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History / Daily Life

This page in particular is based on linking to some of the resources available on the Web. The nature of our work leads us toward using trivia rather than vast articles. I think you'll find that the more you know, the more ways you'll find to incorporate your knowledge into your bits. Do you have to remember every tidbit of info? Of course not. However, the more stuff you can remember, the better your work will be. A truly wonderful source of tidbits can be found in
A Compendium of Common Knowledge. Many (but not all) of the links on this page lead to that site.

Table of Contents

So, What Do We Call the Period?

The Order of Things The Great Chain of Being Showing Deference
Women Foreigners Food
Money Entertainment Music and Dance
Religion Medicine Quiz

Other Resources

So What Do We Call the Period?

First of all, we do not call it "the Renaissance." that term, like "Medieval," is a creation of modern scholars, who needed names for earlier periods. Of course, this means we do not refer to "the Renaissance Festival," either. We call it simply "the Festival." We may, however, refer to the period before the Fifteenth Century as "the Middle Ages." This term was coined about a hundred years ago (from our characters' perspective) to describe the time between the fall of Rome and the "modern" era, with its rebirth of Classical learning.

By the way, we traditionally refer to whatever village we are inhabiting as a "shire," a habit that I suspect is a holdover from when we read Lord of the Rings as kids. While the habit is probably too entrenched to root out now, I have to mention that the word "shire" doesn't mean "village" at all. It means "county." So, you might say "I live in the village of Stratford in the shire of Devon," but never "I live in the shire of Stratford."

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The Order of Things

English culture in the Renaissance is firmly hierarchical. This is the most important aspect of life in the period, and the most difficult to teach Americans, who are rasied on the notion that "all men are created equal." The fact of the matter is that, for the people of the Sixteenth Century, people are not created equal. Some people are, by virtue of their birth, better than others. Almost nobody questions this fact. There is a belief that the order of society is ordained by God as a part of the larger universe. The King is the King not by good fortune, but because God chose him to rule over the rest of us. By the same token, people do not aspire to be higher in station than they are. This is not to say that ambition does not exist, but it has its limits. A baker may aspire to become baker to the King, or to have a larger, more prosperous bakery, but he does not aspire to be King himself. That is inconceivable.

What does this mean for us as performers? It means that we have an obligation to our audience to show them this class-based society. In fact, that's part of what they paid to see. They want to see peasants bowing to nobility and the nobility accepting that deference as their due. In other words, no matter what your personal beliefs, bow to the King!

The Great Chain

This is the central concept of Renaissance thought about society. All things are imagined as occupying links on a Great Chain of Being, from God above to the lowest stones. As performers, it is absolutely essential that we know where our characters stand on the Great Chain. This will tell us who to bow to and who must bow to us. Click here to see the Great Chain, and find out where you stand.

Showing Deference

The obvious next question is "How does the Great Chain affect what we do on site?" It's easy to know the theory, but we have to show our audience the practice. Remember to bow or curtsey ('reverance,' in Period English) to all those above you. The higher they are, the lower you go! The flip side of that, of course, is to insist on 'reverance' from those beneath you. You don't have to be mean about it (unless you're playing a villain), but it is important to be acknowledged properly. Once you have bowed, stay down until the noble in question bids you rise. This may take a while, especially if His Lordship doesn't notice you. If you are in a hurry and need to be somewhere (like a show, for example), you can do "The Peasant Shuffle," bowing and walking at more or less the same time.

An important aspect of this that is often a source of confusion is that nationality does not affect one's standing on the Great Chain, except in very subtle ways. A Spanish Duke is entitled to the exact same deference from commoners as an English Duke, despite the enmity of the two nations.

In addition to bowing to the appropriate people, we show the class structure through our language. First, use the proper pronouns: "you" for those above you and "thou" for those below (See the Dialect page for more on this.) Second, use the appropriate titles and forms of address.


The position of women in Renaissance society has been the subject of much scrutiny in the last few decades. The fact of the matter is that women were almost always subordinate to men. Despite several notable exceptions (Catherine di Medici, Grace O'Malley, and, of course, Queen Elizabeth I), women were generally subject to the rule of either their husbands or their fathers. If a woman married, she took her husband's rank, not the other way around. Have you ever heard of a "rule of thumb?" The original Rule of Thumb was a common law principle which forbade a man to beat his wife with a rod that was bigger around than his thumb. Now there's a lovely thought, isn't it? (Actually, this is a myth. It turns out that there is no mention in Blackstone's famous work on the subject of English Common Law of the Rule of Thumb. In fact, the story does not appear in print at all until the mid-Twentieth Century. >sigh< All the fun stories turn out to be bogus.)

