The Sword Guy Podcast, episode 44
Ruth Goodman is a social and domestic historian working with museums, theatre, television and educational establishments. She has presented and consulted on several highly successful television series for the BBC. She has also written several excellent books we'll be talking about today, including The Domestic Revolution, How to be a Tudor and How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England.
In this episode, Ruth and I talk about some of the lesser known, but nonetheless fascinating aspects of life in the Middle Ages, without what we think of “essential” cleaning products, or temperature controlled ovens. Yet people did get their clothes properly clean, and they were able to bake excellent cakes, pastries and bread. Ruth explains how they did this, and the type of learning that has been largely lost nowadays.
In our wide-ranging conversation, we also cover the importance of sheds, leaving kids in forests, giving knives to toddlers, and understanding fire. Ruth has a special passion for medieval cauldrons. Here’s a picture:
We also talk about how people would have dressed and moved at this time, all of which is very relevant if you are interested in martial arts from this, or any other period of history. We discuss how to research when there aren’t many sources available – as it turns out, there are many ways to skin a rabbit.
You can also support the show at Patreon.com/TheSwordGuy Patrons get access to the episode transcriptions as they are produced, the opportunity to suggest questions for upcoming guests, and even some outtakes from the interviews. Join us!
GW: Hello sword people, this is Guy Windsor, also known as The Sword Guy, and I'm here today with the author and living historian Ruth Goodman. She's written several excellent books we'll be talking about today, including The Domestic Revolution, How to be a Tudor and How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England. She is basically the doyenne of British living history. So without further ado, Ruth, welcome to the show.
GW: So whereabouts are you?
RG: Wales. It's marvellous.
GW: Wales, OK, I can hear my Welsh listeners cheering in the background. Any particular bit of Wales?
RG: I'm not telling you that, you might come here! It’s lovely without any visitors, it’s gorgeous.
GW: All right. You heard that here people, stay the hell out of Wales, it’s Ruth’s! OK now, when I invited you on the show I sent you some questions. I hadn't read The Domestic Revolution yet. And now I have. And I want to kind of deviate from the script already.
RG: Good. Because I read your questions and completely forgot them.
GW: Excellent. Good. So The Domestic Revolution is about how Britain shifted from burning mostly wood to burning mostly coal. And as far as I can tell from the book, they went from a system that was basically clean and safe-ish and relatively low maintenance to something that was expensive and difficult and dirty. Is that fair?
RG: Yeah, basically it is.
GW: So could you tell us what happened?
RG: We just ran out of wood. They had run out of space, too many of us. It seems to have happened very quickly and it happened because of the growth of London. London just exploded during the late Tudor period. I mean, if you look at Queen Elizabeth's reign, the capital more than doubles. It very nearly quadrupled in size during one queen's reign. If you can get your head around that, it is enormous, isn't it? It's no wonder that it then struggled to provide everything it needed for its citizens. And weirdly, it did OK on food. Food supplies, not a problem, but fuel very quickly did become a problem that just couldn't get enough wood in. So prices were rocketing and people therefore had to find an alternative. So they were pushed into it by a population explosion in one place.
GW: Ah, OK. I've always sort of technically known that back in the Middle Ages, people washed their clothes with wood ash and even dung, which never made any sense to me until I read your book, which explains it perfectly. But it's not my job to explain these things. So could you please explain how you can use wood ash to clean your clothes?
RG: Right. Well, wood ash actually contains really useful chemical, it was known in the past as potash. It’s a sort of alkali, which you can leach out of the wood ash by pouring water through it. Any wood ash will do. You burn it and you’ve got ash left. If you then use that wood ash either straight or you leach the chemical out with water, you've got something which will cut grease and kill bacteria. It's free in every household that was burning wood, everybody had access to it. And you've got both the sterilisation and your grease removal, all in one chemical. It's really useful. What it basically is, is an acid. And if you want to make soap, you take that acid and you combine it with fat and that makes soap. So in a very simple way, if you're out in the woods and you have a fry up over a small fire, when you've finished eating your lovely bacon, you've got a greasy frying pan, the easiest. Now, the way to clean that frying pan is to take a handful of ash from the edge of the fire. Throw into the pan. Pop your pan on for a second so that it's just sort of warm or warm through. Then a handful of grass, a splash of water, rub round, rinse, done! The wood ash has combined with the fat in your pan to make its own soap.
GW: So that is that is so much easier than using fairy liquid in a stream, as I have done, it doesn't work very well.
RG: The wood ash is actually better. It's also much safer for the environment and biodegradable, blah, blah, blah, blah.
GW: OK. And so dung?
RG: Dung. Well, weirdly dung, it's not as good as wood ash, but dung and urine also have chemicals within them that can be used for cleaning. Now you don't use the dung straight, you know.
GW: Rubbing poo on your clothes, not a good thing.
