The Martin Pollins Blog

History, economics, business, politics…and Sussex

A Glimpse of Life in Elizabethan Times

Picture Credit/Attribution: Lucas van Valckenborch, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, File from here

How it all started

It may be hard to believe, but it’s a fact: retail markets have existed since ancient times. The markets probably started with barter systems more than 10,000 years ago. As those civilisations developed, barter was replaced with buying and selling, a retail trade involving coinage, which emerged in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) around the 7th millennium BCE.

Open-air, public markets existed in the centre of towns in ancient Babylonia, Assyria, Phoenicia, and Egypt, typically located in the centre of towns or cities. Skilled artisans, such as metalworkers and leather workers, had permanent premises in alleys that led to the open marketplace. These artisans may have sold wares directly from their premises and prepared goods for sale on market days. In ancient Greece, markets operated within what was called the agora – an open space where, on market days, goods were displayed on mats or temporary stalls.

In ancient Rome, trade took place in the forum. Rome had two forums (or fora) – the Forum Romanum and Trajan’s Forum. The latter was a vast expanse, comprising multiple buildings with shops on four levels. The Roman forum was arguably the earliest example of a permanent retail shopfront.

In different parts of the world, a marketplace may be described as a souk (from Arabic), a bazaar (from the Persian), fixed mercado (from the Spanish), itinerant tianguis (Mexico), or palengke (Philippines). 

Elizabethan Times

There were about 800 different markets in England in Elizabethan times where people could buy their food. There was an intricate network of around sixteen markets in London – with stalls or stands selling various foods, spices, and even livestock. In rural areas, people made regular visits to markets and fairs to get their food, but in cities, they shopped about once a week for food items such as meat, poultry, wines, cooking fats, flour and spices. On sale in cities were specific goods such as herbs, cheese, or freshwater fish.

In Shakespeare’s day, just like today, you could spend whole days just walking through the narrow thoroughfares or strolling along the banks of the River Thames. You would pass many domestic, farm, and stray animals – cats, dogs, ducks, pigs, rats, goats, cows – and a jumbled mass of humanity. On the way, you would pass jugglers, sailors, blacksmiths, prostitutes, chimney sweeps, magicians, artisans of all types, milkmaids, merchants, minstrels, and even pickpockets and muggers. All in all, it may not have been as sophisticated then as now, but the sheer mix of the people, the animals, the food, the clothing and so on would have taken your breath away.

London leading the way

Way back then, in the days of Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon, and just as now, London was a leading shopping venue. The Royal Exchange on Threadneedle Street is the world’s first shopping mall –a vast arcaded building with banking facilities and space for more than 200 shops and thousands of businesspeople. Thomas Gresham, the builder and founder of the Royal Exchange, was inspired by the financial trading centres in Antwerp, Belgium.   The Exchange was opened in January 1571 by Queen Elizabeth I – she gave it a royal title and a license to sell alcohol. The building lasted for 95 years but was burned to the ground in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Its replacement, just three years later, suffered the same fate in 1838. After an eight-year wait, it too was replaced – by Queen Victoria.

The food on offer

Back in Elizabethan times, the range of food eaten depended mainly on the wealth and status of the ‘customer’. Generally, the poorest in society had humble and unvaried diets, while the rich and famous ate well and with little restriction:

  • For the poorest, bread was the staple food, and it would be eaten with butter, cheese, eggs, and pottage (a vegetable soup thickened with oats). There was little beef or pork. They tended to eat white meat, like chicken, rabbit or hare, and any birds they could catch like blackbirds or pigeons.
  • For the rich, their tables served most kinds of meat, including beef, pork, lamb, mutton, bacon, veal, and deer, and fancy fowl such as peacock, swan, and goose. Their diet also included freshwater and sea fish, such as salmon, trout, eel, pike, and sturgeon, and shellfish such as crabs, lobsters, oysters, cockles and mussels. Expensive fruits, like peaches, oranges and pomegranates, were eaten only by the rich.

