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Welcome to Episode 145 of That Shakespeare Life, the show that takes you behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare.

Ale was a popular drink in Shakespeare’s London, due in part to the undrinkable nature of the water from the nearby Thames River. The fear of water and superstitions about drinking it, extended well beyond England’s capital city, and extended even over the Atlantic Ocean to the colonies of Early American settlers, who coming from England, brought with them a surprising opinion about water in general. New England colonists in the early 17th century arrived with fear of what they called “cleire water”, believing as a result of their experience with waterways like the Thames that plain water was dangerous. Here to share with us some of the experiences and opinions about water held by 16-17th century England, including the stories by 16th century writer Richard Hawkings who described Native Americans as mermaids because of their magic ability to both swim and treat water as “their natural element” is our guest, Vaughn Scribner.  

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Cook, play, and dance your way through the life of William Shakespeare
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Vaughn Scribner is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of The happy effects of these waters' Colonial Mineral Spas and British Civilizing Mission as well as two books, Inn Civility: Urban Taverns and Early American Civil Society (NYU Press, 2019) and Merpeople: A Human History (Reaktion Books, 2020), in addition to various articles and book chapters which cover the environmental, social, and political history of the British Empire. 

 

In this episode, I’ll be asking Vaughn Scribner about :

  • Vaughn cites the inexperience of Early English settlements in dealing with clean water as one reason the benefits of clear drinking water did not immediately take hold in the English mindset. Specifically citing Virginia Governor Sir Francis Wyatt, Vaughn, what was their experience which lead to what Wyatt called an “inexcusable errour” of drinking water that happened along the banks of the James River?
  • Vaughn writes that “After a rather long period of disfavor (due mostly to religious strife), attending the spa became a sign of fashion and respectability among English elites by the end of the sixteenth century. Queen Elizabeth was quickly caught up in the spa craze, visiting Bath, sending for a sample of Buxton’s water, and even allowing Mary Queen of Scots (her prisoner at the time) to attend Buxton.” Vaughn, what would have been the opinion of bathing in water, or spas and minerals springs, for Shakespeare’s lifetime? 

  • Vaughn writes that John Smith came across a hot spring in his first voyage in the New World (1607), writing, “we found a great Pond of fresh water, but so exceeding hot wee supposed it some bath.” Vaughn goes on to explain that Smith and his company on that voyage dismissed the value of such a pond. Vaughn, with the well established fashion of mineral spas and bathing for one’s health under Elizabeth I  in England, was this dismissive attitude towards what the Native Americans considered “miracle waters” unique to Smith and his company because they were on a different mission, or was this disregard for the value of bathing a general perspective of Europeans in the 16th century?

     


… and more!

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That which is now a horse, even with a thought The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct, As water is in water.
Antony

Antony and Cleopatra (IV.14)

witch feeding familiars 1604

‘Captain Argall takes Pocahontas the daughter of King Powhatan on board his ship’ Many of the illustrations that accompanied written accounts of Virginia were not realistic representations, but rather artistic interpretations. This print merged events from 1613 and 1614. In the front, Pocahontas is shown being deceived into boarding the ship of the English captain, Argall, where she was held hostage. In the background, events of March 1614 can be seen. After English offers to exchange Pocahontas for captives and weapons were met with a lukewarm response, English ships moved up the York River, attacking an Native American village. Captain Argall takes Pocahontas on board his ship” | Descriptive quote is from the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. See full attribution below. Photo uploaded by Johann Theodor de Bry – http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/137885 | 

The original artefact or artwork has been assessed as public domain by age, and faithful reproductions of the two dimensional work are also public domain. No permission is required for reuse for any purpose.

The text of this image record has been derived from the Royal Museums Greenwich catalogue and image metadata. Individual data and facts such as date, author and title are not copyrightable, but reuse of longer descriptive text from the catalogue may not be considered fair use. Reuse of the text must be attributed to the “National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London” and a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-SA-3.0 license may apply if not rewritten. Refer to Royal Museums Greenwich copyright.

Shakespeare Would Have Known of the Reports of “Cleire Water”

We think of Early America as being the 18th century and well after Shakespeare, but there are records from English colonists interacting with Native Americans and experiencing clear water for the first time and many of these would have not only been reported back to England, but would have been part of the popular culture and reports of current events. (Not unlike new stories or things published in the newspaper today)

As Vaughn explains,

There was a real thirst and hunger for knowledge of N/S american and west indies. It was considered this exotic place with exotic people and place where Englishmen could use the boundaries of their knowledge. Britons going to a new world were trying to recreate their society there as well as realizing it was different/new and translation wasn’t going to be neat. John Smith has a series of best selling books on exploits in Virginia when he goes back to England. They really wanted to know about where he'd been and this new place. Their lives, what they could tell us about humanity, etc. 1608 first book and another in 1612, and 1624 he has a reprint and adds Pocahontas to that one. For the first time. [People were] constantly talking about the natural world in America. Shakespeare mentions the new world Bermuda in The Tempest, Shakespeare himself would have been well informed on the idea of the new world (exoticism, savagery, exploration, exploitation) complete topics on his mind as he’s building plays.