RG: No, no. But if you took some animal dung, and actually cow’s particularly good, if you can get it, and you pop it in a bucket with a load of water, leave it overnight and then use the water the next day and the water will have leached the appropriate chemicals into it. So you've got a sort of relatively clear looking liquid and that's what you're going to rinse your clothes in. And again, it acts as a mild antibacterial agent, but also as a mild way of shifting grease. It combines with grease. If you do it with urine, you really want to let it ferment. So you just pee in a pot and you leave it somewhere, outside, because it's so smelly and unpleasant, outside with the lid on, you just leave it for three weeks. And in that three weeks, the urine ferments and changes and becomes ammonia. Well we all use ammonia bleach around the house. It's still a standard thing. These days they synthesise the ammonia, which to me seems the most dreadful, dreadful waste. I mean, for goodness sake, we've got urine going to spare. How hard could it be to collect it and put it in the tank somewhere, how hard would that really be? But, ammonia, again, it's bleach and like all bleach, it smells of bleach and it behaves like bleach. It does all the jobs that bleach will do, particularly for wipes. It's a brilliant way of getting things really clean.
GW: OK, and you've actually done all this?
RG: Oh, yeah. Yeah, it works. I mean, it really works. It works to my mind at least as well, in some ways better, than modern products.
GW: Because there's a thing in your in your book, The Domestic Revolution, where you mention near the beginning that you've changed the way you do your laundry at home based on what you do in practise. And then you talk about historical laundry, but you don't actually tell us at the end of the book when you're discussing historical laundry practises, what you actually do home. Can I ask you what you do at home?
RG: I am very lazy. I love washing machines. You see, the washing machine is one of the greatest inventions of all time. And I would rank it up there for the liberation of women with the contraceptive pill. So I do use a washing machine. I just don't put any product in it. I run it on water, that’s it. Unless I've got something really, really greasy, you know, if you've been making butter and your cloth is absolutely coated in it or I don't know what else people do to get really greasy, then I might use a little bit of soap or wood ash, depending on what I've got hanging around to give it a quick soak and the washing machine does it all just with water.
GW: So how would you use wood ash in the washing machine?
RG: I would either pre-soak the clothes in a bucket or you could just pour a little bit in like you do with a detergent, but I wouldn't want to do that too often because I don't have the skill of building washing machines. I don't know how many exposed bits of gubbins they've got that the liquid might get in contact with because it is a highly active chemical. And you would need to be really sure that your active chemical wasn't going to react with some component in your washing machine. So I would do it separately. So I soak in the lye and then just chuck it in for washing in the machine.
GW: Well you heard it here first chaps. You don't need all of these fancy detergents.
RG: You really, really don't. It's quite shocking. I think we've just been sort of groomed into it all of our lives, so were our parents or grandparents, it's now traditional to rely on a bottle of stuff and we believe in it. It's a sort of religious faith.
GW: Yeah, that's for sure. And, you know, for a long time, we've been using just household vinegar as water softener in the washing machine, not using conditioner because the soap ruins the clothes and you have conditioner to make them soft.
RG: And so if we don't use any soap in the first place, we don’t need any conditioner.
GW: Well, that just makes sense. And I understand that you've been involved in things like recreating the ovens that were in the Mary Rose and cooking in reconstructions of these ovens. These are wood fired, correct?
RG: Yeah, they are wood fired.
GW: OK, so what is that like?
RG: Oh, fantastic. I love it. I know I'm a bit mad. I've also been lucky enough to fire not just recreations but original ovens. And that's really special. The ovens that they had in a hall up in Derbyshire had not been fired since at least 1700, when the house was shut up. And I managed to persuade the current owner to let me have a go. To take the electric light out which was in there to show people the inside of the oven. So we took that out and that's it. Then I fired them. I've cooked in them dozens of times since, dozens and dozens of times. They're really good ovens, they’re beautiful. They're very accurate. There's a pair of them and they were pastry ovens rather than for baking bread, for all the cakes and things. They are so controllable, and the food comes out delicious.
GW: So how do you control the temperature in a wood fired oven?
RG: You basically have to understand fire, and it's something you can learn with experience. I mean, if somebody is with you, they can talk you through it a bit. But it is about a sort of sensual understanding of fire, seeing the way it looks, the way it sounds, the smells that come off. It's quite subtle in some ways. So a really well fired traditional oven, you should get like the mushroom cloud with the nuclear holocaust. That's the shape of fire you're trying to make so that it comes up in a sort of stalk, hits the roof, mushrooms out and coils round the brickwork. So the actual flame is licking around almost right down to the bottom and then the exhaust gases then get hauled back into the centre of the conflagration and reburned. So you get very, very little in the way of smoke and very high efficiency in turning the wood into energy. And you can see that happening. And the shapes that the flames make at different temperatures also change. So if you're dealing with wood, I don't really know how to describe it, I call it, Dragon Fire. It's like when the flames take on a sort of arabesque shape, a bit like I imagine dragons would, I know it's reached a particular temperature. Likewise, you can feel the sphere of heat coming out of the door. So if you put your hand in it, there'll be a point at which you don't want to go any nearer, and there will be quite a distinct horizon, like this side of it is cool enough, I'm quite happy with it, and then “Ow!” And you can move your hand around and you'll get a shape of where it becomes too hot. And that's another indicator because as that space heats, it pushes heat out in different ways. So if you've got a straight up and down chimney of heat, it's not ready yet. If you've got a shape of heat that is beginning to be more like a balloon shape coming out and encompassing and going right down to the bottom of the opening, now you're at red heat. So it's a really physical way of understanding the temperature. You're looking at it. You're listening to the crackle and the noise, because that also changes as the fire changes temperature. And often you find it varies between ovens, but the actual stone brick starts to smell different. So if you're using one oven often, you would also get that smell to back up your other sensory guides. So it's not something you can just switch on and read a dial. It is something you have to learn by doing.
