Buried in woollen; or, Life, liberty, and the right to eat hamburgers any day of the week

I’ve been reading through some English sources from the late 1600s that mentioned people being “Buried in Woollen.” I wondered at first if Woollen was a place, but there were notes throughout about people not complying. So I did some more research and discovered this random history fact of the day:

In 1666 and again in 1678, King Charles II passed laws that made it illegal to be buried in anything but British wool cloth. No fancy clothes. No white linen shrouds. Plain old wool. Why? To bolster the all-important English wool trade, of course. Everyone’s going to die, and the last thing they’re going to do on their way out is support the national economy. The only exceptions were plague victims (bury them fast to avoid getting infected) and the very poor. If you didn’t comply, you paid a 5 pound fine–a pretty significant sum back then. Some people thought it was worth the fine to be buried in their best clothes, and eventually enforcement got pretty lax, so in the early 1800s the law was finally repealed. But if you’re a writer burying a character in Britain between 1666 and 1814, make sure they’re wearing their woollens!

So what’s that have to do with your right to eat a hamburger right now if that’s what you’re craving?

During the Renaissance, Monarch and Parliament regulated almost every aspect of life and death: what their citizens ate, drank, wore, and read, where they went to church (and they had to go), and where and how they were married and buried. The law also had a significant impact on where people could travel, what work they did, who could inherit their property, and sometimes even who they would marry.

Modern governments still regulate some of these aspects of life, especially when they might impact public safety, but usually not with the same attention to detail as Renaissance governments. Are you an author? Or maybe you’re planning a vacation? In Renaissance England, you couldn’t print a book or travel abroad without the government’s express approval of your plans and of your good character. When the government wanted to support the fishing trade, they banned the eating of meat during much of the year. No hamburgers unless they said so.

People accepted many of these restrictions and rebelled against others quietly, but those who did so loudly found themselves in jail (gaol, as they spelled it) or at the gallows. These words from 1776 may not seem like much more than nostalgia and idealism to us today, but keeping in mind previous attitudes about people’s relationship with the state, they were revolutionary in more ways than one:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

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