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How to tell you’re Elizabethan

Way back in the early days of the internet, one of my favourite sites was Mark Rosenfelder’s Metaverse. Drawn there by the Language Construction Kit, I stayed for the geeky fun, which included a series of “culture tests“. It started with “How to tell you’re American”, but soon expanded to many other nationalities. In the spirit of internet continuity, but mostly because it’s a lot of fun, here’s my Elizabethan version…

If you’re Elizabethan…

  • You believe in the Divine Right of Kings and the authority of Queen Elizabeth, albeit advised by the lords of the realm and a parliament of commoners (after all, she’s only a woman!).
  • You’re familiar with Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake, Edward Alleyne, Will Kemp, Robin Hood and King Arthur.
  • You know how kicking camp and skittles are played. If you’re a member of the upper classes, you may also be able to  argue the finer points of cricket or tennis.
  • You count yourself fortunate if you get Saturday afternoons off work. No-one works on the Lord’s Day.

If you died tonight…

  • You believe in  both God and the Devil, but only those pesky Papists believe in saints.
  • You think of oysters and beer as cheap food.
  • Your place might not be heated in the winter and probably has an outdoor privy. You send your laundry to the laundress. You don’t kill your own food, unless you’re a member of the upper classes with a large estate. You might have a dirt floor; even if there are floorboards or tiles, you still put rushes down. You eat at a table, sitting on benches or stools (though the children might have to stand). You don’t consider insects, dogs, cats, monkeys, or guinea pigs to be food.
  • Between “black” and “white” there are no other races. Someone with one black and one white parent looks black to you (not that you’ve ever seen a black person, unless you live in London).
  • You respect someone who speaks Latin because they’re better educated than you, but anyone who speaks French–or worse still, Spanish–is probably a spy for the Papists.
  • You don’t take a strong court system for granted. You know that if you commit treason (or are merely suspected of it) you can legally be tortured, and the sentence if found guilty is to be hanged, drawn and quartered.
  • School isn’t free, but your nearest town’s grammar school may offer scholarships to bright boys. You can go to university (Oxford or Cambridge) as young as 12, but 15 or 16 is more usual. If you’re a Catholic, you can attend university but not graduate; if you’re a girl and your father is progressive, you might have a private tutor since you’re not allowed to be educated alongside boys.

Everybody knows that

  • Mustard comes as seeds or powder; milk comes in buckets from the milkmaid
  • The date cometh first, and may be measured in terms of the current monarch’s reign: xxviij day of July, in the thirtieth year of her glorious Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s reign (and you know what happened on that date).
  • If a man has sex with another man, he is a sodomite and liable to prosecution (but nobody really worries about that sort of thing unless minors are involved).
  • If you’re a woman, you don’t go out in public with your hair uncovered unless you’re young and unmarried.
  • Marriages are made for practical reasons like having a helpmeet and siring an heir; love matches are all very well in plays but they don’t put bread on the table. Only very rich people marry before their twenties, and then only for dynastic reasons.
  • Marriages are normally conducted in church, although in theory you can just exchange vows before witnesses and then live together
  • Giving gifts to important people is an accepted way of oiling the wheels of state, not bribery and corruption

Contributions to world civilisation

  • You’ve given the world Shakespeare – what more does it want? (although you prefer the city comedies of Middleton, Dekker and Jonson).
  • Your navy is the envy of Europe, although mostly the other countries accuse your captains of being nothing more than pirates.
  • The Queen’s father invented the Church of England and her brother turned it into a thoroughly Protestant sect, though not as extreme as those strange fellows in Switzerland and Germany.
  • You’re the only country in Europe ruled by a woman, which also puzzles the foreigners. The Pope has declared her a heretic, which only makes you hate Catholics all the more.
  • Your capital, London, is the largest city in northern Europe and one of the fastest growing.
  • Your country hasn’t been conquered by a foreign nation for over five hundred years.
  • There are no police, only poorly paid, elderly watchmen who patrol the streets after curfew. If you’re a man, you carry a weapon for self-defence, most likely a cudgel (a stout stick about three feet long) or a dagger, or both. If rich, you might wear a rapier, but if the blade is more than forty inches long the city guards will break off the excess before allowing you into London. Of course you can always bribe them not to…
  • The biggest meal of the day is dinner, eaten around noon (or a bit later if you’re upper class).
  • If a woman is plumper than average, it doesn’t harm her looks. But gentlemen definitely prefer blondes – or redheads like the Queen. Only peasants have suntans.

Outside London

  • You’re probably a farmer; if not, you’re a shopkeeper or artisan.
  • You care very much which family someone comes from, although it’s possible for a clever man of humble birth to rise to the highest (non-royal) offices in the land.
  • You’re used to limited choices in what you can buy, and you probably make a lot of items at home, particularly shirts and underlinens.
  • If you fall ill, you’re probably safer if you’re poor; the local cunning man or woman knows a lot about herbal cures. Doctors are expensive and as likely to kill as cure you.
  • The normal thing when a couple dies is for the entire property to go to the eldest son.
  • You’ve probably never ventured more than a few miles from your home town. Anyone wandering the Queen’s highway without an official warrant can be arrested for vagrancy. If you wanted to travel overseas, you’d need to apply to the Privy Council for a passport.
  • Travel is horrible anyway; the roads are dreadful, and carriages with proper suspension are a new-fangled foreign idea that hasn’t really caught on yet. If you have to travel and you don’t own a horse, you might resort to hiring one from a livery stable.
  • Christmas is in the winter; if you’re a Puritan, you don’t celebrate it. There are no Jews, as they were expelled from England in the Middle Ages.
  • There certainly are a lot of lawyers.



Heh! I love it 🙂

James Worrad

Thanks, Anne! This is a fascinating post.

Felicia Fredlund

Fascinating post, Anne!

This really gives an interesting insight into how it was to live during Elizabethan times. Much better than dry history books! 🙂