GW: I've experienced this many times in woodwork. I used to be an antiques restorer and problems which seem really difficult and complicated to somebody used to modern machine woodwork, when you watch somebody who was apprenticed 40 years ago and has just been doing this their whole lives they will do it in a few seconds with a couple of super basic tools. And they have this nuanced control over what they're doing. But just with really, to a modern eye, primitive equipment. But we are used to turning on an oven and we can get it to two hundred and seventy five degrees precisely, or whatever. But really, I imagine someone who's worked their whole lives with a wood fired oven will know, if they need a particular heat, they may not have a number for it, but they know exactly.
RG: You absolutely do. And what you say is you say it's hot enough for cake or hot enough for pastry or hot enough for bread. You know, that's how you describe it to other people. And you see those words in some of the period sources too. It’s often you that very descriptive way of saying how you should cook something or what a fire should be doing. And yeah, you do develop this. I think you have to be alive to it. I think a lot of modern people often take a very long time to make that because they're not sort of aware that that is learning. They're not very good at taking notice of what their senses are telling them because they're not trained to take notice of what their senses are telling them. And I find if I'm teaching somebody, some people find that leap easy and some people find that leap almost impossible. It is a different way of approaching the world, a very physical way of approaching the world.
GW: Yeah, if you don’t mind my saying it's a very martial artist way of approaching the world.
RG: Is it really?
GW: Absolutely. OK, the absolute best way to learn a technique like a joint lock, for example, is to have the teacher do it to you. And you feel it and you learn to feel where the energy is going, where the forces are being applied, exactly how that's connecting. Your elbow’s locked up to your shoulder and that's telling your spine, which is locking up your hip and your weight’s in the wrong place because they've just nudged you gently onto that foot so you can't move it to get out of the way. And there's all these little nuances, a thousand little details, that make the difference between a beginner trying to do the lock and someone who's really good at it, just putting it on with almost no force. But when you learn to feel it you get that sense of OK, that feeling that I had in me, I now have to create it in them. Once you've learnt how to learn that way, it is by far the easiest way to learn martial arts.
RG: I find that really interesting, and it is something I've sort of suspected for a while because I did a lot of dance when I was young and I find the martial arts stuff that I've encountered is very interesting from a dance point of view, and I know what you mean about physical learning, because dance you can only learn by doing, but you have to learn how to learn by watching somebody else do, as well as doing yourself. And it's about learning to feel each little bit of you. A good dancer is somebody who knows exactly where each muscle is at any moment. And again, many people who don't have that sort of training really struggle with knowing, “Where is my hand?” You know, am I pressing it on this edge of the side or that edge of the side? That sort of understanding of your own body is very important in dance. And I've often wondered about that because, I know in the period that we're both interested in, there seems to be quite a lot of crossover between dance and martial arts.
GW: Oh, sure. It is movement. And the way the way I teach students to learn this, because, again, most of my students, they come from a totally non-physical background, they’re computer programmers or lorry drivers or whatever, and they're not dancers who come in. I do get some dancers, but generally speaking, they don't have any kind of physical training grounding. The mirror neurones in your brain are what make it enjoyable for people to watch things like sport, because how children learn to walk is by copying, they're copying the grownups around them or the children around them who can do a thing. And their body gives them a sense, or your body gives you a sense of what it would feel like to do that thing. And your mirror neurones are what give you that. If you can pay attention to that feeling and even give it a name, it makes it much, much easier just to copy what somebody else is doing, because the bit of your brain that handles language is not the part of your brain that handles movement.
RG: Yeah, I think so. And I think exactly the same is true with craft things. If you're trying to teach somebody to sew, or a friend of mine is a leather worker, and there are just some people who know how to watch, how to take notice, how to respond to what is coming in and others who are just completely oblivious to anything that's going on and making. It's exactly the same thing, making that leap between the two. It’s really difficult for some people.
GW: I used to be very, very verbal. I wanted verbal and intellectual instruction. I needed to understand it intellectually before I thought I could do it. And that's sort of how I was sort of programmed.
RG: It is how we're all brought up. That's what the modern education system tells us.
GW: But eventually I figured out that I didn't actually need all of that kind of intellectual crud blocking out my brain and stuff and stopped me from actually being able to do it again. And again with woodwork you know what a well set plane is like. You pick one up, there's somebody who knows what they're doing, has sharpened it and they set it. And it's working just as it should. And you run across a piece of wood and you go, “Oh my God, that's what it's supposed to feel like.” And then you take your plane and you fiddle with it until it feels like that. Because the changes we're talking about are such tiny little nuances, you can't write them down as a set of instructions, and every plane is different, so you make different adjustments to it to get the same end result. I was not expecting to geek out about woodworking planes today.
