Myth #4: Scant Sources for Shakespeare?

As a student in the American public school system, I distinctly remember being told that very little was known about William Shakespeare the man.  I came to understand that other than the records of his baptism, death, and other notable events which would be entered into the parish register at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, details of his life simply did not survive.  No doubt it was the sparse records of his life which fuel the speculation that someone used the name William Shakespeare as a nom de plume, and that the glover’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon was unable to write the great plays of the modern age.

Figure 1: The Parish Register recording Shakespeare's Christening in 1564 (bottom line)

Indeed, the parish register at Holy Trinity Church records “William, son of John Shakespeare” was christened on April 26, 1564 (Fig 1).  There, in Holy Trinity church, a copy of the parish register page listing the christening hangs beside the old font from which the water to baptize baby William would have been drawn.  Beside the record of his birth is the page of the register from 1616 which records his death: “April 25, Will. Shakespeare gent.”  Could these meager records be all the primary source evidence of the great poet?

Delving into the life of Shakespeare, many details of his life emerge from primary source documents.  Many of these were collected and cataloged as early as 1904 by D.H. Lambert and published in a chronological catalog he called the Cartae Shakepeareanae.

Marriage Records

John Whitgift, future Archbishop of Canterbury, was the current Bishop of Worcester when William Shakespeare received a license to marry Anne Hathaway.  In 1582, Bishop Whitgift recorded the issuance of the license, which does not survive, in the Episcopal Register.

A marriage bond, dated November 28, 1582, also survives.  The banns were to be read only once, instead of the normal three times (probably because Anne was with child).  The bond holds William Shakespeare responsible for ‘his own proper costs and expenses [to] defend and save harmless the right reverend Father in God Lord John Bishop of Worcester and his officers for licensing them … to be married together with once asking of the banns of matrimony.”

Birth of Children

Just 7 months following the marriage, the parish register records “1583, May 26, Susanna, daughter to William Shakespeare.”, followed less than a year later by the entry “1584, February, Hamnet and Judeth son and daughter of William Shakespeare.”  Sadly, the parish register records the death and burial of Hamnet at just twelve years old: “1596, August 11, Hamnet filius (son of) William Shakespeare.”

Property Records

The Public Record Office holds a record of the fines and taxes which were levied on William Shakespeare when he bought the second best house in Stratford-upon-Avon from William Underhill in 1597.  Records in the 1598 Lay Subsidy Roll at the Public Record Office record the assessment of Shakespeare’s property in the parish of St. Helen’s, Bishopsgate in London.

Figure 2: William Shakespeare buys 107 acres of land in Stratford, 1 May 1602

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust also holds multiple property records.  Among them are a deed of conveyance of over 100 acres of land in Warwickshire from the Combe family to William Shakespeare on May 1, 1602 (Fig 2)  Also in the collection are records of a transfer of premises in Chapel Lane, Stratford from Walter Getley to William Shakespeare on September 28, 1602.
The Public Record Office holds documents which record the fines and taxes levied on the purchase of the estate from William and John Combe (above).

The Guildhall Museum in London preserves in the archives a Deed of Bargain and Sale of a house in Blackfriars, London from Henry Walker to “William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon in the County of Warwick, gentleman.” on March 10, 1613.  Records in the British Museum record the mortgage on the property

Records of His Career

Records of Shakespeare’s career abound.  Early records of printing, the records of scribes who copied his plays, and numerous title pages from early editions of poems and plays bear the name of Shakespeare.  For a complete accounting, see Cartae Shakepeareanae, complied by D.H. Lambert.   Among the most notable records to survive:

The Public Record Office maintains the records of court expenditures, and the records there contain the record of a payment on March 15, 1595 to “William Kempe, William Shakespeare, and Richard Burbage … for two several comedies or interludes showed by them before her Majesty in Christmas time last past.”  The record details the payment, but also a reward from the queen.

On September 20, 1596 a pamphlet appeared in London which is the earliest surviving record to mention Shakespeare as an established playwright, but also contains an intellectually snobbish attack:

“for there is an vpstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Iohannes fac totum (jack-of-all-trades), is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.”  (Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, 1592)

The Cobbe portrait of William Shakespeare

Figure 3: The Cobbe portrait of William Shakespeare, thought to be the only surviving image of the playwright created during his lifetime. For more information on the Cobbe portrait, click the image.