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william strachey mermaid tavern group

1617 Engraving by William Marshall, engraver – A Solemne Joviall Disputation, Theoreticke and Practicke; briefly shadowing the Law of Drinking |Top half of the title page of Richard Braithwaite's Lawes of Drinking, William Marshall, engraver. It has been argued that the tavern sign, which reads (clockwise from top) Poets impalled wt Lawrell coranets (Poets impaled with laurel coronets), is that of the Mermaid Tavern. | The Mermaid Tavern is where a Fraternity of Gentlemen met on the first Friday of each month an included some of the Elizabethan era's leading literary figures, among them Ben Jonson, John Donne, John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont, Thomas Coryat, John Selden, Robert Bruce Cotton, Richard Carew, Richard Martin, and William Strachey. (There's a theory that William Shakespeare might have been a member as well, but as you might expect, that's contested.)| Original Source

Water was viewed suspiciously, alcohol with reverence

In his work, Vaughn quotes William Strachey, who in 1612, wrote that “ “[The Indians’] drinck is, as the Turkes, cliere water.” Vaughn explains that,

Londoners did drink water, but very much in moderation. It was considered dangerous. Their main river was absolutely filthy and disgusting. There were various London companies looking for fresh water springs in and around London. It was hard to keep dress water clear with the number of animals of feces, they had to literally close rivers (under Fleet Street) because it was so gross. 

London didn’t understand microbiology,but they did understand water needed to be cleanedand not smell bad. They woujld fence off canals, etc, but even with the precautions they took, the water was not regularly consumed, they were suspicious of the water. 

The fact that Indians drank water regularly, they were not as civilized (didn’tunderstand distilling and fermentaion_ they frink a base substance, and thatmakes them base people. They associated native americans with the wilderness. Contrasted with the civilized/urban/advanced society of londoners. 

Ale was popular in Shakespeare’s lifetime, often due to the fact that water from sources like the Thames was undrinkable, even dangerous. Early English settlers developed a reverence for alcohol over water in their understanding of what was medically healthy for a person to consume. As it applies to water, Vaughn explains this mindset extended to a differentiation between mineral water and “cleire” water:

There is a big difference between clear water and mineral water. Clear water was the most pure but not medicinal. Mineral water was considered medicinal. They would speak about it in  the same wayt they spoke about alcohol. They thought both could intoxicate you. England trusted alcohol much more than water in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Easily produced, deemed safe, Scientists didn’t like to talk about the inebriating part, valuable calories when food was scarce, in the 17th century they definitely had a reverence for alcohol as medicine much more than water. Give alcohol to babies, alcohol as facial cream. Distinction Between ale/beer and spirits/hard liquor. Science literature all muddles up and contradicts each other.

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Cook, play, and dance your way through the life of William Shakespeare
with lesson plans, printable worksheets, and history activity kits that work like science labs for Shakespeare. 

 

By Providence divine. Some food we had and some fresh water
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Southampton portrait wriothesley

Print of Captain John Smith landing in Jamestown, Virginia, 1607. From ‘The Story of Pocahontas and Captain John.' Courtesy of the New York Public Library. Public Domain. Original Source

Water Flowing From the City Upon a Hill

Vaughn cites the inexperience of Early English settlements in dealing with clean water as one reason the benefits of clear drinking water did not immediately take hold in the English mindset. Specifically citing Virginia Governor Sir Francis Wyatt whose journals describe what Wyatt called an “inexcusable errour” of drinking water that happened along the banks of the James River. Vaughn explains, 

These Englishmen knew better than to drink water in low marshy areas/brackish water like it was at the James River (Virginia) according to early modern thought, one’s environment was very important in terms of how it impacted you and the water around you. YOu had this idea of where yo uwatn to settle a society. You need to be higher up, rocky pebbly ground, fresh water, don’t look for slow or stagnant rivers, there were rules about what the water neeed to be to be safe for a settlement. Still consuming water in moderation. This inexcusable error is linking to the idea that theyshould have known better than to try and make a settlement here on the James River. Linksback to dieas of early Jamestown settlers as dissolute, caring only about profit, and linking them with a lack of improvement of the land. Making a statement about civilization/improvement. Jamestown/Virginia history. 