RG: Another thing that's really come to me that's interesting. It's sort of related to this, is my daughter obviously was brought up as a reenactor all her life. Poor thing. She had no choice in the matter. But one of the things that she got really, really enthusiastic about when she was eight years old was a technique of braid making. Loads of eight year old girls get into braid making. But for her, it was the 16th century technique. And my husband and I started working at the Globe Theatre in London at that point. And she just came with us and the designer there got very excited when she saw the braid that my daughter was making, she said, “Oh, my God”, I told her it's a 16th century type of braid. And she commissioned my eight year old, just about to turn nine, daughter to make to make braid professionally for the Globe Theatre. So she did, at nine years old.
GW: Child labour? Well that’s historical.
RG: But I mean, you can imagine how enthused that made a nine year old. This became a real thing for her. And she just kept doing it. And she's so expert. What I wanted to say was how it's changed her hands. So what she can do with her hands is utterly different from I've ever seen any other adult, even somebody who's also keen on that craft, because she moulded her hands to fit the craft from a child, when they were still malleable. So in a sense, that's just like dance training. You know, if you're somebody who does ballet classes, that changes your body. And because you're using it in a different way, your bone structure is actually different. You lay down different bone, you lay down different muscles. And she's the same with her hands and arms. She can do things that are just considered impossible these days. And yet it's clear that if you train from the child it’s possible, it's like violin playing.
GW: And they say the skeletons of the archers on the Mary Rose are identifiable because they have a twist in the spine from the archery, which I'm not suggesting that's a healthy thing. You probably don’t want that. What we do leaves a mark on the body. Absolutely.
RG: And I think it's all part of a lost world, really, of physical training that you're talking about and I’m talking about. It does survive in certain areas of modern life, such as learning to play the violin, or there are areas in which we train like that and have attention drawn to the physical by outsiders helping us to nurture and build those sorts of skills. But it's unusual. It's not the mainstream way of learning anymore.
GW: Yeah, it's all sitting in straight rows in school, which does not make sense to me at all. OK, now your book, How to Be a Tudor, is actually the first of your books I got into and it is a really thorough investigation of what it what it is like to wake up as a Tudor person and live the day and then go to bed that night. And it covers so many different aspects of life in the Tudor period. And you sort of skip over the swords a little bit and I'm going to quote your own words to you, which is a terrible thing to do to a writer. I do apologise, but “The use of weaponry does not appeal to me in the same way as, say, the making of cheese.”
RG: It’s true.
GW: And that's perfectly fair and you sort of redress the balance a little bit in the chapter in How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England, where you talk about some of the Elizabethan sword fighting stuff, which is which is good, it’s nice that the sword makes a little bit of inroad right there. But I thought I should probably flag up to the listeners, that you are living historian and a recreator of historical skills, but not specifically a sword person.
RG: Correct. I have friends who are much more swordy than me.
GW: But you've recreated such an extraordinary range of different historical skills. So do you have any suggestions for how we sword people could extract training practises from historical sources?
RG: Oh, my goodness. That's a difficult question!
GW: Well, I wouldn't waste your time with anything easy.
RG: I think what I really found is that breadth is really quite helpful. It's very, very easy to send yourself down a rabbit hole. We all do it. You know, you focus on a particular thing and not realise that something way over to the right or to the left or upside down or somewhere else, somewhere that seems unconnected, in fact, has a big influence. We all have our blind spots, we can't help it. But it's really quite useful sometimes to try and pull focus and to try and get a bit more context and to be open to the fact that other things might be feeding in that seem unrelated. And I find that all the time with what I'm doing, that by having a of interest, a moment in time that I'm interested in going sideways across it rather than drilling down on one subject vertically. I think I pick up more of that crosscurrent, and I think it's useful. I don't think very many people do it, but I think it's useful.
GW: Well, in case you're wondering where I stand on that, I did invite you onto this show, even though you don't do swords at all. So to me personally, you're preaching to the converted. But I know very, very many historical sword people who know all about the very specific narrow, this exact style of this exact sword for this exact period. And that's all they're interested in. And they're not interested in the clothing. They're not interested in the food. They're not interested in the dance. They're not interested in the social hierarchies that these people were doing their sword stuff in.
RG: I don't see how you can not be interested in the clothes people are wearing to do the swordsmanship in, the way you move.
GW: I totally can. Well, yeah, OK, it does change the way you move. Absolutely. And I'm very much of the opinion that every historical swordsmanship interpretation needs to be tested in the clothing of the period.
RG: In the real clothing of the period, because there's so many people pay lip service to this all the time and dress in theatrical mock up. That teaches you nothing. Absolutely nothing. I too can wander around in a spangly suit. Great. Yeah.
GW: I mean just to give you a specific example. Like lycra sort of tights. So simulating medieval hose.
GW: Well I mean they're fine if that's what you like to wear. But from a reconstructive standpoint, they don't behave the same because they're not literally tied to your jacket with pieces of string.
RG: Exactly. And the seams come in different places. I mean, you need to know where the armpit seam comes if you're going to be using a sword, you need to know how that feels, how much it digs in and how much it doesn't, how much it restricts, how much you can move. Because a lot of those early, tight cut doublets are really, really precise in where they allow you to put your shoulder joint.
