Living Conditions in the 1500s: Daily Life

It may help one to appreciate modern times by spending some time studying the way things really were in the past. Toward that approach, the Historical Perspective section of the Positive Press will occasionally analyze the real, as opposed to romanticized, living conditions of the past.

In the last Historical Perspective we looked at the ways in which peasants survived in times of famine. This week’s glimpse of the past focuses on the daily life of those peasants — what they wore and how they conducted themselves at meal time.

The source material for this Historical Perspective is William Manchester’s bestselling book, “A World Lit Only by Fire.”

Most clothing was made of wool at this time, in contrast to the animal skins of the past. But most peasants had only one “outfit.” There were no changes of clothing. As a consequence, skin diseases were common. This is not surprising considering that these peasants labored all day in the fields and rarely, if ever, washed their clothing.

Men ate with their hats on, and often beat their wives while eating or chewing on a bone. With filthy clothing and no bathing, body odors were prevalent, probably to an extent unimaginable today. It was common for diners to wipe their noses on their sleeves as they ate. Napkins and other such finery were non-existent, and guests had to be reminded not to blow their noses with the hand holding their food.

Yes, table manners often still leave much to be desired, and one is often astonished by what others consider suitable clothing. But if you could spend a day living the life of a peasant from a few centuries ago you would realize how far we’ve come.