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Teenagers in Tudor times

the_farmer_berating_his_lazy_son

The Tudor period was a time of turmoil with religious, political and social upheaval on a scale hardly witnessed before. Death and disease were never that far away and life was a struggle, especially for the poorer sort. The ruling classes also felt an uncertainty about the future and many feared that the tumultuous times further eroded the traditional order, not just in terms of men and women, but also when it came to the young.

As vagrancy increased throughout the sixteenth century, so too did the perceived problem of ‘idle young’ and ‘masterless youth’, who were said to spend all their time in alehouses and getting up to all kinds of ‘evil rule’. There is some truth in this, although it just demonstrates that Tudor teens were much like their twenty-first-century counterparts! Robert Balliston, for example, got up to some bonfire high jinks and admitted before the mayor’s court that he and two other lads ‘did yesterday take away a door of Arthur Cordy that was tied with string and the said John Brand did cut asunder and then carry the door to the bonfire where they burned the same’. On another occasion a master was summoned before the court because his apprentices ‘did cast up rockets into the air whereby there was great fear that the houses would be fired’. Nothing changes!

Such was the concern that bridewells were established to ‘set loiterers and other idle persons to work … and the practicing of youth to be trained in work and the fear of God’.* As with the situation between men and women, the relationship between the old and young was more complex than the statutes and court cases would have us believe. Yes, it was a time when it was seen as beneficial to be harsh with the young to keep them under control, but that does not mean that the young were not cared for. When Robert Brown, a 12 year old from Suffolk, was found lying in the street in Norwich, Robert Saborne ‘being moved with pity took him to his house, gave him meat and drink and clothes and promised to take him as his apprentice weaver’. A few years later an apprentice, George Gooch, was released early from service, because he was ‘enticed by his master to lewdness and also very much abused and evil handled by his said master’.

The conflicting attitudes towards the young is best summed up in the case of James Brown, a 9-year-old vagrant from Cambridge, who was whipped out of Norwich with a pass to return home just as the law stipulated. But before he went, he was held at the bridewell and the keeper there was ordered to supply the lad with new clothes and shoes for the journey. It’s a conflict that also appears in Tudor stories like the one below, where differing opinions about youth are voiced, where the young are both vilified and celebrated. When we take into account that publishers of cheap print sought a willing audience among apprentices and servants, then it’s easy to see why tales like the following were so popular …

Of the Brother Who Found a Chest

There was once a farmer who had lost his wife many years before, but still he had two full-grown sons. They were boys, young men really, who were both alike in looks, but oh so very different in their natures.

The eldest lad, John, was always up early and about his business. He was up with the lark and working in all weathers. John rose so early that he was up before the first cockcrow of the morning. In fact he rose extra early just to ensure that the cockerel had awoken, so that it could wake up everyone else! The lad was strong and quick and so all who knew him called the boy ‘Lusty John’.

John’s brother Jack was a completely different cut of meat altogether, for he spent most of his time lying in his bed. He was a weary lad and often his ancient father mocked the boy, calling him ‘an unwiped, tardy-gaited, bed-presser’, harsh words long ago! The old man compared Jack unfavourably with his elder brother John and often went to the lad’s chamber, shouting, ‘Jack, you sluggard. You should be more like your brother John.’ But Jack never listened. Instead, he would stretch and yawn, turn over in his bed, turn his head to the wall and go straight back to sleep. The lad was weak and slow and so all who knew him called the boy ‘Lazy Jack’.

Well, it was winter and one morning early John went down to the bottom field and set to work with the plough and oxen, turning the damp cold earth. And because he started early John finished early so that there was time enough to do other things. And so it was his father was pleased, yet vexed that his younger son had not helped. The old man went straightaway to Jack’s chamber, shouting as he went, ‘Jack, you sluggard. You should be more like your brother, for this morning he has ploughed the whole of the bottom field. You Jack should be more like John!’ But Jack did not listen. Instead, he stretched and yawned, turned over in his bed, turned his head to the wall and went straight back to sleep.

Well, winter turned to spring and one morning early John went down to the bottom field and set to work seeding the land, broadcasting grain thither and yon over the recently harrowed earth. And because he started early John finished early so that there was time enough to do other things. And so it was his father was happy, yet irked that his younger son had not helped. The old man went straightaway to Jack’s chamber, shouting as he went, ‘Jack, you sluggard. You should be more like your brother, for this morning he has seeded the whole of the bottom field. You Jack should be more like John!’ But Jack did not listen. Instead, he stretched and yawned, turned over in his bed, turned his head to the wall and went straight back to sleep.

Well, spring became summer, yet there was a waft of wood smoke in the air heralding autumn’s return and one morning early John went down to the bottom field to harvest the crops. He worked hard, bending low, cutting close to the earth with a newly sharpened sickle. And because he started early John finished early so that there was time enough to do other things. And so it was his father was merry, yet galled that his younger son had not helped. The old man went straightaway to Jack’s chamber, shouting as he went, ‘Jack, you sluggard. You should be more like your bother, for this morning he has harvested the whole of the bottom field. You Jack should be more like John!’ But Jack did not listen. Instead, he stretched and yawned, turned over in his bed, turned his head to the wall and went straight back to sleep.

And so it was, life continued on this way for the old man and his two sons, John up with the lark, while Jack was down with his sheets. Summer soon passed, autumn was quickly spent and winter made a triumphant return. John continued rising early, for so lusty was the lad that he even left his bed when there was naught to do. He strode out over the cold, dark fields, leaping over frozen streams and climbing the bare branches of tall trees, just because they were there. And so it was one frosty morning John walked many miles, leapt many fences and raced many a surprised hare, but now his belly barked angrily telling him it was time to return home for his breakfast. But as John passed by the bottom field he saw a chest that had fallen on to the track on which he now walked. It was a chest full of gold, spilling its contents into the ditch that ran alongside the track. It was once the chest of a rich merchant, containing a full year’s profits from his trade, but it had fallen from his cart that very morning and now it was John’s!

The lusty lad scooped up the gold and set the great chest on his shoulder, carrying it home for his father to see. And when the old man saw the gold he was joyous, yet incensed that his younger son had not helped John carry the heavy load home. He went straightaway to Jack’s chamber, dragging the heavy chest behind him and shouting, ‘Jack, you sluggard. You should be more like your brother, for this morning he has found a chest of gold. An unlucky merchant lost it this very day, but his loss is our gain and now we are rich. And that is why you, Jack, should be more like John!’ As always Jack did not listen. Instead, he stretched and yawned, turned over in his bed, turned his head to the wall, but this day he did not go straight back to sleep. For the sun was shining and its light spilled through Jack’s bedchamber window and played upon the gold coin piled high in the chest, so that it was reflected on to the wall just above the lazy lad’s head. The boy blinked as golden dancers spun and twirled about him. He rubbed his eyes and looked over at his father, to the treasure and back to his father again and then Jack spoke. You should note that this is the first time in a long time that Jack had spoken, for words take effort and thinking of the words to speak is even harder still. ‘But father,’ said the boy, ‘if the merchant who once owned that gold had stayed in bed as I do now, then he wouldn’t have lost his coin would he? If that rich merchant had been as lazy as I, then he would not now be poor!’ And with that Jack stretched and yawned, he turned over in his bed, turned his head to the wall and went straight back to sleep.

* ‘The Orders for the Poor’ (1571) in R.H. Tawney and E. Powers, Tudor Economic Documents, Vol. 2 (1951), p.316

Extracted from Tudor Tales by Dave Tonge

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