GW: Yeah, actually, you'll be pleased to hear the very first guests on this show, Jessica Finley, she does medieval longsword stuff and she's also made quite a lot of historic clothing. And she went off on a little rant about medieval shoulder design in clothing, she absolutely did. The modern jacket does not work for medieval swordsmanship at all because it doesn't allow you to move your shoulders in the way that a properly medieval gambeson would do, which will allow you to do pull ups and cartwheels and what have you because it's designed to let you move.
RG: It's one of the things we used to really work with, with the Globe Theatre on. Actors would start rehearsals and they'd have all these ideas about the way they were going to move on stage and we’d say, no, no, no, no, no, no, you can't you can't do any of that. That's all the wrong sorts of shapes, these are sorts of shapes you need to be making with your body. It's not just in swordsmen, obviously, but how you sit on a chair, how you walk across the stage, how you take your hat off, etc. And until you get the accurate clothing on and you start to practise in that accurate clothing, so it becomes like a second skin and you’re not always second guessing it, then you see the changes. And it's really noticeable how somebody goes from looking awkward and strange and as if they're pretending, into somebody who looks real.
GW: It’s a language. What you wear is the language, but also how you move is the language.
RG: And it's very culturally learned. And I find exactly that very exciting. You mentioned too about learning to walk from watching people. That's exactly it. So each of us culturally moves according to the culture that we sit within or the culture that we want to sit within. We often ape other people who are cooler or more fashionable or whatever, and therefore fashions in movement happen very quickly and they sweep through the population very quickly and they differentiate different social groups. And as soon as you're somebody who looks at movement, you see it everywhere, don't you? I play cafe games, where I guess where people have been brought up according to how they walk past on the street.
GW: We should play that game sometime. I wonder how well I’d do. I’ve never actually played that consciously, in terms of location.
RG: It really makes you look.
GW: When I look at somebody moving, I'm thinking, what stuff have they practised? So that that person is definitely a wrestler. That person looks like a boxer. That person moves like a desk jockey who has never done any physical activity in their life.
RG: Sikh gentlemen have a marvellous walk. Oh I really like to see a Sikh gentleman walk down the street. So distinctive.
GW: I think it's funny that there's a common idea that there is one correct way, mechanically, biologically correct way to walk or to stand or to move. It’s just not true. I mean there are there are certain types of movement that are definitely bad for you, but within the range of movement that is not bad for you, there's lots and lots of correct ways to walk across the room or pick up a box or whatever.
RG: Yeah, I'm in full agreement with you there.
GW: OK, well agreement doesn't lead to good conversation, so let's find something to argue about. One of the things about historical swordsmanship that is great, is we can test our interpretations. So if I have this idea about how this particular technique works, we can set it up and see if it actually works against someone who's trying to stop you from doing it. And if you're doing medieval cookery, you get a similar kind of feedback. If it comes out of the oven burnt to a crisp, clearly something went wrong. So how do you handle the problem of incomplete information when it comes to things like recreating dance or whatever?
RG: It's so difficult, isn't it? There are so many options. I think my real feeling is not to be quick to jump to conclusions. And I think that even when there's good evidence, it's very easy to think you know the answer and to just skip over that bit, and you see people do it a lot. And I think it gives what we do a bad name in academic circles because it happens so often. People make dreadful assumptions and they don't really test it out properly. They say they've tested it, but they've only tested it in certain ways. The hard thing is getting your mind in the right place, I think. Trying to find out what it is you've taken for granted, because we none of us know because we take it for granted, trying to unpick your modern attitudes and your modern opinions and somehow take them out of the equation. It's really hard and you have to be super vigilant because they just creep in all the time and you've got to get really good at spotting, “Oh, now, is that just because I think it should work like that? How rigorous have I been here?” You just have to keep coming back at yourself and going am I sure? You just have to keep coming back at yourself and asking, “Have I got this?” Am I up my own arse, basically. It's just such a tricky thing. All history involves it. Whenever you read a passage, you are basically interpreting it in the light of other things that you've read and other things that you've heard and the modern world that you live in and trying to strip that out. Even just reading something really simple about traditional, I don't know, kings and queens is difficult. But when you're dealing with something as physical and personal as the way somebody moves or how something feels to eat, then it's even harder because we all have laid over the top this vast body of modern experience. How do you strip that away? I think you just have to be super vigilant.
GW: Right. Yes, and finding feedback mechanisms. Where possible.
RG: Where possible and cross corroboration. And you've got to be really quite wide ranging in the sorts of corroboration you're willing to take, particularly where there's a lack of evidence. There isn't, for example, a 16th century treatise on how to skin a rabbit.
GW: No, they just cut it off.
RG: There just isn’t. So how do you do it? Well, the obvious thing to do is to go and talk to lots of people who skin rabbits, but you can't just say this must have been the way they did it, because actually, when you start talking to a wide range of people who skin rabbits, they don't all do it the same way.
GW: Are you saying there's more than one way to skin a rabbit?
RG: It turns out, there are loads of ways to skin a rabbit. And initially you think they must have used all of these ways. But in the modern world, you see that there are traditions in different areas of the world as to how to skin a rabbit. So how do you then say, well, which tradition did we use?
