“This is why we love the Tudor period so much, because it’s the age of discovery, and there’s a sense that anything was possible.”
“Discovery”? That’s one way of talking about colonialism. This BBC documentary, Hidden Killers of the Tudor Home, outlines how the sudden change in house architecture and lifestyle in the Tudor era for the middling rich—merchants and yeoman farmers—was made possible by merchant trade with conquered colonies. The new, untested products and housing innovations sometimes proved fatal.
Many new products came from the new colonies. Thanks to slave labour, such products were newly affordable to non-aristocrats, the incipient middle class. Sugar, sometimes called “white gold,” was a new product in Europe and for the newly wealthy, it was a sign of status. How that has changed… Regardless, this was the beginning of the massive sugar intake that we still see today in the West.
In the Tudor era, sugar arrived in the home in the form of a “sugar loaf” that was either broken up with a hammer, shaved or grated.
In comparing skulls in a national repository of remains going back to the medieval era, it is striking to see the difference in the teeth before and after the sugar trade with the colonies. The teeth in the medieval skulls, in people whose diet included no sugar but mainly consisted of potage and lentils, oats, dairy, eggs and a little meat, were nearly perfect. Once the Tudor era begins, the skulls show evidence of intense tooth decay, stumps, blackened and missing teeth, all created by the new intense sugar intake and lack of dental hygiene. A medical expert says the pain would have been intense and chronic, and the decay would have led in many cases to organ failure and death.
Perfect medieval English teeth, above, vs. skull from the Tudor era, below
Two final unrelated facts:
Until the 1940s the English didn’t have a word for this colour, just calling it yellowish red. “Orange” comes from naranja in Spanish, which itself derives from the Arabic.
Mercury was used extensively in the Tudor era, even medically, before its toxicity was understood. I suppose it would be unwise to be too smug about the health hazards of the “age of discovery.” Arguably we’re still in it.