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Welcome to Episode 157 of That Shakespeare Life, the show that takes you behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare.

As students of Shakespeare’s lifetime, often we see the phrase “of certain status” to describe 16-17th century limitations on clothes, housing, and other material realities for various people. Particular if you study Elizabethan sumptuary laws, it seems like society was strictly controlled based on social status, and one’s place in society was decided at birth, with little mobility allowed. 

The life of people like William Shakespere, however, who in his own life was able to rise in the ranks of society and establish himself as a gentleman, we have evidence that social mobility was a strong force in England for the 16-17th century. One key place that contemporaries of William Shakespeare were able to show off their status, and stake their claim to a certain place in the social order was through the design, and architecture, of their homes and grand estates. 

Our guest this week, Matthew Johnson, is here to explain the social phenomenon of upward mobility, define the levels of society that were present for Shakespeare, and walk us through some famous architecture of the 1500s-1600s that reveals where the lines were drawn between the classes for Elizabethan and Jacobean England.

Join the conversation below.

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Matthew Johnson works on the archaeology and history of Europe and the Atlantic world.  He has written six books on a range of themes, including castles, traditional houses, landscape, and an archaeology of capitalism.  His best known book is Archaeological Theory:  An Introduction and is the author of English Houses 1300-1800 that he joins us to talk about today. 

Born in Austin, Texas, and is a dual US/British citizen.  He has held visiting fellowships and positions at UC-Berkeley, Heidelberg University, UCLA, Flinders University, University of Cambridge, and the University of Pennsylvania.  After a PhD at Cambridge and posts at Sheffield, Durham and Southampton, he returned across the Atlantic in 2011 to be Professor and sometime Chair of Anthropology at Northwestern University. Find out more about Matthew here

In this episode, I’ll be asking Matthew Johnson about :

  • Moats, or these large deep holes filled with water and extending around the exterior wall of a large manor house are often portrayed on film as defensive fortresses, put there to dissuade an enemy attack. Matthew’s research indicates that by the 16th century, moats were still being installed on new structures, like Hampton Court Palace, but they had long stopped being used as a strategic weapon. Matthew, why was it important in the 16th century for a large manor house, or palace, to have a moat, specifically? 
  • When it comes to indicating your place in society through architecture, towers, were a popular choice in the 16th century. Matthew, how were the addition of towers, or even the maintenance of towers left unused in any practical sense, considered markers of social prominence?
  • From the social mobility of someone like Shakespeare to the elaborate decorations of the aristocracy that feel almost farcical in their extravagance, it seems there is some blurring of the lines between social layers in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Matthew, what were the rungs of the social ladder for Shakespeare’s life? Are there clearly defined social stations that we can name and define? 

… and more!

Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • Castle Moat and Watermill Steinfurt
  • 17th Century Town, Naarden, Fortified with Moats
  • Bodiam Castle, East Sussex England, Surrounded by a Moat
  • Kenilworth Castle, England
  • 17th Century Dalhouise Castle, Scotland
  • Great Chamber at 15th C Bunratty Castle, Ireland
  • The Great Hall at Stokesay Castle, England
  • Great Hall with a Bay Window, The Abbey, Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire, England
  • Stirling Castle Great Hall, Scotland, Built for James IV
  • Doorways to Service Rooms, Old Rectory, Warton
  • The Hall at Penshurst Place
  • Hardwick Hall Fireplace
  • 17th Century Great Chamber at Chatsworth House, England
  • Ightham Mote
  • First Floor Plan, Ightham Mote
  • Grounds at Ightham Mote
  • Blenheim Palace, England
  • The 1834 Ordinance Survey of Great Britian
  • The Grounds at Warwick Castle, England
  • Original Entrance to Montacute House
  • The window of the Great Chamber, featuring Phelps family arms
  • Montacute House, Somerset, 1598. Nine Worthies Architecture
  • The Grounds at Montacute House
  • Former Great Chamber at Montacute House
  • The Long Gallery at Montacute House
  • 16th-17th Century Brocade
  • 1600-1650 Damask Fabric
  • Flat Cap, 1571, A decree made by Parliament
  • A View of Longleat
  • Remains of Theobalds House, Robert Cecil’s Estate
  • 15th Century Kitchen
  • Medieval Baker with his apprentice
  • 15th Century Christ College, Cambridge. Great Gate
  • Tudor House and Gardens
  • Gallery at Hardwick Hall
  • Medieval Illustration of Peasants
  • Peasants in a Tavern, 1635.
  • 16th century painting of a Peasant Wedding
  • Painting of peasants dancing
  • Hertfordshire Yeomanry, 1890
  • 16th century depiction of office of Jacob Fugger, with his main accountancy M. Schwarz
  • 17th Century portrait of playwright, Moliere, who catalogued the rise of the bourgeoisie
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