GW: Really? I've interviewed a swordsmith on this show called Craig Johnson, who's done a lot of work with historical weapons and recreating them, using blacksmithing techniques and what have you. And I remember, I don't think was part of the interview, but ages ago, when we were in the States and he showed me a nail head on a training rapier. And he explained how he'd done it. And it took about three seconds and the hammer marks were in just the same place as they were on the original. He'd been working out how to do it for ages and ages and ages. And then suddenly his hands just did it for him. And it was like, boom, suddenly sitting there is this perfect reproduction and there's no way to prove that that's how they did it. But it was quick. It was efficient. And it had exactly the same hammer marks.
RG: Yeah, absolutely. And I'd say I think the first time I managed that was in a doublet, where the creasing and grease marks after a certain amount of wear were exactly the same as an original, like the way it moved on the body, you’re close.
GW: OK, so obviously anything living history, swordsmanship included, involves lots of kit, lots of equipment. So I imagine that your house is completely filled with historical re-enactment stuff. Am I correct?
RG: Well, over the years I've banished it. There’s a bit more separation than they used to be. I have a bigger house these days.
GW: Yeah, I remember I had this problem of I had too many swords, I couldn't hang them all up and I had too many books, not enough book space. Do you know what I did? I got a bigger house.
RG: A bigger house. Exactly. We’ve got a double garage, which of course is full to the brim. And yeah, we’ve got a van that sits on the drive completely full. It's a mobile shed, it's an occasionally mobile shed and then friends and colleagues obviously have got more stashed in their various cellars, garages, whatever.
GW: OK, now the swords are like symbolic objects, so is there any particular item in your collection of living history that symbolises the practise of living history for you?
RG: Cauldrons. Everybody eats.
GW: Cauldrons, tell me about cauldrons, I don't know anything about cauldrons, except what I've read in your books.
RG: Oh, well, they’re big and they’re heavy, but they are the most basic piece of equipment, to be honest. People often talk about blades as being one of the base technologies of all human culture, and obviously they are, so is string, and I think that gets grossly underrepresented and so is a pot. Obviously the earliest ones are clay or upturned brain pans, probably some skulls, God knows what, but as soon as you've got a pot, you've got a whole range of new options available. It can carry liquid for drinking. It's one of the most basic survival things. And when you look at the things that people owned in the past, a pot is the thing that makes the difference between having a home and not having a home, a pot is the thing you're willing to lug about when you can't bear anything else because it makes survival so much easier, you can eat in a different way, you can eat different foods if you've got a pot, you have access to all the grains and things. You don’t have to wait for somebody else to hand you a piece of bread. If you've got a pot, you can make a meal out of almost anything and that sort of flexibility. So I think pots in general are deeply symbolic. They are hearth and home. They are essential to our way of life to a settled way of life.
GW: OK, is there a particular cauldron in your collection which you are fond of?
RG: Oh, I love them. I've got several reproductions which are lovely, but I have also got a few originals. As a normal thing, I don't collect originals because I thought I would not be looking after them properly. They should be in museums. They should not be sitting in my house. I don't really approve of private collections, but I have got a couple of little cauldrons and they're so beautiful. They have such organic shapes as well, particularly the slightly sagged ones, the bronze sag bottoms. And you know they've been used and used and used and used, more hands have been on them than you could shake a stick at it. Just beautiful.
GW: Could you send me a picture of one of them for the show?
RG: I’ll try.
GW: I'm sure people would like to see it.
RG: OK, no promises.
GW: If you look at the show notes, you may well find a picture of one of these beautiful cauldrons that Ruth is talking about. I have never, ever heard anybody talk so passionately about a pot before this.
RG: That's because we take them for granted. They're so basic.
GW: Yeah. Yeah. And with all these basics, it’s when they're taken away you realise how important they are.
RG: Just imagine life if you had no pots, even in your modern life. Imagine if you could never have anything been cooked in a pot.
GW: Yeah. Wouldn't work.
RG: Grilled is all very well, but…
GW: OK, so I have a couple of questions that I tend to wrap up with, and the first is, what is the best idea you've never acted on?
RG: Rule the world, obviously.
GW: Obviously, make us all wash our clothes in wood ash.
RG: Yes. Do away with public schools, give everybody a shed. If I did rule the world that would be my number one policy. After seven years in any relationship, you would automatically get delivered a shed.
GW: That's brilliant?
RG: It would cut the divorce rate in half overnight. It would improve family relationships. And that, of course, would improve the mental health of the nation. It would improve the physical health of the nation. We spend less on the NHS. We'd all just be a happier, healthier people if we all had a shed.
GW: Well, let me tell you something about sheds. When we moved to this house a couple of years ago, one of the selling points was at the foot of the garden there is this beautiful, quite big shed that I have insulated and kitted out with a heater and dehumidifier. It's my woodworking shop. And throughout lockdown, I have spent I don't know how many hundreds of hours in my shed. I go there pretty much every day and it's awesome. And, to the point, very soon, well it's been delayed by Brexit and other things like coronavirus and what have you, but my wife is also getting an enormous shed. She's a Pilates teacher. And so we're moving with her Pilates stuff out of the house and into this very large shed for her Pilates stuff. So I am a hundred percent on board with your shed idea. So your best idea you've never acted on is give everybody a shed?
