture notes

What was life like during the 16th and 17th centuries? Depends on who you are: Male or Female; City, Town, Village, Country; Peasant, Yeoman, Gentleman, Gentry, Nobility. Remember that Puritans tended to come from the merchant class. Let’s consider some realities:

Religion: This depended, to a large degree, on when you lived, as well as where you lived. If you lived prior to Elizabeth’s accession in 1558, you were almost certainly a Papist in one form or another (despite the Protestantization of the C of E under Henry & Edward). By 1603, you were probably protestant, though Roman recusants were still many. In the 1630s, you might have been Reformed or you might have appreciated Laud’s high-churchmanship. In the 1650s, you were probably subject to a puritan ministry, and after 1662 you were either a good Anglican or a persecuted dissenter.

Likewise, where you lived was important. Michael Watts, in his excellent book The Dissenters provides us w/demographic information for the distribution of dissent in the period 1715-1718. While this is beyond our time if we may extrapolate in reverse, it is probable that the latter strength of dissent reflects its earlier strength as well. We find that churches and/or ministers who might be called ‘puritan’ were strongest in East Anglia, the West Country, Lancashire and the northeast. Perhaps in some places as many as 8-9% of the population could be classified in one sense or another as puritan. But this of course means that the rest of the population was by a vast majority nominally C of E. Puritanism tended to be stronger in London, in Market towns, and in areas where the Clarendon Code had been more gently enforced (e.g. West Yorkshire and the peak district of Derbyshire). Where you lived affected your religious identity.

Here’s an interesting tidbit about religion in England during our era. Speaking of the greatest church in England, St. Paul’s, a foreign observer said this:

O how loathsome a Golgotha this Pauls; I assure your Lordship, that England is the sole spot in the world, where amongst Christians, their Churches are made jakes [a ‘privy’ i.e. a toilet], and stables, markets and Tiplinghouses [tavern or a place to sell liquor]; and where there were more need of Scorpions, than Thongs, to drive out the Publicans and Money-Changers: In sum, where these excellent uses are pretended to be the markes of Piety and Reformation.  [See Evelyn, A Character of England, 11-12.]

Not everything is as it may seem, or we think! Turning to more mundane matters (pun intended):

Life Expectancy: mid-30s.

Mortality rates: Up to 50% of the population died before reaching age 20. If you made it that far, you could expect to live into your 50s, and longer lives were not uncommon.

Infant Mortality is actually very interesting. Contrary to expectations, the rate was in fact lower among the lower classes and higher in the higher classes? Why? One suggestion is that lower class mothers were more likely to breastfeed their babies, providing them with the natural benefits associated. Wealthier families tended to hire other women (often wet-nurses) for their children, but the servants were not so well-prepared as a natural mother.

Health: By age 20, you probably will have lost all or most of your teeth. You may be subject to any number of difficult diseases or conditions: rickets (a softening of bones in childhood), smallpox, ringworm, the ‘French pox,’ or plague (the black death). In the outbreak of plague in London in 1665-66, 60,000 people died. That’s 1 of every five residents.

If you broke a bone, you were probably maimed for life; the only analgesic you could use was excessive alcohol.

If you had a condition requiring treatment by a physician, you would probably have leaches applied to your body, or be ‘bled’ (based on the theory that the 4 humors of your body: yellow bile, black bile, blood and phlegm were out of balance), you might be prescribed a wonderful substance such as mercury, or worse: arsenic is known to have been on the curative list. Richard Baxter, who seemed to have chronic indigestion (acid reflux?) was once prescribed to take a ‘golden bullet’ to assist his digestion. He spent several days in agony until he was able to pass it. Medicine was to a large degree barbaric-one suspects that more died from treatment than were healed!

