Health in Tudor England

Life in Tudor England was hard and you had to be tough and lucky to survive. There was a very high infant mortality rate, around 14% died before their first birthday, and women had a shorter life expectancy than men due to the risks posed by childbirth. So even reaching adulthood was an achievement and those who lived to their 40th birthday were considered to have arrived at old age.

Disease, starvation and punishment were all risks faced in daily life. Tudor England was rife with contagious diseases and regular epidemics of dysentery, tuberculosis and influenza swept through the country. Although they killed off rich and poor alike, the malnourished masses were less able to fight off infection and more prone to death by disease. One of the most feared disease was the sweating sickness, a mystery summer illness that could dispose of its victims within 24 hours. Sufferers apparently died sweating to death. Anne Boleyn survived the condition but Henry VIII's chief minister Thomas Cromwell lost his wife and daughters to the sweating sickness. Henry developed a deep fear of contracting the disease, breaking up the court and moving whole residences to try and avoid it. And he had good reason to fear it: his only brother Arthur had died of the disease.

So what skills would you have needed to survive in Tudor England?

The Tudors saw disease as a punishment from God. They understood that some, like the plague, could be spread by human contact, but had few effective treatments. This is because they believed the human body produced four bodily fluids known as 'the humors': blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. They believed that illness was caused when these four went out of balance, so herbal remedies were made to try and restore the balance.

Tudor England did not share our obsession with soap and water. In fact, they thought that using water could make you unwell through the pores of your skin. Looking at the rivers running with excrement, they had a good point. so the key to hygiene and keeping clean was not through water but through linen. Linen cloths were rubbed over the body and through their hair to soak up the sweat while shirts and undergarments were made of linen. So you kept yourself clean, not by washing, but by washing these linen clothes and by using perfumes to improve the smell of your clothes. While taking care of your body odours, you had to take care of your breath. There were no toothbrushes so you had to use a toothpick made of wood or bone or the quill of a feather. As to freshening your breath, you would have chewed cumin seeds or aniseed but most just rinsed their mouths out with white wine. Having done all your hygiene requirements, most gentry still believed that you should still take a bath once month, whether you needed it or not.

Even after using these basic health care tips, you could also come across some illnesses like dysentery, typhus and scurvy. With dysentery you could die in as little as two weeks but with syphilis, you could live twenty years, gradually and slowly going mad and at the end dying from it.

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