GW: That's a really good idea. That is not at all what I was expecting.
RG: I wish I could. I think Britain would be a much better place if we all had a shed.
GW: Well, and Britain is the promised land of sheds, isn't it?
RG: It is really, yes.
GW: Are you working on any new books, is there is there another book coming up?
RG: Not really, I’ve got a bit of a hiatus.
GW: OK, having a bit of a rest after The Domestic Revolution?
RG: Yes, yes. And also, you have to be able to persuade a publisher, don't you?
GW: No, I’m my own publisher.
RG: Oh, well done for you.
GW: I don't have to persuade anybody. I can write whatever I want and as long as my students buy it, I'm all right.
RG: It's not your I won't be up your street at all probably, but I want to write a history of housework.
GW: Why would that not be up my street? I mean, I've literally just spent like the last forty five minutes interviewing you about washing clothes and stuff.
RG: Well that's true actually, you have. It's really fascinating and it's something that people don't normally talk about. There's all this information out there that nobody's bothered to look at, nobody's really thought about. And of course, what counts as housework has changed over and over and over again throughout the centuries. And the way we do it is changed over and over and over again through the centuries. It's really very political. Oh, God, is it political. Any conversation you try and have about housework, particularly with your own partner.
GW: I don't have conversations with my wife about housework. She says, Guy do this, I say, yes ma'am. And that's OK.
RG: So you're following the traditional pattern in which she takes all the responsibility and you are absolved of it.
GW: No, I don’t know if that’s strictly fair. When she goes away to a Pilates seminar or something for the weekend and she'd come back and the children would be happy and fed and the bins would be empty and the laundry basket would be empty and the fridge would be full.
RG: I am impressed. Did your mum make you do that when you're a kid?
GW: No, we lived in Africa and Peru and we had maids.
RG: Oh, how interesting. It is really interesting because when I talk to people, it's really, really noticeable how much continuity there is between what children are asked to do by their parents, particularly boys. If a boy is asked to do certain things by his mother, he will almost always do those things as an adult in his own home. If she doesn't ask him to do anything he does pretty much the same when he gets married. It's a remarkably stable pattern, so you're unusual.
GW: I’ve never actually thought about it in any sort of depth.
RG: People don’t, generally.
GW: It's fair to say that my wife sort of does most of the house stuff. That is just true. And that's largely been because I've mostly been doing most of the going out and making a living stuff. But that's never been deliberate. It's just kind of how things have worked out with the way her work has gone and the way my job is going and that sort of stuff.
RG: I think it's really interesting. And I think the way we think about it is obviously changing constantly and attitudes change and they're not always quite as clear cut as people want. So people say, oh, yeah, but men never did any of that in the past. That turns out to be really not true. Really not true.
GW: Not true. Yeah, absolutely.
RG: As soon as you start looking for the evidence, you've got a much more complicated, intricate pattern of changes as to who is responsible for this and who's responsible for that, and much more involvement across the sexes. The only real period of history in which you get men being able to choose to largely opt out of it is a really short window in the early 20th century. And yet everybody claims that that pattern is the pattern of history. It's not. Really not.
GW: Well, it's within living memory.
RG: That's exactly the thinking. People push that back onto an older past. And the reality is very varied. And surprising in many ways.
GW: Yeah. And the idea that women didn't work. It’s horse shit. They just tended not to have the posh jobs that got recorded and talked about.
GW: But yeah, they were like spinning and weaving and making stuff.
RG: Carrying bricks. I’ve just done a little research project for Ironbridge Museum and the women working in the industry in the 19th century. And that's been very interesting.
GW: Exactly. Yeah.
RG: Working in factories and you know, labouring. There are a huge amount of women who are digging, lifting and shifting, which we now think of as male occupations. But until about 1860, and there's a real turning point then, until about 1860, you are in some ways more likely to find the lifting and shifting being done by women.
GW: Really? That’s fascinating. OK, you have to write that book for me. Well, not for me, but, you know.
RG: The past is interesting.
GW: Yeah. And, you know, it reminds me a lot of what we've been talking about. It's bringing up memories from when I was living in Peru, for instance, and up in the mountains the peasant women wandering around doing their thing. And they'll almost always be spinning all the time as they were walking and talking. So something that would take me two hours to fiddle about with and get wrong, they are doing unconsciously as they walk and chat to their friends and go shopping and do all the necessary things. It's just they are also producing this yarn that they are going to weave into cloth and make clothes out of. Living in Africa, we saw people cooking on wood fires using cauldrons. And that wasn't some sort of tourist thing. That's what they were actually doing. That's how they do it. Have you been to Africa?
RG: I haven't. I'm very sad about it.
GW: I think you might find, if you go to the right parts, you might see some really interesting things for your research.
RG: I've always wanted to do some anthropological studies. I've always wanted to an anthropological project, because I think the past is anthropology and it would be really nice to have a bit more comparison with the things that you can see in action nowadays in different places. One of my brothers spent six months in Africa and like me, has quite a practical background and was brought up with fires. Our parents were both scout leaders.
GW: That would help.
RG: Ovens is also a thing that he's really keen on. So he spent six months in Africa building ovens out of whatever it was for various people.