To support the fishing industry, in 1563, Queen Elizabeth I passed a law compelling everyone (including the poorest in society) to eat fish on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

The Elizabethans also ate fruit and vegetables:

  • Some fruits were apples, pears, plums, cherries, lemons, raspberries, blackberries, melons, tomatoes and strawberries. Strangely, fruits were regarded with some suspicion and were rarely eaten raw. They were mainly baked in tarts or pies or boiled to make jams.
  • Some vegetables commonly available included turnips, parsnips, carrots, lettuce, cucumbers, cabbage, onions, leeks, spinach, radishes, garlic, and skirret (a popular root vegetable of the time).

Clothes in Elizabethan times were more colourful, elaborate, and flamboyant than previously – today, you might call them flashy. Queen Elizabeth I was a dedicated follower of fashion, leading the way and influencing her court and the nobles of the day. Clothing was an important indicator of status:

  • Those who could afford it were careful to wear the ‘correct’ colours, materials, and latest fashions from Continental Europe. Heavy brocade, stockings, tight-fitting doublets, long billowing dresses embellished with pearls and jewels, knee-length trousers, stiff linen collars or ruffs, and feathered hats were all staple elements of the wardrobes of the well off.
  • The commoners and poorest people tried to follow the new designs as best they could by using cheaper materials. But those who dressed beyond their station had to beware the authorities did not impose a fine and confiscate the offending item.

The increasing population of England in the 16th century fostered a corresponding growth in the cloth and clothing industries. As the Elizabethan period wore on, regions like East Anglia and Kent saw the arrival of immigrants (especially Dutch and Italians) with cloth manufacturing skills.

The Sumptuary Laws

Elizabeth I was the last monarch to impose sumptuary laws (made for the purpose of restraining luxury or extravagance, particularly against excessive expenditure on clothing, food, furniture, etc.). Consequently, there were strict rules on who could wear certain types of clothes, certain materials, and certain colours. There were other reasons to limit dress – such as the religious views of Protestantism that called for more austere clothing and the fact that the finer and more dazzling clothes typically came from abroad and so hit the sales of plainer, home-produced clothes. Examples of restrictions are:

  • Only earls or higher ranks were able to wear gold cloth.
  • Only royalty could wear purple.
  • Only peers and their relations could wear wool garments made abroad.
  • Servants of anyone lower than a gentleman could not wear animal fur of any kind.
  • Commoners were banned from wearing stockings made from material costing more than a specific price per yard.

Picture Credit: “Elizabeth I” by lisby1 is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Anyone caught breaking the sumptuary laws risked various degrees of fines and having the article of clothing confiscated. The fact that such fines were in place illustrates, though, that many Elizabethans of all classes were willing to pay any price to wear the finest fashions of the day.[2]

Poverty and Sickness

The Poor and Poverty

The luxury of the monarchy and the wealthy in the Elizabethan age was miles away from the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. The number of poor people increased during Elizabeth’s reign. There was no welfare system or support for anyone who fell on hard times. In general, poverty was considered to be your own fault.

Queen Elizabeth I’s reign may have been seen as the ‘golden age’ of culture and exploration, but the flip side was that extremes of rich and poor characterised society. The increasing population and rising poverty became a big problem – the population increased by a million during the Elizabethan period and, as demand increased, so did prices. Wages fell because there were more people available to do the work. Then the cloth trade collapsed, and with it, a decline in demand but a rise in unemployment. The weather in the 1590s was unkind to farmers, many of whom suffered poor harvests and switched from growing crops to livestock – also adding to unemployment.

It was a torrid time for the poor and disadvantaged. Against the background painted above, there were growing fears that the ‘social order,’ albeit not perfect, might be threatened if the growing number of poor people rebelled or vagabonds and beggars might turn to crime. Worst of all, there were fears that the poor might spread disease. Remember that there was no NHS in those days.