On May 17, 1603 a Royal Warrant was issued by King James I for a patent authorizing the performances of the theatrical company to which Shakespeare belonged, mentioning him by name: “know you that we … do license and authorize, these our servants, Laurence Fletcher, William Shakespeare, Richard Burbage … freely to use and exercise the art and faculty of playing comedies, tragedies, histories, interludes, morals, pastorals, stage-plays, and such others …“  The warrant and the subsequent patent both remain in the custody of the Public Record Office.

Though not pertaining to his career as an actor or playwright, a further document in the Public Record Office demonstrates that Shakespeare was fulfilling his patriotic duty as a trained soldier.  A Muster Roll for the County of Warwick, dated September 23, 1605, lists William Shakespeare among the trained soldiers.


Though far from complete chronology, primary source records do record the life of William Shakespeare.  Thus, the common myth that relatively nothing is known about his life is a fallacy:   primary source records demonstrate evidence of a life fully lived.


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Myth #3: The Rancid Rumor of Rotton Meat

A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms

A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms Aertsen, Pieter (1551); North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC, USA

Persistent in interpretation of the medieval and renaissance periods is the story that heavy amounts of spice were used to disguise the taste of rotten or spoiled meat.   But, is this a historic practice or a conclusion erroneously drawn from varied sources?

The desired spice palate of receipts (recipes) found in primary source documents might offend the modern taste.  Elias Ashmole, the 17th century antiquarian, documented a 15th century recipe for Stewed Beef Ribs which calls for cinnamon, cloves, mace, grains of paradise, black pepper, onions, parlsey, sage, saffron, salt, and vinegar in the seasoning of the meat:

Beef y-Stywyd. Take fayre beef of þe rybbys of þe fore quarterys, an smyte in fayre pecys, an wasche þe beef in-to a fayre potte; þan take þe water þat þe beef was soþin yn, an strayne it þorw a straynowr, an sethe þe same water and beef in a potte, an let hem boyle to-gederys; þan take canel, clowes, maces, graynys of parise, quibibes, and oynons y-mynced, perceli, an sawge, an caste þer-to, an let hem boyle to-gederys; an þan take a lof of brede, an stepe it with brothe an venegre, an þan draw it þorw a straynoure, and let it be stylle; an whan it is nere y-now, caste þe lycour þer-to, but nowt to moche, an þan let boyle onys, an cast safroun þer-to a quantyte; þan take salt an venegre, and cast þer-to, an loke þat it be poynaunt y-now, & serue forth.

Certainly a fair amount of spices.  But, are we to assume from the recipe this is because the cook expected the meat to be rancid in taste?

The parsley and onions would be readily available to any cook in England from their own kitchen gardens and sage, though originally native to the Mediterranean, could be cultivated as well.  The other spices the recipe needs begin to form an answer for us:  cinnamon was imported by sea from Sri Lanka; cloves by sea trade from southeast Asia; mace, from the husks of nutmeg, arrived by sea from Indonesia; grains of paradise from West Africa; black pepper from India; and saffron, still amongst the most expensive spices at today’s supermarket, is native to Southwest Asia.

With so many rare, imported spices wealth was a factor in the use of a wide variety of them in any meat recipe.  Why then should we assume that a wealthy table, which can afford so many luxury spices, should be willing to accept rancid or spoiled meat?

The answer becomes clearer when we examine a recipe for a vegetable dish of the period.   A contemporary receipt for peas-porridge demonstrates that the vegetable dishes were spiced as heavily as meat dishes, calling for a combination of parlsey, thyme, mint, sage, basil, onions, saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and cardamom.   While the fresh herbs would again be available in many kitchen gardens, the expensive imported spices would not be in wide use.

C. Anne Wilson, in her book Food and Drink in Britain: From the Stone Age o the 19th Century, concurs stating  “… for the gentry fresh meat, newly slaughtered on the manor farm, was in fact available through much of the year, while poultry was never killed until it was needed for the table… palates were accustomed to strong aromatic flavours, unspiced foods tasted insipid.”

Why then do historic sites, interpreters, and teachers repeat the story of heavily spiced, rancid meat?  The source for the misconception seems to be The Englishman’s Food:  Five Centuries of English Diet by J.C. Drummond published in 1939.  In his work, Drummond surmises that the heavily spiced recipes of the period must be a method for making tainted meat edible by concluding that “the popularity of strong seasoning for meat was undoubtedly due to the frequency with which it was necessary to mask taint.”  Drummond’s assumptions have provided a misconception of period cooking and the use of spices in meat dishes.  The repetition of this conclusion has created a food myth with which the history teacher, historic site, and interpreter must deal.


