1 – England and Scotland
During the 17th century England and Scotland became steadily richer. Trade and commerce grew and grew. By the late 17th century trade was an increasingly important part of their economy. Meanwhile industries such as glass, brick making, iron and coal mining expanded rapidly. Meanwhile the East India Company was founded in 1600. The English founded a trading post at Canton, China in 1637.
2 – Society
During the 17th century the status of merchants improved. People saw that trade was an increasingly important part of the country’s wealth so merchants became more respected. However political power and influence was held by rich landowners. At the top of society were the nobility. Below them were the gentry. Gentlemen were not quite rich but they were certainly well off. Below them were yeomen, farmers who owned their own land. Yeomen were comfortably off but they often worked alongside their men. Gentlemen did not do manual work. Below them came the mass of the population, craftsmen, tenant farmers and labourers. At the end of the 17th century a writer estimated that half the population could afford to eat meat every day. In other words about 50% of the people were wealthy of at least reasonably well off. Below them about 30% of the population could afford to eat meat between 2 and 6 times a week. They were ‘poor’. The bottom 20% could only eat meat once a week. They were very poor. At least part of the time they had to rely on poor relief. By an act of 1601 overseers of the poor were appointed by each parish. They had power to force people to pay a local tax to help the poor. Those who could not work such as the old and the disabled would be provided for.
3 – Towns
Stuart towns were dirty and unsanitary. People threw dirty water and other rubbish in the streets. Furthermore the streets were very narrow. At night they were dark and dangerous. However there were some improvements in the biggest cities. In the early 17th century a piped water supply was created. Water from a reservoir travelled along elm pipes through the streets then along lead pipes to individual houses. However you had to pay to be connected to the supply and it was not cheap. During the 17th century towns grew much larger. That was despite outbreaks of plague. Fleas that lived on rats transmitted bubonic plague. If the fleas bit humans they were likely to fall victim to the disease. Unfortunately at the time nobody knew what caused the plague and nobody had any idea how to treat it. Plague broke out in 1603, 1636 and in 1665 in towns like London, Glasgow, Ayr, etc. Each time it killed a significant part of the population. There were always plenty of poor people in the countryside willing to come and work in the town. However the plague of 1665, which affected London, Manchester and other towns, was the last.
4 – Rich and Poor People’s Homes
In the late 17th century furniture for the wealthy became more comfortable and much more finely decorated. In the early 17th century furniture was plain and heavy. It was usually made of oak. In the late 17th century furniture for the rich was often made of walnut or (from the 1680s) mahogany. Wood was carved out and the hollow was filled in with mother of pearl. At this time lacquering arrived in Scotlnad and England partly. Pieces of furniture were coated with lacquer in bright colours. Furthermore new types of furniture were introduced. In the mid 17th century chests of drawers became common. Grandfather clocks also became popular. Later in the century the bookcase was introduced. Chairs also became far more comfortable. Upholstered chairs became common in wealthy people’s homes. In the 1680s the first real armchairs appeared.
However all the improvements in furniture did not apply to the poor. Their furniture was remained very plain and basic. However there were some improvements in poor people’s houses in the 17th century. In the Middle Ages ordinary people’s homes were usually made of wood. However in the late 16th and early 17th centuries many were built or rebuilt in stone or brick. By the late 17th century even poor people usually lived in houses made of brick or stone. They were a big improvement over wooden houses. They were warmer and drier. Furthermore in the 16th century chimneys were a luxury. However during the 17th century chimneys became more common and by the late 17th century even the poor had them. Furthermore in 1600 glass windows were a luxury. Poor people made do with linen soaked in linseed oil. However during the 17th century glass became cheaper and by the late 17th century even the poor had glass windows. In the early 17th century there were only casement windows (ones that open on hinges). In the later 17th century sash windows were introduced. They were in two sections and they slid up and down vertically to open and shut.
5 – Food
In the early 17th century people began eating with forks for the first time. During the century new foods were introduced into England (for the rich) such as bananas and pineapples. New drinks were introduced, chocolate, tea and coffee. In the late 17th century there were many coffee houses in the towns. Merchants and professional men met there to read newspapers and talk shop. In the late 17th century the rich began eating ice cream. Many rich people built special underground chambers in the grounds of their houses for preserving ice during the summer. The ice was covered in straw to preserve it. However for the poor food remained plain and monotonous. They subsisted on food like bread, cheese and onions. Ordinary people also ate pottage each day. This was a kind of stew. It was made by boiling grain in water to make a kind of porridge. You added vegetables and (if you could afford it) pieces of meat or fish. 6 – Clothes
At the beginning of the 17th century men wore starched collars called ruffs. Women wore frames made of wood or whalebone under their dresses. However the farthingale was soon discarded and the ruff evolved into a large lace collar. In the 17th century men wore knee length, trouser like garments called breeches. They also wore stockings and boots. On the upper body men wore linen shirts. In the early 17th century they wore a kind of jacket called a doublet with a cape on top. Men wore their hair long. They also wore beards. In the late 17th century a man’s doublet became a waistcoat and men wore a frock coat over it. With breeches it was rather like a three-piece suit. Men were now clean shaven and they wore wigs. Women wore a linen nightie like garment called a shift. Over it they wore long dresses. The dress was in two parts the bodice and the skirt. Sometimes women wore two skirts. The upper skirt was gathered up to reveal an underskirt. Women in the 17th century did not wear knickers. From the mid 17th century it was fashionable for women to wear black patches on their faces such as little stars or crescent moons.
