Our most recent subject here at the Class of 2k13 has been “what I’ve learned from teens.” But in all truth, I’ve probably learned more about the teenagers of Elizabethan England than I have about modern teens… even though I know several extraordinary young adults and am meeting more every day.
However, the teenagers in my debut, MAID OF SECRETS, are, well… teenagers in 1559. Which brings with it a whole different host of concerns than those faced by most of today’s young adults. Not more challenging concerns, necessarily, but different ones.
So, what did teens stress about in 1559?
1. Staying Alive
Staying alive was a bigger concern for the youth of Elizabethan England than it is for many contemporary young adults in the US. First, there was the Plague. It’s never good to have a capitalized disease associated with your era. Then, there were the lesser evils of a complete lack of sanitary water (no one drank water with meals… it was wine or ale), and somewhat questionable (at least by our modern standards) levels of personal hygiene. If you were not a member of the merchant class or higher, there was also the ever-present concern of starvation. Life sort of sucked for teen Elizabethans.
2. (Not) Getting Married
In 2013, the average age at marriage in the US is currently 26.8 years for men, and 25.1 years for women. In 1559, it wasn’t so much different. Most individuals not of the nobility did in fact wait until their mid-20s to marry. If you were noble, however, you were not so lucky: arranged marriages were the best way to assure the continuation of your family line, and so teens often found themselves promised in matrimony well before they’d even given much thought to a spouse and kids. Courtship in Elizabethan England was also fairly strict: so the more noble you were, the less likely you were to truly know your future spouse before you walked down the aisle
3. Following the Rules
As for many modern teens, following the rules wasn’t a favorite past-time for Elizabethan teens, but the repercussions then were a bit more strict than they are today. If you were part of the nobility, the most frequent crimes you could be accused of included: High Treason, Blasphemy, Sedition (fomenting disorder against the Queen…never a good idea), Spying, Rebellion, Murder, Witchcraft or… Alchemy.
(and yes, that last crime is totally going to be appearing in a future MAID book.. Actually, quite a few of these crimes make an appearance, if all goes well…)
If you were a commoner, you were more likely to get accused of: Thievery, begging, poaching, adultery, being in debt, forgery, fraud, or… cheating at dice. And while yes, most of the lawbreakers were older than your typical teen, the rules still applied to anyone old enough to actually understand the law.
Even worse, you didn’t have to do anything particularly “wrong” to run afoul of the law in 1559: just traveling without the proper license or acting in a public place could get you in trouble.
And if you did break a rule and get caught, life was not good.
Crime was taken very seriously in Elizabethan England. If you stole anything over 5 pence… you could be hanged. If you begged… you were stoned mercilessly until you reached the outskirts of town. If you were a habitual beggar… you could be imprisoned or hung. If your crime was particularly egregious, you would be hung “partway” and then drawn and quartered (no one wants this). Other popular forms of punishment included: burning, whipping, branding, pressing (don’t ask), being stretched on a wheel or a rack, being boiled in oil, being maimed, or being forced to wear excruciating devices intended to cause extreme discomfort.
If you were a member of the nobility, of course, your fate was generally better—punishment for your crimes was either beheading or a slap on the wrist. Sure, that beheading concept was kind of final; but if you could escape that treatment, you would make out okay.
But either way, it paid to walk the straight and narrow.
All of that to say… the next time you are really steamed about how rotten life is, just tip your hat to our intrepid teens of the 1500s. Chances are, they had it worse.