This is not to say that women had no power whatsoever, but it was a behind-the-scenes power, rather than overt authority. For example, if you wanted to get some sort of favor from Lord Lisle, the governor of Calais in the early 1530's, you might approach his wife. If Lady Lisle liked you, she would use her influence with her husband. Note, however, that she had no "official" power of her own.

Naturally, we play against the subordination of women as much as possible. We don't show husbands beating wives (although the reverse is often shown), and we tend to highlight "exceptional" women, such as the Pirate Queen. Nevertheless, we need to acknowledge that these women are exceptional, at least enough to be true to the Period. It's a fine line, but we manage to walk it with relatively few missteps.

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The English of the Sixteenth Century are perhaps the most xenophobic people in the world. Most nationalities are convinced of their own superiority, but the English elevate dislike of foreigners to an art form. The average Englishman regards people from other parts of his own island as foreigners. Now, I'm not talking here about the Scots, or the Welsh. I mean people from other parts of England! A Yorkshireman eyes a Cornishman with suspicion, not to mention a Spaniard, German, Frenchman or (God forbid!) an Irishman.

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What you eat depends greatly upon who you are. In general, the peasantry eat mostly vegetables and breads, meat being entirely too expensive. A typical peasant house has a great pot, in which can be found a porridge made of whatever could come to hand: peas, carrots, turnips (no potatoes yet), whatever is available. This is an "endless porridge," meaning that any leftovers would be left in the pot and added to the next day. The children's rhyme comes from this:

Peas porridge hot,
Peas porridge cold,
Peas porridge in the pot,
Nine days old.

Nobles, on the other hand, eat quite a variety of meats, from beef to mutton to quails to eels. Indeed, the variety of foods at a great feast can be staggering, with not only locally available items, but imports from other countries as well. For more on what we eat, click here. An additional article on the subject can be found here.

As for what we drink, the Period answer is one word: beer. Water is often tainted, and makes people sick. Much the same can be said of milk. The common man drinks beer at all hours of the day, at every age. Nobility also drink wine. Mead is more medieval than Renaissance and is seldom referred to in Period texts.

Of course, as actors we can't drink beer all day. We can, however, refer to water as "Adam's Ale," a Period term which lends a nice flavor to our speech.

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First of all, most folks don't have much. The barter system is very much alive. The King and nobility deal in coin but most commoners deal in trade or payment-in-kind. On site we use, for convenience sake, a straight one-to-one conversion of pounds to dollars and pence to cents. This is not even remotely accurate but it is entirely too useful to do otherwise. However, we can add a great deal of flavor to our speech by referring to "Crowns" or "Shillings" in our speech. To get some idea of what money is worth, try this link. For more on money, click here.

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In the years before television, there are many ways of passing the time. Of course theater and story-telling are popular but many other forms of entertainment are available as well.

Sports and Games

Sports are incredibly popular in this period. The kind of sport varies according to who you are, of course. Nobles play tennis on grass courts, or go hunting, either on horseback or with hawks. Commoners play rougher sports. In the Elizabethan version of football, two more-or-less equal teams each take up one end of the churchyard. An inflated pig's bladder is placed in the center, and there among the gravestones the two teams contend to move the bladder to the other team's goal area. The only rule that I have ever found regulating behavior in this game is a prohibition on the use of edged weapons. This game, by the way, is the ancester of modern rugby.

Other forms of entertainment could also be pretty rough. For example, bear-baiting, in which a bear is tied to a stake in the center of a pit and set upon by dogs, is quite popular, not just for the cruel spectacle, but also for the betting which goes along with it. Indeed, there is no period game which is not accompanied by betting of some sort. Even draughts (what we call checkers) is often wagered upon. Obviously, then, dice games such as Cap'n, Bos'n, Mate, and Farkle are very popular.

There are some more courtly games available to us, which dovetail nicely with our improvisation trianing. I have compiled some basic rules for a number of Games of Wit, which you may use as a base. Feel free to create other games with these asa pattern.

Here is a good overview of period entertainment, and a list of things to do.


Music is an important part of daily life. While only nobles can afford to hire musicians, common folk sing as part of their daily life. In a world before recorded music, folk song is the norm.

Historical Disclaimer: 99% of the music we use on site is not, strictly speaking, Period. Most of it, in fact, is from the Eighteenth and Ninteenth Centuries. This is one of those areas in which we cheat outrageously for the sake of our audience's sensibilities. Here's the problem: Period music sounds really strange to modern ears. There are a bunch of reasons for this, but the biggest is that the tuning in use at the time was a little different from the 440A tuning that is standard today.