7 – Pastimes
In the 17th century traditional pastimes such as cards and bowls continued. So did games like tennis and shuttlecock. People also played board games like chess, draughts, backgammon and fox and goose. The theatre remained popular. However the Puritans disapproved of the theatre and in 1642 they banned it completely. Theatre began again in 1660. In the early 17th century the stage jutted out into the audience. In the late 17th century it took on its modern form. In the early 17th century boys played women’s parts. However after 1660 actresses performed. Among the poor cruel ‘sports’ like cock fighting and bull and bear baiting were popular, dogs figthing too. The first English newspaper was printed in 1641. The first womens magazine was The Ladies Mercury in 1693.
8 – Education
In well off families both boys and girls went to a form of infant school called a petty school. However only boys went to grammar school. Upper class girls (and sometimes boys) were taught by tutors. Middle class girls might have been taught by their mothers. Moreover during the 17th century boarding schools for girls were founded in many towns. In them girls were taught subjects like writing, music and needlework. (It was considered more important for girls to learn ‘accomplishments’ than to study academic subjects). In the grammar schools conditions were hard. Boys started work at 6 or 7 in the morning and worked to 5 or 5.30 pm, with breaks for meals. Corporal punishment was usual. Normally the teacher hit naughty boys on the bare buttocks with birch twigs. Other boys in the class would hold the naughty boy down.
9 – Transport
In 1600 the royal posts were exclusively used to carry the kings correspondence. However in 1635, to raise money, Charles I allowed members of the public to pay his messengers to carry letters. This was the start of the royal mail. From the middle of the 17th century stagecoaches ran regularly between the major towns. However they were very expensive and they must have been very uncomfortable without springs on rough roads. There was also the danger of highwaymen. In 1663 the first Turnpike roads opened. You had to pay to use them. The money was used to maintain the roads. In Tudor times goods were carried by packhorse. Or carriers with carts carried goods. However it was still easier to transport goods by water. Around Britain there was a ‘coastal trade’. Ships and boats carried goods from one part of the coast to another.
10 – Medicine
During the 17th century operations were performed by barber-surgeons. Their knowledge of anatomy improved. Medicine also improved. In 1628 William Harvey published his discovery of how blood circulates around the body. Doctors also discovered how to treat malaria with bark from the cinchona tree. However medicine was still handicapped by wrong ideas about the human body. Most doctors still thought that there were four fluids or ‘humours’ in the body, blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Illness resulted when you had too much of one humour. Nevertheless during the 17th century a more scientific approach to medicine emerged and some doctors began to question traditional ideas. The Chinese invented the toothbrush. (It was first mentioned in 1498). Toothbrushes arrived in Europe in the 17th century. In the late 17th century they became popular with the wealthy in England.
11 – Science
A revolution in thought occurred during the 17th century. The ancient Greeks could be said to be scientists. They thought by using their reason they could work out why the natural world behaves as it does. However the Greeks never tested their theories by carrying out practical experiments. As a result many of their ideas about the natural world were wrong. Unfortunately the ancient Greek philosophers were held in very high esteem and for centuries hardly anyone questioned their theories. This began to change in the late 16th century and the early 17th century. People began to conduct experiments to see if theories about the world were true. In England a man named Francis Bacon 1561-1626 declared that people should not accept that a theory was true just because a Greek philosopher said it was. He argued that careful observation and experiment was the key to finding out how the natural world works.
Gradually this new method of understanding the world took over. In 1645 a group of philosophers and mathematicians began holding meetings to discuss science or natural philosophy. Charles II was interested in science and in 1662 he made the club the Royal Society. The great scientist Isaac Newton was born in 1642. He published his great work Principia Mathematica in 1687. The arts also flourished in late 17th century England. The great architect Christopher Wren 1632-1723 designed many buildings including the most famous St Paul’s Cathedral. The poet John Milton 1608-1674 wrote his masterpiece Paradise Lost. It was also the era of the great English composer Henry Purcell 1659-1695.