GW: That’s very cool. OK, my last question, is somebody grants you a big chest of gold to spend on improving historical education, the practise of living history, how would you spend it?
RG: I might go and build fires basically. I think the problem with that woodland school idea is it's awfully wrapped up in middle classness. And that makes it really off-putting for many people. That's a real shame, and actually scouting often sometimes suffers from the same problem. And I don't know how one would go around subverting that. I really, really, really think every child should have time out in the woods, building fires, making a mess, digging holes, getting dirty, getting splinters, hitting things with a stick, having small burns, having a physical interaction with the world that isn't pressured, isn't heavily supervised. Hasn’t got goals that have to be ticked off on a ruddy tick list. I was really lucky to get that as a kid. I did get it and I made sure I passed it on to mine. But I know that that sort of an education is really rare, but I think it gives you a grounding that the rest of life can then balance against. And I think it makes you understand people in other parts of the world better. And I think it makes you understand people in the past better because it's something that we share. That very physical, practical humanness is universal. It's the modern living that isn't.
GW: Yeah, very true. I used to live in Finland and they are big on their forests and that sort of thing there. And one friend of mine who has kids, her eldest is very independent minded. So they got her this little panic button basically, with a strap on her wrist, so she could just go off into the forest for the day with a bag with a sandwich in it. So if she fell out a tree or something and hit the panic button, someone would come and find her.
RG: Yeah, right. That's a really good idea.
GW: At the age of five, she was on her own in the forest, just having adventures with imaginary animals or whatever it was a five year old does in a forest. And I've seen another friend of mine who does quite a lot of living history and his son when he was three years old was chopping firewood, splitting kindling with an axe. At the age of three.
RG: It doesn't surprise me, it really doesn't. Children are much more capable physically than we ever give them credit for. Likewise, my daughter, we've been reenacting since birth. And when she was 18 months old, a friend gave her a small, sharp knife with a scabbard, like grown ups had. Everybody has a sharp knife, so she has one. And I must admit, I probably would have waited another six months. But it was actually really good because obviously we all were aware she had a sharp knife on a belt. And so we sat down and we talked about it and we did it together. It was a big deal. Everybody talked about the knife. Everybody looked as she did it. And she had no strength, she was so little. So, yes, she didn't have much control. She did wave it about all over the place. But when it did, the cuts she made were tiny, little, tiny. It never did any damage. And boy, did she learn fast how to respect a knife. By the time she was three or four, I could put her to chopping carrots.
GW: My kids, too. I'm a blades person. So obviously the whole point for me of kitchens is the knives. And so I have nice kitchen knives and they are pretty sharp. I taught the kids when they were really little, they would put one arm around my waist and I would hold the carrot or whatever it is, and then they would hold the knife and I'd have my hand on top of their hand just to make sure nothing bad happened. And they would chop this way. And the only person who could get cut was me. They got the hang of it. And then after a while they had their hand on the carrot and I had my hand on top and then I took my hands away. Yeah, they were fine. They were like three or four or whatever.
RG: Yeah. That's right, yeah. We had no trouble with fires again. She grew up around fires so never, never any bother.
GW: Yeah. I think skill keeps you safe better than ignorance.
RG: Yes I do too. I really do, and understanding.
GW: OK, so you would use this money to basically create, I don't want to say forest school, shall we say forest experience?
RG: Forest time.
GW: Forest adventures.
RG: Adventures and time without bloody interfering adults, because that's really changed in my lifetime. You and I are probably of a similar generation. The amount of supervision children are under nowadays just shocks me.
GW: I try not to impose it on my kids.
RG: As a sword person, many of your listeners, I imagine, are reenactor types and I think it's one of the great things that re-enactment as a hobby offers. It allows you to do a little bit more free-range child rearing. Almost village raised children, because you're with a group of people that you sort of know, the child is dressed strangely so they can't wander off too far because somebody will notice. There are more eyes keeping a lookout. You can afford to be more relaxed with the way you give them that space and give them that freedom and allow them to pick and choose who they want to talk to.
GW: And what they want to do.
RG: I really valued it as a parent, I just thought this is a really nice way to bring up your kids. And the fact that it's not all the time, you can intersperse it. You can have a more conventional modern life during the week. You go away at the weekend and have this, I suppose, quite hippie life in a way, but it means they've got both sides of the coin, doesn't it? Means the kids have got these options to choose from later life, more experiences to draw from.
GW: Yeah. And they can make informed decisions rather than just going with what the narrow range of what they otherwise grew up with.
RG: Yeah, exactly. This hasn’t been much about swords at all, it’s about the philosophy of life.
GW: Well, exactly. But let's be practical for a second. I mean, who needs to know how to use a sword properly?
RG: Oh, everybody surely?
GW: In the 21st century, pretty much people like me who teach it for a living, we need to know how to do it. But other than that, really, no one else needs it. You do it because it's because it brings you alive and it wakes you up. For us sword people, there is no way to explain it because it's obvious. We talk about swords the way you talk about fire.
RG: Swords are beautiful. I’m willing to accept that.
GW: Well, I think that is a perfect place to finish. Thank you very much for joining me today, Ruth, it's been a delight.
RG: You're welcome. I hope some of it's useful.