There is no real sense of hygiene, and so you are subject to all kinds of airborne and waterborne toxins. Sanitation is virtually non-existent. Samuel Pepys writes of defecating in a fireplace while on a visit to a home in the upper classes; in a large courtiers’ room at Hampton Court Palace crosses were painted on the walls about 12 inches off the floor all the way round the room-they knew that no one would urinate on a cross. Human waste was cast into the street and left to be washed away by the next rain; dead bodies of animals were left to rot or be picked over by carrion. Imagine the rats, and flies, and the lice, and the fleas . . . . Water was unsanitary and dysentery was common and often deadly.  Everyone would have had bad breath and body odor; the upper classes applied all kinds of perfumes to cover the stench. Showers were unknown; baths available to very few except the wealthy.

Home: If you lived on a farm, you would probably have a small house with wood & mud walls, dirt floor and thatch roof. Outside might be several small barns or outbuildings. All of the family members probably slept in the same room, perhaps along with some animals. Their refuse would have made an awful presence. In towns or cities, housing was scarce. For the poorest, it might be nothing more than a wood frame covered in paper. Chalk was cheaper than stucco; brick was the building material for the rich. In the towns and cities, roofs would have been thatch or tile.

It was common among the lower classes to pack people into houses or apartments, perhaps ten people (plus boarders) living in one room, along with animals: maybe a chicken or two, or a goat . . . . The more well-to-do lived in better conditions of course. Neil Hanson writes of London:

A single small house in Dowgate Ward was home to eleven couples and fifteen single people; a ten room house in Silver Street was occupied by ten families, many of whom had taken in lodgers. Even these were far from the worst examples of overcrowding. Sir John Parker’s house in Whitefriars was divided into twenty tenements, and Francis Pyke’s nearby house had been divided into no fewer than thirty-nine tenements. (The Great Fire of London, 33)

Food: The staple of many diets was meat or fish and perhaps some sort of bread. Since there was no cold storage for meat, it was seldom fresh and appetizing. It could be rancid or moldy or worse. Fresh vegetables and fruit were highly restricted, seasonal, and could be expensive. It is very difficult for us to imagine the joy of ‘firstfruits’ or of the harvest festival-eat it while it is fresh and abundant. Conversely, imagine what cuisine must have been like in February. Water tended to be polluted (and they knew this) so beer, ale and wine were common beverages. Most of the population lived on a subsistence diet. A great question was always this: could the country produce enough grain etc. for the need of the population? Drought and pestilence had very serious consequences for many.

Clothing: If you were a peasant, you probably wore the same clothes every day, even to bed, for months at a time. As social status moved upward, more choices were available, but luxuries were truly luxuries-available to only a few.

Spoken Language: While English was the common language, it must be understood as dialectical English. Colloquialisms were wide spread, as were divergences of accent and pronunciation. It has been said that Englishmen from some parts of the countryside would have had difficulty in conversing in English with their fellows from other parts of the English countryside! Wales had its own language as did Cornwall.

Provincialism: You might be born, live and die and never travel beyond the borders of your county. Your life would center on your family-perhaps a walk once a week to market day in the market town-maybe there you would hear a Puritan divine ‘lecture’ on a Scriptural or theological topic. Market day was an important day, and it would have given you the best opportunity to be exposed to something greater than your routine of life. But for the most part, your world would have been very small.

Travel was very difficult, and for much of the population impossible. Walking for the poor; perhaps horseback if you were a little better off. Highwaymen were common, and often travelers would choose a sea-route (if possible) in order to avoid an extended journey by land.

Town and City: Living in a town would have been different-the experience of London must have been overwhelming. The largest towns would have been places like York or Bristol-maybe 15-20,000 inhabitants. London had around 300,000, and is said to have been the 3rd largest city in the world (after Constantinople and Paris). Adrian Tinniswood (By Permission of Heaven, 3) cites a descriptive phrase from John Evelyn’s translation of a foreigner’s view of London: it was a ‘wooden, northern, and inartificial congestion of houses.’  It was an unbelievable jumble of commerce, pollution, crime and everything else. Much of the city was constructed without any idea of modern codes, so that there was no guarantee of the fitness or safety of any building. It was not unknown for people to crowd into places like churches only to have galleries collapse under the weight of the crowds. City streets were filthy; houses and buildings were built up and cantilevered over the streets. It is said that you could walk up the middle of some of London’s streets in a rain shower and not get wet! Some parts of the city-where the privileged live-were apparently beautiful, but much of it would have been gross. Butchers would cast offal into the streets, rats and stray dogs wandered around. Crime was high; a section of Southwark contained legal brothels.

