The Tudor house, colonialism, white gold and toothache

Tudor exterior

Tudor House

“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 global conquest and colonialism, a topic the BBC documentary Hidden Killers of the Tudor Home does not really get into, despite mentioning plantation slavery. It does, however, inadvertently paint a picture of something resembling karma. It looks at Tudor-era Britain’s new merchant trade with conquered colonies and the way it sparked sudden changes in house architecture and lifestyle  for the middling rich—merchants and yeoman farmers—and how a whole range of untested new products and architectural innovations sometimes proved fatal.

Tudor kitchen

Tudor Sugar Loaf

Many new products came from the new colonies. Thanks to slave labour, such products were newly affordable to non-aristocrats, that is, the incipient middle class. Sugar, sometimes called “white gold,” was a novelty in Europe and for the newly wealthy, it was a sign of status. How that has changed… Regardless, this was the beginning of the high sugar intake that is still evident 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.

Tudor era, Slavery & Colonies

Tudor slaves

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 skulls of medieval 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, some skulls show evidence of intense tooth decay, stumps, blackened and missing teeth, all created by the new consumption of sugar and lack of dental hygiene. A medical historian says the pain would have been extreme and chronic, and the decay would have led in many cases to organ failure and death.

Just desserts?

Perfect medieval teeth

Perfect medieval English teeth, above, vs. skull from the Tudor era, below

Tudor era teeth

Tudor corridor

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, and was only adopted when trade brought the fruit to Britain regularly.

Tudor Orange

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.

Tudor era, mercury as medicine

Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply