History starts at home: Every room tells a story, and some of them are gloriously gruesome
by Dr Lucy Worsley
The Daily Mail, 9th April 2011
Of all the things I thought I might accomplish in my job as curator at the Historic Royal Palaces, dressing in full medieval costume to cook a hedgehog on an open fire was not one of them. Just the thought of it turned my stomach.
The hedgehog was wrapped in clay, then placed into the embers. When it was finally cooked, I had to smash the clay and peel it off, pulling the prickles out as I went – perhaps the queasiest moment of my life.
Before I go any further, I should say that the hedgehog died of
natural causes at an animal sanctuary. But why did I end up cooking him? It was all for a new series, If Walls Could Talk, which saw me throwing myself into the past to see how people really lived in times gone by, and how their experiences have shaped the way we live today.
Over the course of filming, I leapt into the freezing sea on a February morning to find out if the 17th century belief that seawater has medicinal properties was true, slept in a deserted Tudor farmhouse and begged a man to urinate on my white linen as a Tudor-style stain remover.
There’s a name for these mad stunts – Experiential Archaeology, the idea being that you try for yourself the way people used to do things to learn more about history.
When I was asked to investigate how rooms in the house have changed over the centuries, I knew I wanted to experience the reality of life in the past – no matter how gruesome it was.
After the medieval hedgehog dinner – a way of staving off the very real threat of starvation – I was required to handwash white linen at a Tudor laundry using urine to remove stains. To my great embarrassment, I had to ask one of the male crew for some urine (men’s was deemed more effective). It took an entire morning to wash just one sheet – but it worked.
I also had to leap into the freezing February sea off Bognor Regis to test the Georgian belief that conditions ranging from constipation to infertility could be cured by seawater. I was given seawater cocktails to drink beforehand – which made me want to retch – and then threw myself into the water.
The home really came into its own in Victorian times, when families would display their wealth by filling their front rooms – or parlours – with a heady clutter of possessions. Home gurus, like Mrs Panton, offered advice on how to embellish your living room with Flemish cups, royal memorabilia, fake singing birds and Christmas scenes in glass jars. In the course of my research I discovered some
strange bedroom customs, too. In Tudor times, most people slept on sacks – only the very wealthy could afford carved wooden beds. They became such status symbols that aristocrats would take them whenever they travelled.
In rural areas, a ritual known as ‘bundling’ was used to determine whether a young couple were compatible – by letting them spend the night together.
To prevent hanky panky, the woman was bundled into a sack tied at her waist and feet. The man slept next to her with a board in between them.
I also investigated the history of lavatories – from communal loos on London Bridge, where people sat side by side and chatted, to velvet-padded chairs, known as stool carriages, owned by the rich. Queen Elizabeth I’s followed her wherever she went.
Now I’m back working as a curator and researching in libraries. My time spent living in the past certainly taught me a lot of history – and made me truly appreciate the home comforts we enjoy today.
If Walls Could Talk, BBC4, Wednesdays at 9pm.
© 2013 Lucy Worsley