London within the Walls (a little more than 1 sq. mile, and home to 80,000 people-Tinniswood, 4) was nearly destroyed by the great fire of 1666. The fire started in Pudding Lane in the southeast of the city (not far from the Tower of London) and was blown west and north. It continued unabated for four days until the wind stopped, destroying 13,000 homes, 89 churches (including St. Paul’s), 52 Guild Halls and hundreds of other buildings. About 80% of London proper was destroyed by this blaze. These figures give us an idea of the number of buildings there.

Writing in 1659 in his diary, John Evelyn wrote of London:

The buildings . . . are as deformed as the minds & confusions of the people, for if a whole street be fired (an accident not unfrequent in this wooden city) the Magistrate has either no power, or no care to make them build with any uniformity, which renders it, though a large, yet, a very ugly Town, pestred with Hackney-coaches, and insolent Carre-men, Shops, Taverns, Noyse, and such a cloud of Sea-Coal, as if there be a resemblance of Hell upon Earth, it is in this Vulcano on a foggy day. (Cited in Tinniswood, 11).

Literacy: This varied from country to city, and was largely a male domain. Women would have been schooled at home (if at all) in the womanly arts: housekeeping tasks. Common estimates of adult male literacy range between “48% in the rural west midlands to about 74% in the towns”, but Lawrence Cremin (American Education: Harper & Row, p.546) argues that these are very inexact and may be specious. They are based on signatures on marriage registers: he points out that the ability to sign one’s names has little or no relation to one’s functional literacy.

Education: To a large degree, this depended on a family’s economic well-being. Since most farmers could not hire workers and thus could not spare their children from regular labors on the farm, these children tended to be raised without formal education. Margaret Spufford said this: “It is probable  . . . that the children of labourers and farmers of holdings of only average size would have had little prospect of acquiring even a rudimentary education in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, even if provision existed for it.” (Contrasting Communities, 173). Hugh Latimer had recognized in the 16th century that the yeoman class was the great resource of personnel for the clergy, as they had some resources to send their sons to University. Several of the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge were established specifically to encourage young men from counties to study there.

It was very difficult (though not unheard of-Bunyan is an example) to rise from the lower classes and be useful in literary society.

Women: For them, life could be very grim. One author, writing in 1694 in a work entitled An Essay in Defense of the Female Sex said, “Women, like our Negroes in our western plantations, are born slaves, and live prisoners all their lives” (Fraser, Weaker Vessel, 468). Marriages in the upper classes were arranged during youth, often for the sake of social standing, not love. In the lower classes, life really depended on marriage-even continued marriage. Widowhood (and orphanage) could bring terrible poverty. Ray Porter, English Society in the Eighteenth Century, says “Once married, women might easily be reduced to the status of drudges and chattels.  Indeed, highly ritualized wife sales were sometimes set up by working men-occasionally with the wife’s consent-seeking to escape the ‘wed-lock’.  A wife would fetch a few guineas, or might be traded in for an ox.  These sales were the only practical-though not legally binding-form of divorce available to any but the very rich” (31). “Divorces were very rare, since they required a private act of Parliament” (25).   The Lawes Resolutions, printed in 1632 stated that a man might beat ‘an outlaw, a traitor, a Pagan, his villein [a peasant subject to his lord], or his wife because by the Law Common these persons can have no action” in Fraser, Weaker Vessel, 467. Antonia Fraser says that at the end of the 17th century, mother-mortality actually rose with the advent of gynecology-since infection was not understood and many women contracted puerperal fever.