In any case, music is very important to us in helping to create a suitably festive atmosphere. We want to create what might be thought of as a free-form score for the entire show. A patron wanders through the site, and they might hear bagpipes near one stage, and then walk down the lane and hears a peasant singing. A little further along, somone is doodleing on a pennywhistle or wooden flute. Still further, the patron comes in range of another stage act, and so forth throughout their day. In other words, if you've nothing else to do while walking the streets, sing!

"But what can I sing," you ask. Not to worry, there are a lot of resources available on the web for your education and enjoyment.

For example, you might want start with the song page for this site. Be aware that songs change from place to place, and from show to show, so just because I have a lyric printed one way here, the local musicians at your show might sing it a little differently. I have listed the lyrics that I use, and included links to pages that have socres and sound files wherever possible.

Other song links:'s song site - the lyrics to some comon Festival songs.
Brian Cullen's Irish Ballads - This site has a huge list of lyrics for all sorts of Irish songs. Not all of these are Period, so you'll have to be careful about obvious anachronisms in the lyrics.
Mudcat - This is the ultimate source for folk music on the web. They maintain a huge database of songs, including lyrics and MIDI files for the tunes! If you need tunes for any of the lyrics found on any of the other pages, you can search for them here.
Music with Scores - Similar to the Mudcat site, this is a searchable database of songs that include not only MIDI files, but scores for those of you who read music. Most of the links on my song page come from here.
More music with scores -- This site has a ton of PDF files with music for both songs and dance tunes. I believe there are also some dance steps here, as well.

So, there you have it. Learn a few songs, and sing them in the lanes. As with improv, the trick is to sing without fear, no matter what your level of skill is. Imagine you're in the shower, if you have to. Remember, this is folk music: volume and enthusiasm count!


There are a great number of dances that have come down through the centuries to us. You may find steps for some of them here. If you (like me) are have multiple left feet, or are feeling a bit intimidated by this whole business of dance, you might take a look at my Introduction To Period Dance for the Terpsichorially Challenged.

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First of all, everybody is Christian. No exceptions. There has been no overt Jewish presence in England since they were expelled back in the Middle Ages (which explains the virulent anti-semitism in The Merchant of Venice). As for any pagan or pre-Christian survival, there is no evidence of it whatsoever, in England or in any other part of the Isles. The closest thing to such a survival is folklore and superstition, and these are always cloaked in a Christian context.

We present our version of England as post-Reformation, meaning that the Church of England is Anglican, rather than Roman Catholic. The English Reformation is an enormously complex process, the stuff of doctoral dissertations. For our purposes, the short version is thus: in the not-too-distant past, the King decided that the Church in England should answer to him, rather than to the Pope in Rome. He arranged for a series of Acts of Parliament, which declared that the Pope no longer has any authority in England, and that the King is the Supreme Head of the English Church. That's about as detailed as we get on the subject.

What does this mean to us as performers? If you are English, you are either Anglican or a Catholic who is pretending to be Anglican. There are laws on the books requiring attendance at Anglican services, and Catholic practice is illegal. If you are an English Catholic, you are quiet about it!

Of course, if you are foriegn, you may very well be a Catholic. In fact, you probably are. You might even make a point of it, if you are an important enough person to defy the King.

For more on religion, click here and here.

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Medical theory is not terribly advanced. The prevailing belief is that illness is caused by an imbalance in the body's humors. The four humors, with their associated fluids, are as follows:
Humor Fluid Element
Sanguine Blood Fire
Phlegmatic Phlegm Water
Choleric Yellow Bile Air
Melancholy Black Bile Earth
Illness can therefore be cured by restoring the balance of these humors. The most famous practice, of course, is bloodletting or leeching, but the other humors had ways of being brought back into balance, as well. For more on Period medicine,
click here.

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The Test!

So, you've read the page, and now you think you know it all. Let's see if you do! The Friendly Renaissance History Quiz will help you make sure you have covered all areas of this page, and the pages attatched to it. It's not graded, so there's no pressure. If you get an answer wrong, you'll be told which section of the page contains the correct answer. Have fun!

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Other Resources

Web Sites

A Compendium of Common Knowledge - I cannot praise this site enough. This is a fantastic source of information, especially for court characters.
Renaissance, The Elizabethan World - This is the host site for the Compendium, and has some other interesting sections, including one on Heraldry and a fabulous links page.
Tudor England - This site has a wealth of historical information, including links to a number of period documents.


There is a wealth of books, both fiction and non-fiction, available on the subject. Here is a partial list.