Step into the 16th century

By the early 1500s, Columbus realized he had made a mistake: He'd sailed to the New World in 1492, not India. Michelangelo was busily painting frescoes in Italy. Gunpowder was still a novelty, so armored knights were still the ultimate weapon on the battlefield. If you could step back into 16th-century England, you'd expect to see nobility and gentry, knights and squires, villagers and farmers. You might also meet a ratcatcher, a pepper merchant, or a minstrel who sang songs and juggled. We can't go back in time, of course, but 16th-century 'reenactors' (people who dress and act like historical characters) can help us imagine what it was like in those times. Read on to 'meet' some of the characters at a fair in 16th-century England. (Our thanks to the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, Mass., and to the reenactors at King Richard's Faire in Carver, Mass.)


Lady Elizabeth, played by Ryann Bailey, says she's "middle class." She's wearing nice clothes, but nothing as fancy as wealthy ladies or royalty would wear. By the end of the 1500s, in fact, well-to-do ladies would wear ostentatious garments with fancy collars, feather trim, jewels, and embroidery.

MULTIPURPOSE SHIRT Her outfit begins with a chemise or shift - a long white linen shirt with loose sleeves. It served as an undergarment and a nightgown. Over that she wears a bodice that would have been lined with a whalebone corset that could be tightened (sometimes painfully) to give her a tiny, fashionable waist.

SLEEVES AND CLASS In the 16th century, her ankle-length skirt probably would have been wool. Upper-class women would have worn a bodice with real sleeves, not just the sleeves of the chemise. A belt with a pouch was practical for men and women. (Pockets weren't invented until later.)

SNOOD Her hair is gathered in a "snood" - a sort of bag. Everyone - men and women - would have had a head covering. "You wouldn't want to show your bare head to God!" Ms. Bailey notes. "Princess hats," or "hennins" (the pointy, dunce-cap ones), were very popular in the late 15th century. The more important the lady, the taller her hat. Some hats were so tall that you needed help putting them on!

BATHS Dirt and oil were thought to be protective, so bathing was thought to be unhealthy. You'd take a bath "every couple of months, maybe twice a year," Bailey says. Ladies in London might carry "pomander balls" filled with spices or other sweet-smelling things. They would hold them to their noses to mask bad odors.

Sir Thomas, Duke of Kent

So much romance and folklore surround knights of old. Perhaps you've heard that knights in armor were so heavy that if they fell down, they couldn't get up by themselves. Not true! (Mark Twain may have started that rumor in his humorous "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.") In the 1500s, it was perfectly possible to be clad head-to-toe in armor and still climb on and off your horse by yourself.

SWORD It's a "real" sword, but its edges feel dull. That's because swords were made for crushing, not slicing.

ARMOR The armor worn by Kent Shelton is actually more 13th century than 16th century in style. For one thing, he's wearing "mail" on his chest. Mail was made of small, interlocking iron rings. (Sort of like an iron sweater.) His helmet is "barrel style." Knights in later times would probably have worn a close helmet that opened and closed on hinges and had an attached "gorget" (neck protector). A suit of armor made of iron, steel, and leather (for strapping) weighed between 40 and 85 pounds.

Armor was very expensive and came in three styles: combat, tournament, and parade. Parade armor was "for show." Tournament armor was the thickest. Tournament fighting was a dangerous sport, and knights wanted maximum protection. They didn't need the flexibility that a combat knight did.

Combat armor was designed to deflect blows, so it had smooth, curved surfaces. A soldier had to be able to move fast, wield his weapon, and turn his head to see his enemies. To be more flexible, combat armor needed more plates. A combat gauntlet (glove), for example, might contain 40 riveted plates, called lames.

WHAT IT'S LIKE INSIDE Armor is not very comfortable, and it's very cumbersome. And falling off a horse, even wearing armor, can still hurt. "Armor bites, we call them," Mr. Shelton says. If you land wrong, for instance, a strap can gouge you. Knights wore undergarments of linen to avoid chafing. A heavily padded garment called a "gambeson" might be worn under chain mail. (What happens if you get an itch? "You try to unstrap and get at it," Shelton says. "If that doesn't work, you wiggle around.")

KEEP IT SHINING Plate armor was cleaned with sand, pumice, or a paste of emery and oil. There was no petroleum-based oil, of course. Olive oil was preferred. HEYO THE JESTER

His clothes give him away: the bells on the tips of his hat's liripipes (the floppy felt triangles), the colorful pattern of triangles on his clothing. In 1500s England, jesters (the word means "a teller of exploits") were known for their colorful, patterned clothing. But they might also wear outfits of black-and-white diamonds.

BAUBLE A jester or "fool" - from the Latin word for "windbag" or "bellows" - usually carried something called a bauble. It was a baton with a small likeness of the jester on it. (Frank Dixon, who plays Heyo, has a bauble with an image that looks remarkably like Homer Simpson. In fact, it is Homer Simpson.) Jesters used their baubles - from the Latin for "pretty" - to comic effect. They might talk to them as though talking to a sidekick, or pretend that their bauble is commenting on this or that.

16TH-CENTURY SATIRISTS Sometimes, jesters served as "political satirists," Mr. Dixon says. "They could make fun of the king and mock him as a way of informing him about what the people in the kingdom really thought of him."

You may already be familiar with the cliche: "Many a true word was spoken in jest."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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