At a local level, unpaid local officials (called Justices of the Peace) were made responsible for poverty-related issues in their parish and were allowed to collect taxes to help the poor and unemployed. The poor were categorised as either the ‘impotent poor’ or the ‘able-bodied poor’. The year 1601 saw the formalisation of earlier acts and laws of poor relief. Poor Laws were crucial pieces of legislation:

  • Bringing a compulsory nationwide Poor Rate system.
  • Requiring everyone to contribute and those who refused were imprisoned.
  • Banning begging – anyone caught was whipped and sent back to their place of birth.
  • Establishing almshouses to look after the impotent poor.

The Poor Laws lasted for around 200 years and played an essential role in supporting the poor. They may have signalled the first signs of welfare from the state, but they did not end poverty. More relief money still came from charity provided by the more benevolent in society.

The Sick and Old[4]

Medical knowledge was basic to the extreme in Elizabethan times. Few Elizabethans were wealthy enough to afford to engage a licensed physician. Instead, they would rely on the knowledge of a local “wise woman,” with her home collection of remedy recipes and medicines. Or, they would send a description of their symptoms (with a urine sample) to an “empiric,” who might cast an astrological horoscope. If you broke a bone, the usual solution was to call a barber surgeon.

The best medical advice in Elizabethan times was ‘don’t get sick in the first place, stay healthy’, and the first line of defence when it came to health was diet. Elizabethans paid particular attention to how their food interacted with their temperaments, seeking balance in their body, according to the humoral (aka humoural) theory dominant at the time. Humorism, the humoral theory, or humoralism, was a system of medicine detailing the supposed makeup and workings of the human body, adopted by Ancient Greek and Roman physicians and philosophers. Health was thought to come from the proper balance of four ‘humours’ or fluids in the body; black bile (also known as melancholy), yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. Anything that upset the equilibrium between these humours, such as a change in the weather, could lead to disease.

Most ideas about medicine in Elizabethan time were still based on ancient concepts, namely the works of Greek physicians Galen (129–216 AD) and Hippocrates (460–370 BC). Their ideas set out a theory of the human body relating to the four elements (earth, air, fire and water) and four bodily humours (see above). It was believed that health could be maintained or restored by balancing the humours and by regulating air, diet, exercise, sleep, evacuation and emotion. Doctors also often advised risky invasive procedures such as bloodletting. Medical knowledge derived from antique theory was confined mainly to the monasteries and highly educated. For ordinary people, especially those outside towns, it would have been difficult to access professional practitioners. Those in need of medical assistance might instead turn to local people who had medical knowledge derived from folk traditions and practical experience.[5]

Some of the Elizabethan medical practices are still in use today. Here are some that may surprise you[6]:

  • Leech Therapy: The first use of leeches in medicine dates back to 800 BC, according to the British Medical Journal, when they were used in bloodletting (a practice believed to cure fevers, headaches and serious illnesses). Today, leeches are used to stimulate blood circulation after skin grafts and reconstructive surgery. The leech’s saliva contains enzymes and compounds that act as an anticoagulation agent. Leeching might sound primitive but the US FDA approved leeches as “medical devices” in 2004 to drain pooled blood after surgery. 
  • Maggot Therapy: Since ancient times, physicians have used maggots to help clean injuries and prevent infection. Because maggots feed solely on dead flesh, doctors do not need to worry about them feasting on healthy tissue. One study in the Archives of Dermatology[7] showed that maggots placed on surgical incisions helped to clear more dead tissue from the sites than surgical debridement, the current standard of care in which doctors use a scalpel or scissors.
  • Transsphenoidal Surgery: Transsphenoidal surgery is a minimally-invasive procedure in which instruments are inserted through the nose and sphenoid sinus (a hollow space in a bone in the nose) to remove tumours that are in or near the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is a pea-sized organ that lies at the base of the brain above the back of the nose. Credit for this procedure is due to the ancient Egyptians, who first discovered that the most accessible point to the brain was through the nose.
  • Faecal Transplant: The incidence of Clostridium difficile infection (CDI) has risen sharply over the last two decades. It’s a bacteria that causes an infection of the large intestine (colon). Symptoms can range from diarrhoea to life-threatening damage to the colon. Human stool transplants have been found to consistently cure up to 90 per cent of patients who have had multiple episodes of C. difficile. Today, faecal transplants are done either by colonoscopy or by a tube that runs through the nose into the stomach, but a new study published in JAMA[8] shows that there may be a less unsavoury, but equally effective, route – by way of an oral capsule.
  • Cesarean Section: You might not even consider this an ancient practice since it is so commonplace today, but a Cesarean section (more commonly known as a C-section) is one of the oldest medical practices, dating back to 320 B.C. The mortality rate for the procedure was once very high, until the 1880s when a technique was developed to minimise bleeding.
  • Trepanation: Nearly a thousand years after the fall of Rome, medicine in Europe had regressed and returned to a more primitive outlook, with the only treatment on offer continued to be a mixture of herbal remedies, bleeding, purging, and supernatural ideas. Despite the primitive approach, many medieval treatments were successful, especially herbal remedies. There were other types of cures used in the Middle Ages that many people wouldn’t consider today, especially one called trepanning, the oldest surgical procedure known to humanity. Patients needed it ‘like a hole in the head” if you’ll forgive the pun – having a hole cut in their head to let fevers escape from their body.

Elizabethan Times MedicalPicture Credit/Attribution: this is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer. Detail from The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, a painting by Hieronymus Bosch depicting trepanation (c.1488–1516).

File URL:

One procedure not in use today is:

  • Needling: In the Middle Ages, surgeons used a painful process called “Needling” to perform cataract surgery. It involved a thick flat needle, which a doctor would push directly into the edge of a person’s cornea, with no anaesthetics, except for (if the patient was lucky) a cup of bitter red wine. The idea behind this technique was to push the opaque lens back into the lowest part of the eye, which would result in a clear pupil, but typically, the patient was left with an unfocused eye.
Leisure and Pleasure[9]

Shakespeare wrote most of his plays during Elizabeth’s reign, in what is considered a ‘golden age’ of culture, with the theatre becoming very popular. Purpose-built theatres were encouraged and had tiered seating with prices accessible for people from all sections of society. Many nobles protected groups of actors and became their patrons. But not everyone approved of theatres. There was some opposition from:

  • The Puritans who believed theatres were the work of the devil, spreading rude and lewd ideas encouraging poor moral behaviour. They also associated the theatre with the Romans, who had persecuted Christians.
  • The authorities – an extract from a law passed in 1572 stated that: “All common players…who wander about and have not a license shall be taken, adjudged and deemed rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars.”

The upper classes believed their culture was superior. Huge inequalities existed within Elizabethan society, and whilst the theatre was universally popular, there were two cultures;

  • Higher society – the invention of the printing press and the spread of education meant that gentlemen were part of an elitist culture involved in intellectual pursuits, such as reading the classics, studying music, hunting and hawking.
  • Lower society – the vast majority were involved in popular cultural pursuits, which gave them a brief escape from their harsh living conditions. Inns and taverns were an important part of every social ritual. Drinking, gambling on bear-baiting, cockfighting, cards, dice and racing were popular. Tobacco smoking was new and expensive but grew in popularity during Elizabeth’s reign. Ordinary people also took part in wrestling, running races and football.
Sourced/Excerpted from and Further Reading
  1. Source: at

  2. Source:,

  3. Source for this section: mainly from

  4. Source for the introductory part of this section: mainly from

  5. Source: British Library, HERE, article by Alixe Bovey, 30th April 2015.

  6. Source: HealthcareGlobal, at

  7. Opletalová K et al (2012) Maggot therapy for wound debridement: a randomised multicenter trial. Archives of Dermatology; 148: 4, 432-438.

  8. See:

  9. Source for this section: mainly from

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