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Wednesday 21 January 2015

Review: Hidden Killers of the Tudor Home

Wolf Hall is prowling about the television schedules and will finally leap upon us this evening on BBC1. Will it be any good? One thing is almost certain: it will be better than ‘The Tudors’ (the television series, rather than the Tudors themselves of course). Accompanying the launch of this much-touted drama, the BBC is showing a number of Tudor-themed programmes, one of which – Hidden Killers of the Tudor Home – was aired on BBC4 last night.  

So far as history goes, the Tudor period remains one of the most popular – in England, at any rate – but the focus is normally upon the history of the court, rich as it was in drama and intrigue, but the history of more humble folk is often overlooked. It was to this field of popular history that ‘Hidden Killers of the Tudor Home’ addressed itself, and whereas one prominent cause of domestic mortality at the time – fire – is sadly still with us, many of the others, thankfully, are not.  

The Tudor period was an age during which a recognisable domestic environment came into being, one which featured homes for the middling sort of folk possessing rooms with clearly defined functions, such as kitchen, dining room and bedroom; living spaces brought into being by the adoption of a widespread innovation: the chimney. Chimneys were a boon, insofar as they banished the smoky environment typical of longhouses which possessed an open fire placed in the middle of the dwelling, with its smoke eventually making its way out of an aperture in the roof. However, chimneys had a dark side we were informed: “The chimney brought a host of hidden dangers.” Why was this so? Well, as the art of their construction was at that time a novelty, some methods – such as building them from timber and wattle and daub – were a little unorthodox, not to mention unsafe. However, even chimneys built of a seemingly safe material such as brick proved to be dangerous. Temperatures from fires fuelled by wood could rise to 1000°C, and by coal to 1200°C. Tudor bricks could not cope with this, often exploding as a consequence; moreover, the mortar would frequently fail, and if the draw within the chimney proved to be insufficient, pooling smoke could ignite (an experiment with a mock chimney amply demonstrated the potentially devastating impact of such an instantaneous ignition). Poorly constructed chimneys thus brought with them a rash of house fires, with more fatalities arising from collapsing chimney structures than from the fires themselves.  

If you escaped from fire, you might fall prey to bad teeth, drowning, infection or childbirth, all notable killers lurking in the domestic environment; thankfully, “crushed testicles” and escaped bears were not such widespread dangers, although they were recorded as causes of death. Syphilis was an unwelcome novel addition to the age’s catalogue of misery, making its first appearance in England in 1497. Treatments for the ‘French pox’ were, unsurprisingly, all ineffective, and often featured the use of mercury, with one means of administering it being in the form of ‘Baxter’s cream’, fashioned from a mixture of lard, bees wax, herbs and mercury. Viewers were treated to the sight of some recreated ‘Baxter’s cream’ in a lab, safely contained within a glass vial to prevent its noxious vapours from poisoning its handlers.  

Drowning accounted for a startling estimated 40% of accidental deaths during the Tudor period, whereas in 2010 the corresponding figure was only 2% (perhaps part of this difference can be explained by the fact that the population during the Tudor period lacked the internal combustion engine and electricity). Our presenter – Dr Suzannah Lipscomb – treated us to a demonstration of Tudor ‘drowning’, wading into a muddy river clad in period woollen costume, attesting to the shock and involuntary gasp occasioned by immersing oneself in water with a temperature of 12°C, and the difficulty of moving around in woollen clothing that absorbs one and a half times its own weight in water. Her conclusion: heavy woollen clothing plus slippery muddy banks plus chilly water equals Tudor death from drowning. Thankfully, the camera crew were kind enough not to let her slip to a watery demise.

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