These health problems associated with a complete lack of hygenic waste management was one reason Puritans that settled places like Jamestown revered the building of a “City upon a hill.” Vaughn explains the Puritan's perspective was both figurative and literal:

Humoral theory (4 humors, keep those in constant balance.) If you go from one climate to a very different one, they believed that could radically alter you physically and mentally. These Virginia people who went down to a more southern portion of the now US, it was much more temperate, they thought it was beating them down. They think this is going to be more like England and isn’t going to impact them as much if they go up high, or up NOrth. They also havve this perception of the ground up high being safer because it’s not as much marshy. They were looking for a place more like England. “New England” 

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Comedy of Errors Lithograph

Interior of a 16th century Bath House. | Wellcome Images |This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. Refer to Wellcome blog post | Provided for use in this blog post under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

Smelly Water for Your Health

Vaughn writes that “After a rather long period of disfavor (due mostly to religious strife), attending the spa became a sign of fashion and respectability among English elites by the end of the sixteenth century. Queen Elizabeth was quickly caught up in the spa craze, visiting Bath, sending for a sample of Buxton’s water, and even allowing Mary Queen of Scots (her prisoner at the time) to attend Buxton.” Despite Elizabeth's pension for water spas, the rest of society in Shakespeare's lifetime were less than immediately enthused:

The craze for mineral springs had died off briefly (religious issues, linked with Catholic shrines). People would not have been frequenting mineral springs but the upper sorts/elites would have looked at bathing cautiously, a cold bath could shock you, a warm bath could permeate you too much. Constantly effected by the world around you. AS water becomes this core representation of that natural world, they approach it with much concern. Remember, they also think bad smells can make you sick, ironic considered early modern London would have been extremely stinky to our modern sensibilities. There was not any regularly bathing. Elizabeth Drinker, gets a mineral bath, doesn’t like it and doesn’t get in a bath again for 15 years. Cleaning linen would help the smell, and wearing perfume would mask body odor. Perfume has it’s own history.

Vaughn writes that John Smith came across a hot spring in his first voyage in the New World (1607), writing, “we found a great Pond of fresh water, but so exceeding hot wee supposed it some bath.” Vaughn goes on to explain that Smith and his company on that voyage dismissed the value of such a pond. With the well established fashion of mineral spas and bathing for one’s health under Elizabeth I in England, this dismissive attitude towards what the Native Americans considered “miracle waters” was hardly unique to Smith and his company. Vaugn explains that even for Elizabeth, the use of water was not without due suspicion:

Queen Elizabeth going to Bath was a very controlled environment. Improving the natural world, she’s going into separate rooms they have fireplaces with fresh water, people attending her, not completely naked, but she’s covered when she’s bathing. John Smith seeing these hot springs, mineral springs, as savage places that are dangerous…Ordinary people don’t go to spas they work there, but the people who go there are highly elite.

The medical and scientific community saw water as a useful tool in their arsenal against disease. Yet, the trips to the new world and discovery of these mineral spas used by Native Americans for healing would not become a destination point for the ill or infirmed in England for quite some time after Shakespeare's life. Vaughn explains that the scientific community in England during Shakespeare's lifetime had an interesting view of the role of water in your health

The mineral spas were used medicinally, but people din’t make health trips just for that. But the people already in the New World, the people who were already there for other reasons (settlements, and exploration) would use them for their health reasons, claiming the climate was bad for their bodies. There were people in England requesting water samples to be brought back. You could buy North American water in bottles [in England during Shakespeare's lifetime]. [As examples:] Benjamin Rush, finds a natural spring in Philadelphia that’s gross tasting, thinking it was helping them, but it was actually littered with human feces. Glastonbury water for sale. Investigation shows they have been putting animal feces in it trying to recreate sulfur water. New River company trying to recreate smelly water for health…”

 It seems that for most in Shakespeare's lifetime, the prejudice against water was so well established that while seeing the benefits of clear water, and sulphur water, were apparent to the colonists, exploreres, and even royalty of Shakespeare's lifetime, it would take a great deal of time and experimentation before they discovered the right and healthy ways to apply clean water to their daily lives.

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Cook, play, and dance your way through the life of William Shakespeare
with lesson plans, printable worksheets, and history activity kits that work like science labs for Shakespeare. 

 

Books & Resources Vaughn Scribner Recommends

Bridenbaugh, Carl. 1946. “Baths and Watering Places of Colonial America.” William and Mary Quarterly 3 (April): 151-181. Find online here

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