Filed under Food

Myth #2: The Problem with Purple

Without a doubt, the one costuming rule everyone accepts without argument is “Only the Queen (or King) can wear purple.”  The conceit seems plausible, after all we’ve known since childhood that purple is the color of royalty.  But, are we correct in the assumption?  Should we be using that as a teachable, historic fact?

The statues which enforced the various restrictions on dress in 16th century England are available and tell us that the idea that only  the Queen (or King) can wear purple is erroneous.  This misconception probably arises from a theatrical decision made for the production of renaissance faires, and now accepted as historic fact.

The sumptuary law referring to the wearing of purple, issued in the 16th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I confirms the continuing enforcement of earlier laws issued in the reign of her father, King Henry VIII:

None shall wear in his apparel:

Any silk of the color of purple, cloth of gold tissued, nor fur of sables, but only the King, Queen, King’s mother, children, brethren, and sisters, uncles and aunts; and except dukes, marquises, and earls, who may wear the same in doublets, jerkins, linings of cloaks, gowns, and hose; and those of the Garter, purple in mantles only.  [15 June 1574, 16 Elizabeth I]

This simple statute is telling.  Purple, the most expensive of colors, is heavily reserved, but not exclusively to the Queen (or King).

Unlike the earlier Tudor monarchs, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, no family members (mother, children, brothers, sisters, uncles or aunts) were alive to share the purple privilege.  There were, however, diverse noblemen:  at least one duke (Norfolk), two marquises (Winchester and Northampton), numerous Earls, and Knights of The Garter, each of whom could don purple in various parts of their clothing.  The statute quoted above, however, only allows this privilege to the men who held the titles, omitting any mention of allowing their wives the right to wear cloth of purple.


Filed under Costume

Myth #1: The Cautionary Tale of Fox Tails

Today, it has become ubiquitous to see people, mostly women, wearing a fox tail with a medieval or renaissance costume.  Ask them why they are wearing it and you’ll probably be regaled with a story that, in history, it signified marital status, or perhaps even signified a somewhat licentious nature.  You might also be told that the item is a ‘flea fur’ used to attract fleas off of the wearer’s body (we’ll deal with the myth of the flea fur in a future post).

But, is the wearing of fox tails  proper in historic re-enactments specific to the 16th to 18th century?

There is some evidence that fox tails were being worn as undergarments in the 14th century.  In Chronica Johannis de Reading et Anonymi Cantuariensis, John of Reading complains, in an entry dated 1344, that women were wearing clothes so tight that they wore a fox tail hanging down inside their skirts at the back to “hide their arses.”  John of Reading equates this immodesty in dress with the sin of pride and complains that it will surely bring down future misfortune.  (As quoted in The Black Death by Rosemary Horrox).

Coming to the 16th century, we do find surviving images of a fox tails being worn.  Perhaps the most telling of these is The Cripples, painted by Peter Bruegel the Elder in 1568.  Here we see disabled beggars adorned with fox tails covering their clothing.

Other 15th and 16th century engravings by Bosch and Durer depict fools wearing fox tails at their belts, and ears upon their hoods.   The English poet, Stephen Hawes, dresses his fool in “a hood, a bell, a foxtayle and a bagge.”

The French humanist Rabelais, in his work La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel, writes a character named Panurgi who mocks academics by sneaking upon them and hanging fox tails from their backs.  This insult is effective because the fox tail is clearly associated in the 16th century mind with the fool.

By the 17th century, the first revolutionaries of Holland assumed the nickname of Les Gueux (The Ragamuffins) after the Count Berlaymont told the Duchess of Parma that they were “the scum and offscouring of the people.”  Once this insult had been made public, the party adopted the nickname in defiance of the old order and began to dress as beggars, adopting a fox tail upon their garments instead of feathers.

Thus, we must conclude that fox tails, while appropriate for wearing in historic re-enactment, are not a symbol of sexuality or availability, but rather a symbol of vagrants and fools.  Anyone choosing to adopt a fox tail in their garments at a re-enactment should be willing to accept such a societal role for their character.  The re-enactor should further be prepared to explain the symbol they wear in the correct historic context, leaving aside any modern ‘renaissance faire’ symbolism with which the fox tail has become imbued.


Filed under Costume